People speak my name in whispers. They fear my name will draw my sight, and I shall approach them next. Gadileanbh will steal your child and eat your soul. I am a horror, with sagging grey skin, large taloned hands and eyes that burn with the light of a thousand suns.
They are right of course, I steal the young. It is not a job I do lightly. I pay no attention to those who call my name, they could scream it to the heavens for all that it matters. There are reasons for my wrongs. For the victims of my crimes, it is unforgivable.
My home is a crumbling keep, wrapped in eye covered vines which block the entrance to all but me. To reach it you must wade the swamp forgetful. Then you must walk the planes of fear and pass through a waterfall so strong it would crush a man with ease. These protections keep mortals from reclaiming their lost children.
Within my keep the young never age, lying in torpor until the end of times. I sit on a throne of alabaster in the shape of skulls. Before me are three withered crones who whisper the names of those I seek.
Not long ago the hags gave me a name, Leanaí Solas. “The child is the most important of all” spoke one.
“The fate of all rests in his hands,” said the next.
The final crone spoke, “His capture will bring an implacable foe to your doorstep.”
I rose from my throne and left the keep of eyes. A whistled thrice and with a rush of wind, my steed appeared. It was an emaciated horse, gray and ethereal like a pane of filthy glass. A cage of briars sat on his flank. I mounted him and we sped away to the world of the living. Under the falls, out of reach of the fear and his quiet step walked over the murky waters of mindlessness. The land of man was now in reach and we swept through the world. Each man or woman in our path felt the touch of death upon them.
The child lived in a palace of marble and gold, son of the mightiest king of the land. His father was cruel and heartless, lacking pity or warmth. If the portents were true the child of his loins would shape the world.
I felt the tiny soul above and leapt the 50 feet to the window of the babe. As silent as the grave, I looked within and my breath caught in my chest. The child’s mother was the loveliest of beings. She glowed like a sun, and her face serene as a mountain pool. She cooed at the child, smiling at his little kicks and gurgles.
My heart was enraptured. I would do anything for this lady, save ignoring my duty. I was bound by Titania’s will to complete my task. My heart pulled me forward and I stepped into the room as a fool might. The lady looked up and screamed.
“No! Not you!” She screamed, snatching the child to her bosom with a fierce protectiveness. Her passion was such my heart of ice melted.
“I am afraid so, fair one,” I bowed low. “I am bound by nature’s law to take the child. His destiny is one of importance, one that I cannot allow,” I felt tears for having to harm this woman. I reached forth and drew the child from her to me as if her flesh were smoke.
“I am most sorry,” I swallowed hard. “However, fair lady, all is not lost. If one can reach my keep they may reclaim their young. The way passes through the swamp of forgetfulness, a touch of the foul waters will wipe a man’s mind. Then you must cross the plain of fear, where the winds whisper nightmares to drive you mad. Finally are the falls of death, where the rushing waters will crush a man to nothingness. You must understand once there the truth of this will be clear. Only then may you choose to free or leave the child,” my voice lowered. “No other has been told this thing in my timeless existence. Do with it what you will.”
I dropped from the window as the Lady screamed. The guards charged me but I waved my hand and they fell senseless. Mounting my steed we were off in a flash, mountains, and lake whisking by in moments. We walked over the swamp, through the fear and beyond the waterfall of death to the keep of eyes. I carried the infant to the great hall. Within the darkened room a thousand thousand children slumbered, awaiting their freedom.
My heart was heavy as I returned to my throne. The hags watched with rheumy eyes as I slumped into my seat. “The girl. What will become of her?” I asked.
One hag stepped forward “She shall wander forever the swamp of forgetfulness. Mindless, her body will waste away and she shall be a banshee of the marsh. Let this happen m’lord. No good can come of this path.” the crone bowed and waited.
“I cannot allow harm to befall her,” I pointed at the crone “You shall give her a test of honesty. Should she pass, give her the secrets of the swamp. If she cannot then her fate is sealed.”
“An implacable foe indeed. I will do as you ask,” she bowed and vanished.
“Bring the ball,” I ordered the others. They vanished for long moments and reappeared with a ball of ebony blacker than night. They set the artifact on a clawed pedestal and backed away. I waved my hand over the ball. “Show me the girl,” I spake and her gentle features filled the air and squeezed my heart.
She walked the path to the swamp, single minded in purpose. As she walked she came upon a bag of silver. She looked for an owner and finding none she tied the pouch to her belt. She trod ahead, reaching the swamp to hear the sound of tears.
Looking about she saw a lad of 14 in black garb, weeping at the side of the swamp. “What is wrong lad?” she spoke in a gentle voice.
“I am doomed!” he cried “I have lost a pouch of silver that belonged to my Lord. As I searched I was touched by the waters of forgetfulness and no longer know I the name of my Lord!”
The Lady knew from his tabard the name of the Lord. He was a petty and spiteful king who treated his subjects poorly. A simple lie would steer the boy to a much kinder man, giving him a better life. For a long time she thought, then spoke thus: “Alas, child, you are the man of Lord Terris. I beg you not return to him, and seek the Lord Benard instead, for he will treat you far better.” She took the bag from her belt and handed it to the lad, keeping nary a coin. “Here is your silver. Now run to whatever Lord you choose, I wish you well on your journey.”
The lad’s eyes shown gold and he spoke “You have shown an air of honesty, and have earned the secret of the swamp. As you walk you must keep your goal in your heart. The power of your desire will block the forgetful slime.”
“Thank you,” she said, only to find the lad gone.
She stepped into the freezing mud, muttering her goal as she traveled. The vision faded and the hag returned. “She is honest of a sort. You should let this lie, for the sake of all.”
I waved her away and called forth her sister. “What is the Lady’s fate now?” I demanded.
“Her soul is to be consumed by fear for all time. The dark whispers will drive her to madness. This must come to pass for the sake of all.” the crone waited, head bowed.
“Give her a test of compassion. Should she pass, allow her through the planes,” I commanded.
“You are being a fool, and shall be made a fool,” she droned. With a wave of her arm, she vanished.
I waved my hand and again a vision of her appeared. I swallowed hard as her purity struck me again. I could not see harm come to the girl.
She walked the path between swamp and plain, her body caked in slime. Her face was muddied and her hair caked flat, but her beauty still struck me. As she approached the planes, she came upon the cub of a she-bear. The poor creature whimpered and mewled. Far off she heard a roar. Upon a large hillock stood the mother, rearing up. The beast was wroth at the loss of her cub.
The girl must have known the bear could be her death, but without hesitation, she lifted the tiny cub on her back. She wound her way up the steep hill, slipping many times. Her body was torn and bloodied when she reached the mother. She set the cub down and closed her eyes. She was expecting death, but it did not come.
“You have acted as one compassionate, despite the supposed possibility of death,” came a voice. The girl looked up to see the bear with silver eyes looking down on her. “I shall tell you how to pass.” The bear gestured to a nearby bag. “Within are enchanted balls of wax. Press these into your ears and the whispers of fear will not reach you.”
“Thank you,” she spoke as before but the bear had vanished, as the lad had before.
She took the bag and pressed the wax in her ears. She started onto the plane as my vision faded once again. The crone appeared before me, frowning. “You must not allow this to pass. Leave her to her fate.”
“Bah,” I scoffed and called forth my final crone.
“What is the girl’s fate?” I asked.
“She shall be crushed beneath the waterfall. The river will sweep her form to the oceans. There her soul will reside forevermore,” she said. “and a rightful death it would be.”
“She is an innocent girl, pure of heart. Such a child can do nothing to cause me harm. Go to her with a test of courage. Should she pass give her the means to evade the waterfall,” I ordered.
The crone shook her head sadly “As you wish o fool.” She vanished into the ether.
Waving over my ball, again a vision danced before me. The girl walked the bramble lined path to the mighty waterfall. As she walked she heard a cry. Turning she saw a horrid beast menacing a young girl. The creature had the tusks of a boar and sickly green hue. In its hand was a massive scimitar, raised to strike down the poor babe.
Without hesitation she dove into the path of the blade, eyes squeezed shut. The blade stopped an inch from her form. She landed hard in a pit of brambles. I frowned, knowing the crone had done this with purpose.
As she rose the creature knelt, presenting the blade to the girl. “You have shown courage as a pure mortal might have done. Thus my master bade I give you passage. Take the blade and cut the waterfall in twain. You may walk through the cut and reach the Keep of Eyes.”
Rather than thank the creature, the girl laughed and took the blade. Striding forward she slashed the falls and the water split, giving her passage.
The vision faded and the third crone appeared. “Do not give her passage through the eyes,” she intoned, but I was not listening. I was giddy like a maid at her approach and was attempting to make my gruesome visage more presentable.
After what seemed hours the veil of vine closed. The girl stood sword in hand before the vines attempting to slash them away with no effect. “I have passed your challenges Gadileanbh. Why do you bar my way?”
“Before you enter you must know the truth. I do not take children lightly, nor without cause.” I walked to the veil, eyes never leaving her. “The children I take are destined to bring great change to the world. In fact, most are poised to destroy it utterly,” I sighed. “Your child has the darkest destiny of all, to crush the mortals and lay them in the hand of dark Mab. I must keep your child for the sake of the world. My word is absolute, however, so as I promised you may enter.” The vines slid aside, and the Lady entered. “If I may, what is your name?”
“My name?” she said with a laugh “Why you know it already! For I am Mab, o fool.” Her youthful form stretched to the full sultry form of the Queen of the Unseelie. Her fair mud caked hair turned straight and black and her cream skin bleached to a bone white.
Before I could act, she swept the scimitar through my neck. My head rolled away as my body dropped useless to the ground. “I was warned thrice and thrice did I ignore it. I am the King of Fools.”
“Your word is absolute, yes?” she smiled “As such I demand the child be freed that he may fulfill his role.” Sweeping past me she went to the great hall and returned, the babe mewling in her arms. She gave me not a look as she left my hall with the bane of the world.
I wept openly after her. My heart ached at the loss of the maid, and my soul screamed at the failure of my duty. A noise came from above and I looked upward to see the 3 crones. “Take no time for me. I deserve my fate. You must go to Titania and tell her all that transpired. A hero must be found to prevent this dark future from reaching fruition.”
The 3 crones nodded and vanished. As they left, I wept aloud, and my rain of tears carried me to the river. The river swept me to the sea, where Titania awaited me. “You fool. What happened to that heart of ice?” she frowned. “No longer shall you be the bane of mothers. Your form is forfeit, but you will not escape your duty.” My severed head began to warp and change, stretching and sprouting dull grey scales. Soon I was a fish, the largest in all the sea. “You shall swim the ocean for 1001 years, devouring any dark souls you may find. Should you perform your duty well you will be restored. A 100 lifetimes in the frozen sea shall turn your soul to ice. I should think that will give you pause before falling for a pretty face.” She flew upwards to the sky, leaving me alone.
Since that time I have swum alone. My name is still whispered, and prayers offered by men of the sea. I am now the dark fish of despair, a creature that swallows men whole. As always none know of the righteousness of my acts.