Glenna knelt in the hot sunshine, gathering herbs in a high, stony meadow. She had worked her way across the meadow twice since sunrise, picking particular herbs according to the hour, as judged by the lengths of their shadows. Woodsage earliest in the day, agrimony a bit later, wormwood now at the height of morning.
The herb gathering was instructive on several levels, so Glenna's mistress Meggan had taught her. First, it was training in patience and solitary, steady work. Second, it strengthened the apprentice's memory as to when each plant should be picked. More, it taught her to know and communicate with the spirits of the green world, thus opening the doors of her own soul.
Glenna's fingers gently caressed the stalks and leaves of each herb. Eyes closed, she spoke to the plant's native spirit, thanking it for its beauty and helpfulness to humankind, asking permission to remove it from the Earth.
Then she opened her mind and listened for the spirit's reply. Some gave blythe and ready permission. Others insisted on long discourses or conversations before allowing themselves to be plucked. Still others denied permission, saying they were not yet ready to leave the sunshine and the meadow. Glenna respected the wishes of those and moved on.
She found the work and the communion with the spirits soothing. Lately she had been troubled by strange dreams that woke her in the middle of the night, frightened and knotted in the belly. At times during the day the same tension would steal over her, as if some dark layer of her mind knew that a great event loomed in her life, a change both wished for and dreaded.
Kneeling on the ground with eyes shut, Glenna sensed a shadow moving over her. She looked up and sharply drew in her breath. A tall man stood above her, leaning on a staff, his head blotting out the sun.
“Good morning, fair maiden.”
Glenna stood and stepped sideways so she could see his face. Her eyes widened as she recognized the keen features, the unclipped golden hair and fine, soft beard.
“I see that you remember me,” he said.
“No.” Nervously, she shook her head. “I do not believe we have met, sir.”
“Only in dreams, Glenna.”
His gaze, calm but persistent, held her transfixed. After several moments her lips parted and she whispered a name: “Valin.”
He nodded, smiling. “You see? You remember me after all. Tell me about your dreams.”
The tension coiled inside her. “I must return to my work, sir.”
The druid took hold of her wrist. Glenna shuddered. But there was kindness, not menace, in his expression.
“I understand the fright you feel. Speak your heart to me, maiden. As an Oak Priest, I may lighten your burden.”
Glenna's eyes, staring into his, grew larger. “The first dream came on Beltaine Eve. There were six of us then. Other dreams followed, in which only you and I appeared. Always there is a sense of foreboding, of an imminent, dreadful evil. It seems that another world is opening onto this.”
“You remember well,” Valin said. “A bridge of light is being forged, a baleful thing. It touches the Earth north of here, in the Wormwell Marsh. You and I and four others were called together in a dream. We are charged with destroying the bridge.”
Glenna shook her head. “I do not understand.”
“Another world is opening onto this,” Valin told her. “And we have been called to seal the gap and rescue the land. I have come to enlist your aid, Glenna.”
“But—Even if the dreams are true, I do not see how I can help. I have little knowledge, and no skill at arms. There must be many others more suitable than I.”
“What we are to do is not yet determined. Therefore your contribution cannot be guessed.” Valin lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. “But this much I can discern by the druid's sight: You could be needed simply for the strength and steadyness of your heart. You are like the rowan tree, small, but strongly rooted in the Earth. In your spirit is proof against evil spells.”
Glenna felt neither strong nor steady. But though his hands no longer held her she could not escape the druid's stare.
In his eyes she saw that Valin needed her, and not only to help fight the evil they had dreamed. His soul called out its need, the yearning of one spirit that needs another to make it whole.
Glenna heard an answer, thrilling and frightening, in her own soul. Distantly, she recognized that the moment had arrived, the change both wished for and dreaded.
Valin held out his hand to her. “Come, Rowan Maid, we are needed in the north.”
Glenna took a deep breath and reached out to him. The druid's strong, rough hand closed around hers.
Farrel and Kerrawyn were sitting by the fireplace in his bedchamber when they heard the knocking on the door. Loud and purposeful the rapping must be, Farrel thought, to be heard upstairs over the drumming of wind and rain on this stormy night.
Anxiety glanced over Kerrawyn's face, succeeded a moment later by a look that mingled acceptance and excitement.
“He has arrived,” she said, rising. “The druid.”
Farrel followed her from the chamber, tense and a bit fearful. Together they hastened downstairs and across the main hall.
Several servants and Farrel's six wolfhounds had collected in the entryway in response to the knocking. A tall man and a young woman had come in from the rain. Keven, Farrel's stewart, had just taken their dripping cloaks.
“My lord,” Keven said. “This one asks to see you. Says his name is Lorcan, though you might know him by another—”
“That is right,” Farrel said, staring gravely at the druid. “I do know him.”
Valin looked just as Farrel remembered him from the dream. But instead of ceremonial robes he wore woodsman's garb—leather tunic and knee-length breeks. The girl also seemed familiar, though Farrel could not remember for certain if she had been in the dream.
Kerrawyn's memory was better. She came forward and greeted both of the newcomers warmly, clasping their hands and calling Glenna by name.
“We are grateful for your welcome,” Valin said, “on such a blowy night as this.”
Farrel ordered that the fire in the main hall be stoked, and that hot wine and food be brought from the kitchen. A short time later the chieftain and his lady sat with their guests at the long table in the main hall, a smoldering peat fire at their backs. Valin wolfed down a large serving of lamb stew. In between mouthfuls, he described his and Glenna's long trek overland from the south.
The druid had entered the hall carrying a knobby staff of dark wood as tall as himself, which he left leaning against the hearth. Kerrawyn asked him about the staff, noting that it was not the wand she remembered from the dream.
“No, indeed not,” Valin replied. “Of old it is said a druid owns three wands. Largest is the blackthorn staff, for fighting. Next the wand of ash, for healing. Third is the smallest but mightiest, the wand of oak for summoning spirits and raising spells.”
As he spoke he reached inside his leather tunic and brought forth his oak wand. Small it was, the length of his arm from elbow to wrist, made of polished wood banded with silver.
Farrel stared at the wand in the dim firelight, his mind roving back once more to the dream.
“And do you also have an ash wand?” Kerrawyn asked.
“That skill and lore I have yet to accomplish,” Valin said. “But have no fear. Should we need a healer in the struggle that is to come we have Glenna, who is both skilled and strong of heart.”
Glenna solemnly met their eyes but said nothing.
“Then you believe,” Farrel said, “that what we envisioned in the dream is real?”
“Real as winter.” Valin's tone was grim. “But the dream showed only parts of the picture. Other parts were hidden, like folds in a tapestry loosely hung. No eye can view the entire tale, as yet.”
“I find it hard to believe,” Farrel muttered. “Brutish monsters, an invasion from another world. It seems the stuff of fireside tales.”
“Such tales speak of things barely remembered in this age, but true nonetheless,” Valin answered. “This sphere we call Earth swims through the night accompanied by many an unseen world. These other worlds are separated from ours only by barriers of time and thought.”
“Such concepts are beyond me,” the chieftain grumbled. “Though I admit the creatures in the dream seemed real enough—and almost familiar.”
“Indeed,” Valin answered. “I have learned something of those beings from my spirit allies. They belong to the race of Vlachmeir; in common legends known as trolls. But I do not believe they are the ones responsible for the bridge of light. Their kind lacks the magical lore and mental prowess for such an undertaking. I suspect they are only the henchmen of our true enemies, whose name and form remains unknown.”
“It seems that much remains unknown,” Farrel observed in a gloomy voice.
“True,” the druid stretched, nonchalant. “But do not fret. I foresee that we will learn more in a few days time, when the harper and his sister have arrived.”
“They are coming then?” Kerrawyn said.
“They are already on their way.”
In Farrel's dream shafts of blue light shone upon the ashes in a small stone hearth. The young lord moaned and turned his head on the pillow. Sparks of green appeared amid the ashes, stirred, spiraled upward. In silent flashes the green lights expanded, then condensed into glistening, coiled shapes. Serpents thick as sailors' ropes slithered from the hearth.
Farrel watched in his sleep as the serpents slid over a woven carpet, toward a familiar bed. Reptilian heads loomed noiselessly toward a sleeping figure. In the murk, Farrel discerned a soft beard and long golden hair ...Valin!
Farrel sat bolt upright, wide awake. The same instant Kerrawyn woke beside him. The Lord of Tronwall heard the barking of his hounds, drawing near as the animals rushed up the stairs. Then, from the chamber next door, Valin shouted.
“Lord Farrel, help me! I am attacked.”
The chieftain bounded from his bed, plucked his long sword from its place beside the door, darted into the corridor. The wolfhounds had reached Valin's door and were pushing and leaping against each other, baying madly. Farrel glimpsed two of his men, bewildered, rushing up the stairs. Stumbling among the hounds, the chieftain lifted the handle and pushed the door open.
Inside he saw Valin, backed into a corner, wielding his blackthorn staff to hold four snakes at bay. A fifth serpent writhed in the center of the room, its skull crushed. Even as Farrel took in the scene his growling wolfhounds flung themselves upon the snakes.
Dreadful, writhing carnage ensued: the wolfhounds tearing and snapping, the serpents twisting and darting to strike. Farrel charged across the room as two of his hounds were bitten. Suddenly a serpent sprang at his face, fangs glistening with venom. Staggering aside, Farrel brought up his sword in a vicious swipe. The snake wriggled on the blade, cut to the spine. Farrel chopped down at the floor and cleaved the snake in two.
When he looked up, several of his hounds were rolling on the floor, yelping with the agony of snake-poison. The remaining serpents had been torn to pieces—except for one, badly wounded, that Valin was trying to rescue from the dogs.
“Call off your hounds,” the druid shouted to Farrel. “I need this one alive.”
Valin held the serpent with both hands just below the head. The lower part of the snake's body was a gory mess of punctures and tears.
Aided by two befuddled manservants, Farrel managed to pull the wolfhounds off and drag them from the chamber. By now the corridor was crowded with all the folk of the house. The chieftain waved off their agitated questions, stepped back into the room and shut the door.
Glenna stood just inside the chamber, dressed in a white shift. Hands to her mouth, she gazed in wild-eyed horror at the bloody remains of the melee. Kerrawyn had also entered the room. Naked, she was assisting Valin by handing him his oak and silver wand. Vaguely, Farrel realize that he and the druid also were unclothed.
With one firm hand the druid held the wounded serpent by its neck. With his free hand he received the wand from Kerrawyn and touched it to the serpent's skull. Valin's lean arm trembled with the effort of holding the creature still. Through closed teeth he chanted a verse in a language Farrel had never heard.
Gradually, a green aura rose about the serpent's head. Farrel watched enthralled as a flickering image appeared within the aura—a face that was part-human, part-snake.
“Speak to me, spirit,” the druid commanded. “By the power of Oak I compel you.”
“What shall I speak, wizard?”
Farrel shivered, for the snake-spirit's voice was like the hiss of wind through a dying forest.
“How came you here with your murderous companions?” Valin demanded. “Your kind was banished from this island long ago.”
“Yesss. But soon we shall dwell here again. This we are promised, by the Gray Master—he who opened the passage for us this night.”
“He lied to you,” Kerrawyn said. “He will change the land so that no earthly creatures can live here. This we have seen in a vision.”
“Who is the Gray Master?” Valin asked. “What is his tribe?”
The serpent's body writhed and stiffened. The green aura started to fade.
“Answer!” the druid cried, “By the Oak, I command you.”
“His tribe I do not know,” the spirit spoke in a dwindling whisper. “The Gray One has no face.”
The green light streamed up from the serpent's head, then vanished. Valin sighed and let the serpent drop to the floor, a dead thing.
Dressed in a white robe trimmed with gold, Valin sat cross-legged on a cushion in the center of the bedchamber. A lone candle burned on the bare floor before him, illuminating his oak wand and the decapitated head of the serpent who had spoken.
The rest of the snakes' remains, along with the carcases of the dogs, had been cleared away by Farrel's servants. The blood-stained carpet had been rolled up and carried downstairs. All the while the servants had moved in a torpor, bewildered and frightened by what they had seen. To his credit, Lord Farrel had kept them working with brusque orders, delaying all explanations till the morning. Valin smiled grimly at the thought. Explanations would not come easily.
A soft rapping sounded on the chamber door. Valin rose in a fluid movement, taking the candle with him. Opening the door, he found Glenna, a pallor on her cheek, her unbraided hair in disarray as if from restless tossing on her pillow.
“I thought you might still be awake,” she murmured. “I suppose no one in the house will sleep much the rest of this night.”
Valin smiled at her. “Come in.”
She entered the chamber, wringing her hands. Despite the dimness, her eyes at once picked out the serpent's head in the center of the floor.
Her shoulders quivered. “I thought … all of that had been taken away.”
Valin steered her toward a chair by the bed. “I saved one head to examine. Its emanations might tell me something of the power that brought it here.”
“But wouldn't it be safer to bury all the pieces?”
“We are safe for now,” the druid assured her. “This past hour I have spoken with tree-spirits from the surrounding woods. They have lent their power to form a shield of protection about the house.”
Glenna slumped into the chair, her expression sore with worry. Valin set the candle on the bedside table, knelt and took both her hands in his.
“Glenna,” he said. “We are safe now.”
“How can you accept it all so carelessly? You were almost killed.”
“True. But I survived.” Valin smiled crookedly. “Such an attack as this must have taken great effort. It bolsters my confidence to know I am considered so dangerous by the Gray Master, whoever he is.”
Glenna shook her head, holding tightly to his hands. “I wish I could be brave as you are.”
Valin's eyes brightened. “Sweet Rowan Maid ...”
“Do not call me that. It does not fit me, any more than I fit into this terrible war of sorceries. What help was I in protecting you this night?”
“Perhaps more help than you realize, for I woke at just the right moment to slip out of bed and shout for help. And as you can see, I am alive.”
Valin stood and bent over her, his face close to hers. “Besides, there are other reasons you are like the rowan. Your hair is red-brown like its bark, your eyes pale green like its leaves. I have always considered it the loveliest of trees.”
He pressed his lips to hers. After a moment's hesitation she responded, arching her back and wrapping her arms around his neck. Valin straightened, gently lifting her to her feet.
“Valin,” she whispered. “Till tonight I was mostly afraid for myself. But when I thought that you might die—”
Valin hushed her with another kiss. His fingers reached out and snuffed the candle flame.