The Crogall Cú
Ireland's royal family is spending Halloween weekend at Glensheelin, their country estate in Wicklow.
On the guest list are U.S. Ambassador Gleason, his wife, and their granddaughter Janet.
Drama student Janet finds the storytelling talents of Cousin Fintan, a renowned shanachie, amazing.
She has no idea that his tale of a monster living beneath Glensheelin's lake
foreshadows peril for her and Prince Liam.
The lively pub was filling fast. Following Liam, Janet picked her way through the maze of seats. Her theatrical eye noted the arrangement of chairs before the hearth. The rough half-circle they formed gave everyone an unobstructed view of Cousin Fintan, perched on a stool beside the fireplace. His right hand held his blackthorn stick like a pole in a subway train. The fingers of his left hand danced on his thigh.
Liam touched her arm. “Let’s sit over here, Jan.”
He’d chosen one of several two-person sofas, and they sat together, though not too close. Robbie lowered the lights. The rustling of clothing died down until silence encased the room.
Fintan banged his blackthorn on the floor. “We have foreigners here tonight,” he said, smiling through his snowy beard and speaking in his rich, unhurried way. “From Americay, near the Cape of Cod. I’ll keep the Irish down, if it won’t harm the bit of shanachus I’m going to give ye. And amn’t I off to a bad start? A snip of folklore, a story from history, that’s what shanachus means in Irish.
“I’ll tell ye a story to shorten the night, a tale of Glensheelin, the Glen of the Fairy Pool, since that’s where we are. Ye’ll scarcely believe a word I say, for I’m going back on old times, to the days when the Good People made the rounds more than they do now. And there’s not word of a lie in it, for I got it from old Tom Lawless, a grand Wicklow shanachie. He only died a year after he telt me it, so it must be true.”
Soft chuckles rippled through the den. A blissful smile lit Liam’s face. “He always starts with something like that,” he whispered in Janet’s ear. “Makes no sense, but it sets the mood.”
Janet settled into her seat and admired the set. Candles burning atop the mantle flickered in time to the flames in the hearth. They cast spooky shadows over the room, eerily spotlighting Fintan from the side. The sound effects were brilliant. Unlike wood with its jarring crackles and pops, the turf hissed hypnotically, while an open window let in the rise and fall of the moaning wind. Costumes? Only Fintan’s classic tweed jacket. Props? His six-foot blackthorn stick.
He laid the blackthorn across his knees. Like a safecracker coaxing a bank vault open, he ran the tips of his long white fingers over the knobby wood. Twisting the stick toward him, he deftly reeled his audience into the story world he summoned. At least he had Janet’s attention. She’d be making more notes in her journal soon.
When Fintan raised his head again, he seemed to be in a trance. He rested his hands on the stick and began.
“Oh, it’s often and often when I was a boy, I traveled a fair wipe of Ireland with Lord Shane Desmond, the Earl of Carrowmore, the Chief Shanachie of the Clan Boru, and the father I still sorely miss. The pair of us heard a power of shanachus. The old ones who telt them to us were young when they learnt them. They telt us of ages past.
“Long before the great ice came, giant creatures lived in Ireland. They foraged and fought and ate each other, and no man ever saw them. The ice killed all but the swimmers among them, monsters who slumbered in caves beneath the lakes until the glaciers disappeared.”
Fintan turned his head as he spoke, as if he were assessing the effect of his words on each of his listeners. He shifted on the stool and continued.
“The animals the swimmers preyed upon were gone. New animals came to Ireland. Men came too, and the hungry monsters leapt from the lakes and devoured them all. The heroes among the men fought back. They killed many monsters, yet many survived.
“Back when Adam was chasing Eve, the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland. They fought the people who lived here, and they won. The lake monsters, though, proved harder to conquer. Their hunger had grown, and when they tasted the Dananns, they found they liked them best.
“Now the Dananns were a magical race, and their sorcery turned the beasts to ghostly beings. The herbs and flowers they used for their spells kept the monsters asleep in the depths of the lakes.
“Then new men came. They conquered the Dananns and offered a truce that gave them half of Ireland. The Dananns accepted the truce, unaware that the new men had tricked them. They’d given the Dananns the lower half, the caves and the lakes and the holes in the ground. Angered by the deceptive truce, many Dananns left the island. Those who stayed made their homes in the caves, in the ring forts and hillsides, the rivers and lakes. The Dananns who lived in the lakes became known as the Daoine Linn, the People of the Pond. They learned that the lakes were safe for them, as long as the monsters remained asleep.
“The worst of the creatures lived in Wicklow, in the pond right here at Glensheelin. The Daoine Linn called him the Crogall. The Crocodile.
“If their magic lapsed, the Crogall would wake twice during the year: at Beltaine, the start of the light months, and at Samhain, the start of the dark months. So at those times, the Queen of the Daoine Linn emerged from her palace beneath the lake and picked the flowers and herbs that would strengthen the spell to keep the beast sleeping.”
Fintan twisted the blackthorn until it stood beside him. To Janet, it seemed he had turned a page. Enthralled by the show, she leaned against Liam. He leaned back and held her hand.
“The new people called themselves the Celts. They prospered and grew and made Ireland their own. A small band of them brought their families and valiant hounds to Wicklow. They settled by the lake and set to work clearing trees and hunting the woodland animals.
“In turn, the animals hunted them, attacking the women who gathered berries and dragging off their children, and it would get worse. Summer was nearly over. The dark time of Samhain approached. The creatures would grow hungry and bold. Seeking safety, and knowing the animals couldn’t cross water, the people decided to build a crannog, a house on an island they’d build in the lake.
“But they didn’t know about the Crogall.
“In those days, the Glensheelin Celts had as their chieftain a princely hero called Gann of the Glen. His yellow hair fell to his brawny shoulders like sunshine. He wore a white tunic embroidered in green and red, and over it a crimson cloak fixed at his breast by a circular brooch of finely wrought gold. First in battle, the hunt, and the dance, Gann of the Glen spoke with a poet’s tongue. Kings rose and cheered when he entered their midst, and the eyes of the women shone.
“Gann took two men in a dugout canoe to study the lake. When they found a suitable spot, they marked it by noting the woods and the rocks on the shore. Soon all the men toiled at driving tree trunks into the lake bed to build a great crannog.
“The Queen of the Daoine Linn grew angry. She feared great harm to the crystal walls of her palace. She vowed that the building would stop.
“The day before Samhain, as Gann stood on the shore surveying the nearly completed crannog, a breeze brought a woman’s song to his ears, the loveliest sound he’d ever heard. Her voice seemed to come from the lake, or perhaps from the woods, but Gann saw no one.
“The next day, he heard the voice again. A harp played along with the song this time, a sweet, mournful tune that mesmerized Gann. He followed the music into the woods.
“The queen sat on a thronelike bed of fresh-picked flowers, singing and playing her harp, a gift from the goddess Danu herself, made from the tendons and ribs of a whale. The birds had stopped trilling to hear her song. She meant to command the man to remove the crannog, but when she saw him, she fell in love.
“She set aside her harp and concocted an air of anger. ‘What is your name, mortal?’
“He gazed upon her in wonder, admiring her ivory face, her bright blue eyes, and the jeweled band of gold that encircled her head. She wore a shimmering turquoise gown, and her thick silver hair touched the ground near her gold-clad feet. ‘I am called Gann of the Glen, Good Lady. Who are you? Why are you here? Are you of the Danann race?’
“‘Yes. I am Sabia, Queen of the Daoine Linn. My palace is under the lake, and your crannog will damage its crystal walls. I demand that you take it away.’
“‘The work is nearly complete. If your palace has suffered no damage by now, it will surely remain unscathed.’
“Sabia jumped to her feet. ‘It is an offense to my eyes! You will remove it!’ She appeared to think, though in the manner of females of every race, she had already done her thinking. ‘Great danger lurks in the lake, mortal Gann. Danger of which you know not.’ She gazed sadly away. ‘At least for my people.’
“‘Tell me of this danger, fair queen.’
“Inviting him to sit with her, she told him of the Crogall. She told him how she had come to the woods to pick flowers and herbs for the spell she would conjure at midnight to keep the creature from waking. ‘For tonight is Samhain. Only the plants I collect will keep him asleep in his cave.’
“‘Let him out, noble queen. I will kill him for you.’
“‘Oh no, brave Gann! We cannot set him free. The Crogall will devour the Daoine Linn, and then every last one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. And when it has eaten the last of my kind, it will take back its true form and prey upon yours.’
“‘Then I should kill the beast now, before it grows stronger.’
“‘This cannot be, for you are mortal and cannot see it.’ Sabia feigned a thoughtful look. ‘Yet you are a warrior, Gann of the Glen. Kill the beast tonight, agree to live in my palace with me for a year and a day, and I will grant you your crannog.’
“Gann thought her bargain a good one, for those who sojourned with the fairies returned with gifts of music and healing and other great knowledge. ‘I accept, but how can I kill that which I cannot see?’
“Sabia took his face in her hands. With a gentle kiss, she enchanted him. ‘Tonight you will see the Crogall. I must return to my palace now. I leave behind my flowers and herbs to show my faith in you.’
“The fairy queen and her harp disappeared, leaving Gann with much to do.”
Fintan rose. Gripping his blackthorn, he spread his feet and peered around the electrified room. When he continued, he spoke in a voice both hushed and low.
“That night, when the clouds spun their cobwebs between moon and stars, Gann lay in wait by the lake. He wore his sturdiest shirt and breeches, tooled from strong yet supple leather. The razor-sharp dagger whose handle he’d carved from the bone of an enemy’s thigh hung on one side of his battle belt. His well-honed short sword hung on the other, and he’d slung his five-pointed spear and his bronze-studded shield across his back.
“To better protect him, he’d brought his two best dogs, loyal companions he loved right well. Unseen by mortals the Crogall might be, but dogs saw things that men could not.”
The blackthorn slammed the floor. Janet flinched, and she wasn’t the only one.
“At midnight came a terrible storm.” Fintan’s voice grew louder with each word. “Amidst thunder and lightning, a boiling froth appeared in the lake. A hideous dragon shot from its midst and breeched in the air like a whale. To Gann’s seasoned eye, the beast was the length of ten men. Its head alone dwarfed him. Its cold red eyes glared at him, and he glared back, sending a silent challenge.
“A bolt of lightning flashed on jagged rows of cone-shaped teeth as long as his sword, vicious fangs set in a tapering snout that snapped the air. Thick green scales covered the creature like armor, and Gann wondered how he would slay it.
“His brave dogs stiffened, ready to pounce. So high did their fur rise, their backs seemed to grow. Their fierce growls charged the air.
“The monster bellowed in response. Its powerful, pointed tail whipped the water. It sped toward the shore, and horror of horrors, a second beast rose behind it!
“Gann drew his weapons.” Fintan raised his blackthorn high. “The battle fury rose in him. He thought not to save his own life, but only to kill the Crogalls.” The blackthorn whooshed through the air as Fintan, shouting now, mimicked Gann’s swordsmanship. “He put up a bloody battle, slashing two-handed with dagger and sword at one beast while his gallant dogs attacked the other. Terrible were the wounds he suffered from gnashing teeth and piercing claws, yet he gave not an inch of ground.
“Then the second Crogall swallowed the dogs. Enraged at the loss of his canine comrades, Gann cast his spear with deadly aim into the eye of the creature he fought. Its deafening roar shook the hills and vales, and it opened its jaws and gulped him down.
“He fell into its stinking gullet, slashing with dagger and sword, fighting to escape. The monster bucked and thrashed, but at last, Gann cut himself free. He found himself at the edge of the lake. Beside him, the Crogall lay dead. Each bolt of lightning showed its curdling red blood staining the water deeper and darker. The other creature had vanished.
“Frantic to find his faithful dogs, Gann searched long and hard, but he found no sign of them. With a mighty cry, he raised his sword and cut off the Crogall’s head. This he hurled away, drenching the shore with its blood. To this day, the rocks on the shores of the pond are red, and the Crogall’s bones became the jagged stones on the northern bank.
“As Gann lay dying from his wounds, Sabia came to him. ‘I will fetch healing herbs and grass,’ she said. ‘I will conjure a spell so you will recover and live with me for a year and a day.’
“‘I will die first!’ he spat, the look in his eyes as cold as a stepmother’s heart. ‘Evil creature! Why did you not warn me there were two beasts?’
“‘I did not know!’
“‘You did! You have used me as your kind have always used us. Leave me!’
“The words that bled from Gann’s mouth were his last. Crying bitter tears, for she truly loved him, Sabia returned to the woods to gather her flowers and herbs. Down to her crystal palace she swam, and she quickly invoked the spell to keep the Crogall from slaughtering her and the Daoine Linn until Beltaine.”
Fintan resettled himself on the stool. “And every Beltaine and every Samhain, she gathers the flowers that keep the Crogall sleeping. And that’s my story of Gann of the Glen.”
Janet pulled her hand from Liam’s to applaud. He stopped her and shook his head.
Fintan was twisting the blackthorn again, smiling the smile of someone who’s good at what he does and knows it. “I’ve a perishing thirst on me,” he said. “Where’s Robbie Buckley? Bring me a pint, lad, and pull the tap for those in need. When we’re set, I’ll tell ye the tale of the Cart of the Dead.”
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