Dinner Followed a pattern only slightly different from that at Muirthemne, with Maev and Ailill sitting on a dais facing each other across a small table. Shea and Belphebe were not given placesso lofty as they had been at Cuchulainn’s board, but this was partly compensated for by the presence of Ollgaeth the druid just across the board.
Only partly, however; it became quite clear that Ollgaeth — a big, stoutish man with a mass of white hair and beard — was one of those people who pretend to ask questions only in order to trigger themselves off on remarks of their own. He inquired about Shea’s previous magical experience, and let him just barely touch on the illusions he had encountered in the Finnish Kalevala before taking off.
«Ah, now you would be thinking that was a great rare thing to see, would you not?» he said, and gulped at barley beer. «Now let me tell you, handsome man, that of all the places in the world, Connacht produces the greatest illusions and the most beautiful. I remember, I do, the time when I was making a spell for Laerdach, for a better yield from his dun cow, and while I was in the middle of it, who should come past but his daughter, and she so beautiful that I stopped my chanting to look at her. Would you believe it now? The milk began to flow in a stream that would have drowned a man on horseback, and I had barely time to reverse the spell before it changed from illusion to reality and ravaged half a county.»
Shea said, «Oh, I see. The chanting.»
Ollgaeth hurried on, «And there is a hill behind the rath of Maev this very moment. It looks no different from any other, but it is a hill of great magic, being one of the hills of the Sidhe and a gateway to their kingdom.»
«Who.» began Shea, but the druid only raised his voice a trifle: «Mostly now, they would be keeping the gateways closed. But on a night like tonight, a good druid, or even an ordinary one might open the way.»
«Why tonight?» asked Belphebe from beside Shea.
«What other night would it be but the Lughnasadh? Was it not for that you would be coming here? No, I forget. Forgive an old man.» He smote his brow to emphasize the extent of his fault. «Mainemo Epert was after telling me that it wasmyself you came to see, and you could have done no better. Come midnight when the moon is high, and I will be showing you the powers of Ollgaeth the druid.»
Shea said, «As a matter of fact.» but Ollgaeth rushed past him with: «I call to mind there was a man — what was his name? — had a geas on him that he would be seeing everything double. Now that was an illusion, and it was me he came to in his trouble. I.»
Shea was spared the revelation of what Ollgaeth had done in the case of the double vision by King Ailill’s rapping on his table with the hilt of his knife and saying in his high voice, «We will now be hearing from Ferchertne the bard, since this is the day of Lugh, and a festival.»
Serfs were whisking away the last of the food and benches were being moved to enlarge the space around Ferchertne. This was a youngish man with long hair and a lugubrious expression; he sat down on a stool with his harp, plucked a few melancholy twangs from the strings, and in a bumpish baritone launched into the epic of the «Fate of the Children of Tuirenn.»
It wasn’t very interesting, and the voice was definitely bad. Shea glanced around and saw Brodsky fidgeting every time the harpist missed a quantity or struck a false note. Everyone else seemed to be affected almost to the point of tears, however, even Ollgaeth. Finally Ferchertne’s voice went up in an atrocious discord, and there was a violent snort.
The harp gave a twang and halted abruptly. Shea followed every eye in the room to the detective, who stared back belligerently.
«You would not beliking the music now, dear?» asked Maev, in a glacial voice.
«No, I wouldn’t,» said Brodsky. «If I couldn’t do better than that, I’d turn myself in.»
«Better than that you shall do,» said Maev. «Come forward, ugly man. Eiradh, you are to stand by this man with your sword, and if I signal you that he is less than the best, you are to bring me his head at once.»
«Hey!» cried Shea, and Brodsky: «But I don’t know the words.»
Protest was useless. He was grabbed by half a dozen pairs of hands and pushed forward beside the bard’s seat. Eiradh, a tall, bearded man, pulled out his sword and stood behind the pair, a smile of pleasant anticipation on his face.
Brodsky looked around and then turned to the bard. «Give a guy a break, will you?» he said, «and go back over that last part till I catch the tune.»
Ferchertne strummed obediently, while Brodsky leaned close, humming until he got the rather simple air that carried the words of the ballad. Then he straightened up, gesturing with one hand toward the harpist, who struck a chord and began to sing:
«Take these heads untothey breast, O Brian.»
Pete Brodsky’s voice soared over his, strong and confident, with no definite syllables, but carrying the tune for Ferchertne’s words as the harpitself never had. Shea, watching Queen Maev, saw her stiffen, and then, as the melancholy ballad rolled on, two big tears came out on her cheek. Ailill was crying, too, and some of theaudience were openly sobbing. It was like a collective soap-opera binge.
The epic came to an end, Pete holding the high note after the harp had stopped. King Ailill lifted an arm and dried his streaming eyes on his sleeve, while Maev dried hers on her handkerchief. She said, «You have done more than you promised, American serf. I have not enjoyed the ‘Fate of the Children’ more in my memory. Give him a new tunic and a gold ring.» She stood up. «And now, handsome man, we will be hearing your message. You will attend us while the others dance.»
As a pair of bagpipers stepped forward and gave a few preliminary howls on their instruments, Maev led the way through a door at the back, down the hall to a bedroom sumptuous by the standards that obtained here. There were rushlights against the wall, and a soldier on guard at the door.
Maev said, «Indech! Poke up the fire, for it is cool the air is after the rain.»
The soldier jabbed the fire with a poker, leaned his spear against. the door, and went out. Maev seemed in no hurry to come to business. She moved about the room restlessly.
«This,» she said, «is the skull that belonged to Feradach macConchobar, that I killed in payment for the taking of my dear Maine Morgor. See, I have had the eye-holes gilded.»
Her dress, which had been a bright red in the stronger illumination of the hall, was quite a deep crimson here, and clung closely to a figure that, while full, was unquestionably well shaped. She turned her head and one of the jewels in her coronet threw a red flash of light into Shea’s eyes.
«Would you be having a drop of Spanish wine, now?»
Shea felt a little trickle of perspiration gather on his chest and run down, and wished he were back with Ollgaeth. The druid was verbose and hopelessly vain, but he had furnished the tipoff on the chanting. It was some kind of quantity control for the spells that went with it. «Thanks,» he said.
Maev poured wine into a golden cup for him, more for herself, and sat down on a stool. «Draw close beside me,» she said, «for it is not right that we should be too much overheard. There. Now what is this of planning and disasters?»
Shea said, «In my own country I am something of a magician, or druid as you call it. Through this I have learned that you’re going to get all Cuchulainn’s enemies together, then put a geas on him to make him fight them all at once.»
She looked at him from narrowed eyes. «You know too much, handsome man,» she said, and there was a note of menace in her voice. «And what is this of disasters?»
«Only that you better not. You will succeed against Cuchulainn, but it will end up in a war, in which you and your husband and most of your sons will be killed.»
She sipped, then stood up suddenly and began to pace the floor, moving like a crimson tide. Shea thought etiquette probably required him to get up, too, and he did so.
Not looking at him, Maev said, «And you have been at Muirthemne. Which is to say you have told the Hound of what we hold in store for him. Which is to say that Cathbadh knows of it also. Ha!» She whirled with sudden panther-like grace and faced Shea. «Tell me, handsomeman, is it not true that Cathbadh sent you here to turn us from our purpose? Is not that tale of wars and disasters something he made up and put into your mouth?»
Shea said, «No, it isn’t. Honest. I did talk to Cathbadh, and he’d like to stop this chain reaction, but I came here for something quite different.»
She stamped. «Do not be lying to me. I see it all. Cathbadh can no more protect Cuchulainn against the geas of Ollgaeth than a pig can climb trees, so he would be sending you here with your talk of magic.»
This was getting dangerous. Shea said, «Cathbadh did admit that Ollgaeth was the better druid.»
«I thank him for the sending.» She turned and stepped across the room, opened a big jewel case, from which she took a gold bracelet. «Come hither.»
Shea stepped over to her. She rolled up his sleeve and snapped the bracelet on his arm.
«Thanks,» said Shea, «But I don’t think I ought to accept.»
«And who are you to be saying what you will accept from Queen Maev? It is a thing decided, and I will never come to terms with Cuchulainn, no matter if it costs me my life and all. Come, now.»
She filled the wine cups again, took his hand, guided him to the stools and sat down close beside him. «Since life will be so short we may as well have what we can out of it,» she said, drank off the cup and leaned back against him.
The thought leaped across his mind that if he moved aside and let this imperious and rather beautiful woman slip to the floor, she would probably have his head taken off. He put his arm around her in self-defense. She caught the hand and guided it to her bosom, then reached for the other hand and led it to her belt. «The fastening is there,» she said.
The door opened andMaine mo Epert came in, followed by Belphebe.
«Mother and Queen.» began the young man, and stopped.
To give Maev due credit, she got to her feet with dignity and without apparent embarrassment. «Will you be forever behaving as though you were just hatched from the shell, now?» she demanded.
«But I have a case against this woman. She made a promise to me, she did, and she has a geas on her that makes a man as ill as though bathed in venom.»
«You will be having Ollgaeth take it off, then,» said Maev.
«‘Tis the night of Lugh. Ollgaeth is not to be found.»
«Then you must even bed by yourself, then,» said Maev. She looked at Belphebe and her expression was rather sour.
«I think we had better be going along, too, Harold,» said Belphebe, sweetly.