Morrigana and Dagda
Gel had taken Diana and Billy to the bottom of the steps cut into the mound below the tower. They stood gazing up and swallowing hard. Gel set off up the steps, looking back to bark encouragement.
The climb left them breathless, as well as scared. Gel scratched on the double doors set in the stone archway, then stepped back and howled.
Several minutes later, one of the doors swung open, revealing a tall, distinguished-looking woman, dressed in a medieval style black frock that sparkled like a starry night. Her hair was so wavy and crimson, it appeared to be on fire.
“Hello, Gelert,” she said affectionately, patting Gel on the head. “And what do we have here?”
“Who is it, woman?” boomed a man’s voice from inside the tower. “If it’s that witch Kergal, tell her she’s not getting my cauldron. Do you here?”
“Oh, stop bawling you old fool!” the lady shouted back, just as loudly. “It’s Gelert with what looks like a couple of imps from the world above.”
“What are you waiting for, then? Invite them in, you dotty old bat.”
“Come in, children, you must be tired and hungry after your journey. Never mind Dagda, his bark is much worse than his bite.”
They entered the open, cobbled courtyard and the lady led them up a twisting stone staircase.
“I’m Morrigana, by the way, and who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“My name’s Diana Morgan and this is my little brother, Billy.”
Billy bristled at the addition of “little.”
“What lovely names.”
They were led into a small chamber, sparsely-furnished with simple tables and chairs, but it did look rather cosy, with a good sized fire roaring in the hearth. Two hooded crows sat perched together, eyeing them with interest. A golden harp hung on the wall, along with shields, swords and other objects of war, and a huge wooden club stood in a corner. In a stand on the sideboard stood a crystal ball as big as a space hopper. A big bronze cauldron sat on a low tripod in the centre of the room.
“Hello, little ones,” Dagda bellowed. “Just make yourselves at home. Any friend of Gelert’s is a friend of ours.”
The Dagda was a huge, hairy, bear-like man, with a leather patch over one eye. His long black hair was tied behind in a pony tail, except for a plaited lock hanging down each side of his face. He wore a neatly trimmed goatee beard. Despite his brash voice and nature, he had an amused expression on his face. His tunic, pants and boots were all of brown leather. He was sitting in a large throne-like chair, to one side of the fire, inscribing some strange script onto a tablet of soft clay.
Although it was all still very bewildering, Diana was glad to be accepting the hospitality of people. They were instantly drawn to a pair of small stools in front of the fire, taking off their backpacks before sitting down. Diana took the Aria doll from her pack and cradled it for comfort.
Morrigana brought them a couple of pewter goblets containing a warm drink tasting of honey and sweet herbs, before taking her place in the other chair by the fire. Gel was drinking water from the cauldron, although it had been empty when they passed it.
“So you must be children of The Sibyl,” said the lady of the house.
“That’s right,” said Diana, “she’s our aunty.”
“How is she, still enjoying living up there?”
“Yeah, she’s fine. Aunty always seems happy.”
“You didn’t meet anyone on your way here, did you?” Dagda asked, sounding concerned.
“Only a demon,” Billy rushed to get it in.
“What’s a demon; I mean, what did it look like?”
“It was an ugly thing, with sharp teeth and wings, like a bat. Gel nearly had it, but it got away.”
“Oh, goblin breath,” said Morrigana. “That was a harpy and it means they know you’re here.”
“Never mind them,” boomed Dagda. “I’ll deal with them, if they turn up here. The imps must rest and eat, before they continue with their quest.”
Dian had no idea what their hosts were talking about and felt too tired to ask. Then they heard the sound of many horses’ hooves carrying through the open arrow slits.
“They’re here,” said Morrigana, as the sound of metallic footsteps rang on the steps leading up to the tower. “Now children, all you have to do is stand in the corner, over there, and don’t make a sound.”
Diana and Billy huddled in the corner with Gel at their feet, Diana gently holding Candy’s snout closed.
Loud knocks rattled the doors downstairs.
“You’d better let them up, or they’ll get suspicious,” said Dagda. “I tell you, if they’re after my cauldron, I’ll knock them into eternity.”
When Morrigana came back, she was accompanied by a knight in a suit of black armour, eyes like red coals glowed through the visor, matching the crimson crest on his helmet. Shaped into the armour were tortured human faces, just like in Aunty’s Tarot cards.
Candy gave a muffled yip. “Shush, Candy,” whispered Diana, but luckily the knight didn’t seem to notice.
The black knight shuffled uneasily from one foot to the other, glancing nervously at the great club in the corner.
“Well, Hagfang!” roared Dagda. “To what do we owe a visit from the Captain of the Royal Guard?”
When Hagfang spoke, his eerie voice echoed around the chamber, as though it carried from the grave. “Greetings, O venerable ones, I’m sorry to have to disturb you like this, but I’m on an errand from the Great Queen. Some imps from the land of light have been spotted in the area, accompanied by a hound of The Sibyl; I have to ask if you’ve seen them?”
“No, Captain, we’ve seen no one,” snapped Morrigana.
“You heard my wife, Hagfang!” Dagda barked. “If we see them, we’ll send Rhiannon to inform the queen.” Then he added dismissively, “Now, if you don’t mind, we’re about to eat.”
The ghostly knight bowed respectfully, turned on his heel and retreated down the stairs.
When the sound of hooves had faded into the distance, Morrigana told them to return by the fire and relax.
“How come he couldn’t see us?” Diana asked.
Morrigana answered grinning, “Why, because I made you invisible of, course, my dear.”
But Dagda added seriously, “If the harpies come, we won’t be able to fool them, they’ll sniff you out and we’ll have a battle on our hands. Not that I don’t enjoy a good battle, of course, but the time isn’t right, just yet. Anyway, we’ve bought enough time for you to recover your strength.”
Morrigana took a big willow broom from a corner.
“Are you going to fly, now?” Diana asked in eager anticipation.
Morrigana looked surprised by the question. “Of course not, silly child, I’m going to sweep the floor.
Diana had been so happy to find some friendly faces and a safe haven, that she had forgotten about their sisters.
“Oh, lady, we have to find our sisters, can you help us, please?” She pleaded with Morrigana.
“Let’s see if we can’t find out where they are.” Morrigana put the broom back and walked over to the crystal ball.
Everyone gathered before the sideboard and watched on in utter fascination as Morrigana stroked the ball with her palms. After a short time, some woodland appeared in the crystal, and then, Lilly and Brigit came into sight. They continued watching for some time, Morrigana and Dagda looking for some landmark they recognized.
Gerri had led Lily and Brigit to a riverbank, where they were trying to talk the dwarfish owner of a coracle into ferrying them across. At first, he didn’t seem to speak English, but he soon adjusted. Lily handed him some coins.
“They’re no good.” the boatman handed them back. “I need tokens, you know, like Green Man or Dragaea.”
“But we don’t have any tokens,” Brigit shouted, showing her frustration.“We’re from … you know… up there.” She pointed upwards.
“Sorry, lass, no special treatment here, I’m afraid. No tokens, no service.”
“But how do we get tokens,” Lily asked. “Can we buy them?”
“Of course you can.” The boatman looked irritated.
“How?” They both asked together
“With tokens, of course.”
Lily muttered something under her breath and looked like she would hit him. “You don’t wanna mess with people where we come from, mister.”
“Gerri, bite him,” said Brigit.
The hound put her nose to the dwarf’s and snarled.
“All right!” The boatman raised his hands in surrender. “No need to turn to highway robbery.”
As the image faded, Diana turned to Billy. “I knew it; they’re going to get arrested, again.”
“Oh, Dagda,” Morrigana sounded concerned. “They’re heading for the graveyard.”
“Is that bad?” Diana asked.
Dagda gave his wife a look that said she should have kept quite. “Not to worry, I’m sure Gerri will take them straight through, it’s a long way round, otherwise.”
“Will Gerri bring them here?” Billy asked.
“No,” Dagda answered, “they’ve taken a different route and there wouldn’t be time for them to make it here. You’ll meet up with them further along on your journey, if everything goes well.”
“Now, children, it’s time for you to eat something,” said Morrigana. “Go to Dagda’s cauldron and get whatever you want.”
They approached the cauldron and looked inside. “But there’s nothing there,” said Diana. “It’s empty.”
The Dagda let out a deafening roar of laughter. “You mean to say, you’ve never heard of my cauldron, it’s never empty. Just think of what it is you want and put your hand in.”
Given such freedom of choice, they had to think it over.
“I know!” Billy declared first. “I’m gonna have fish and chips.”
“You know you’re not supposed to eat greasy food, Billy.”
“With mushy peas and curry sauce.”
“Oh, no, Billy, you know peas make you pump for ages.”
“Will you wind your neck in, Di?” Billy turned on her. “What’s point being in a magical place if you can’t eat what you want?”
Billy put his hands in the cauldron and pulled out a white paper parcel, just like he’d imagined. The smell of fish enticed Gel over. He stood sniffing the parcel furiously.
“Maybe I should get Gel one of each as well,” Said Billy.
Diana was more realistic. “Better make it four of each, more like.”
Billy laid out the food for Gel and shared his with Candy.
“Well, I might as well have fish and chips, as well,” Diana conceded.
“You hyper… wotsit, Di!” Billy spat out some fish.
“Its hypocrite, Billy. And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Morrigana and Dagda eyed and sniffed the strange food with suspicion, before deciding to have some. To their surprise, they enjoyed it immensely; Dagda even ate more than Gel.
During the meal, the odd couple talked about the situation in Astyxia, complaining a lot about a queen called Kergal and the problems she was causing. Apparently, she’d imprisoned a queen called Sirona, and stolen three of the four sacred treasures of Astyxia, the fourth being Dagda’s cauldron - that’s why he was in a state of paranoia over it. Billy said he could understand why you wouldn’t want to lose something like that. Dagda complained about the queen’s addiction to smoking something, and Morrigana kept saying that Great Mother Don had forsaken them.
“Women!” shouted Dagda. “Too many women, too many problems, that’s the way I see it.”
“I know how you feel, mister,” Billy agreed, trying to do his best impression of father. “We’re just victims of democracy, aren’t we?”
“See!” Dagda looked at his wife, vindicated, “a man after my own heart.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” she said. “Look at the mess men have made of the world upstairs, sexism, racism, wars, extinctions and pollution.”
“That’s right,” Diana agreed. “My mam says that’s why women should rule the world.”
“Humph… what women here need is putting in their place,” boomed Dagda.
Morrigana stood up, with clenched fists. “Dagda!” she shouted, making the crows fly out of the window. “Have I to teach you a lesson again?”
“What? Uh hum…oh, I didn’t mean you, light of my life.” Dagda looked a bit bashful as he shook his head and turned to Billy. “What can you do, Son? Can’t live without them and can’t argue with them. Anyway, time for some music, I think.”
Morrigana cleared away the stools and placed a straw mattress in front of the fire, encouraging them to lie down and rest.Diana cuddled Billy from behind, holding Aria against his chest. Candy curled up against Gel’s stomach.
Lulled by the haunting music of Dagda’s harp, they soon drifted into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.