The tale of the serpents' attack spread quickly across the fields and lanes of the neighborhood. The next afternoon a band of farmers and cottagers arrived at Tronwall Manor, axious to confer with their chieftain. Many of them came armed with swords and javelins, imagining from the rumors that a war may have begun.
Farrel met them in the main hall, with the members of his household also present. The lord sat at the long table, wearing a gold medallion that symbolized his office, but no armor or sword. Lecan the overseer was seated on his right and Keven the stewart on his left. Glenna also had a chair at the table, while Valin leaned casually against the hearth, the target of many curious glances.
(Kerrawyn had gone off to the woods that morning. It was her habit to be little in the sight of Farrel's folk).
After conferring with the druid, Farrel had judged it prudent to underplay the attack. He wanted his clanspeople on their guard, but not in panic.
“It is true, what you have heard,” he said, keeping his voice level. “There was an attack here last night. It was aimed at murdering this man, Lorcan, who is my guest and friend. As of now there is no indication that Tronwall has been invaded or that war is imminent.”
“My lord,” the drawling speaker was Brendan, a redbearded farmer who had done some soldiering in his time. “The word I have heard is that the attackers were not men at all, but serpents.”
“That is correct,” Farrel answered, then waited for the rumble of voices to settle. “Lorcan is a druid of great gifts and skill. He has come to warn me that we have certain enemies, who plot to use supernatural means against our land. The attack on his life testifies that his warnings are true.”
“Why should we have such enemies?” shouted one man.
“Perhaps the enemies are the druid's own,” suggested another.
“That is not my judgment of the situation,” Farrel declared sternly. “But even if it were true, he is my guest and our clan's honor would require us to stand by him.”
“It would if he chooses to stay,” said MacLinn, who was known as a stern and dour man. “But he might see his way clear to depart. Why should our whole clan be endangered for the sake of a stranger?”
Farrel had feared this: the superstitious impulse to make the outsider the scapegoat. He glanced back at Valin, saw him still leaning imperturbably against the hearth.
“Lorcan is welcome in my house,” the chieftain declared. “And I believe we need his help. He has already begun making spells for our protection.”
“Lord Farrel speaks the truth,” Valin told the assembly. “I have promised to do all I can to protect your land. But your help is also needed. Should you see or hear anything strange or unworldly, make certain your chieftain is informed of it.”
“My lord,” MacLinn said, “I am most uneasy with all this talk of spells and druid charms. I know I speak for many who have long been concerned that our clan is not closer to the Church, that more do not attend Mass when the priest stops here on his rounds. I fear the following of pagan ways has begun to bring evil luck on Tronwall.”
“You speak for fewer clansman than you would have us believe,” Lecan answered from his chair beside Farrel. “As we all know, Lord Farrel's sire followed the Old Religion, and the land knew only good luck and prosperity during his time.”
A quiet murmur of assent greeted the overseer's words.
“Even so,” Brendan the redbeard said, “we might do well to have a Christian priest come and invoke some blessings for us, in addition to the druid's workings.”
Most of the clanspeople voiced or nodded their agreement to this idea. Typically, the folk sought the good graces of all unseen powers. Farrel knew he would be hard pressed to deny their wish. He turned to Valin.
The druid shrugged. “I have no objection to a cleric adding his benedictions to the land.” And under his breath he muttered, “It might even help.”
“Then that is settled,” Farrel declared. “I will send a rider today to the Abby at Dungiven.”
Two days later a priest arrived to perform a series of exorcisms and blessings on the land. Kerrawyn and Valin both made it a point to be away in the forest during the day and night the priest stayed at the manor.
A pair of travelers led two horses along a forest trail. The travelers had been on the road since sunrise, with few stops. Now in the twilight they walked their mounts as much to rest themselves as to unburden the beasts.
Bright cloaks and colorful garb identified the young man and woman as members of the filid, the learned class, which enjoyed the freedom of the roads. In these peaceful times they could journey through Ireland with little fear of assault even by bandits.
Still, the young man wore a thin, wicked sword at his hip. And the girl carried a sling, as well as a small dagger worn on a chain around her neck. They came from Wales across the sea, where times were not so tranquil.
“Another day spent wandering the wilderness,” Sontoral complained. “I conclude we must be mad, Aidan, to come tramping across the world at the behest of this fey dream.”
Aidan shook her head and sighed. “Each evening about this time you conclude we are mad, brother. Whence I conclude you are overtired and we should stop for the night.”
“Aye,” Sontoral grumbled. “So we have wasted another day wandering the countryside, going we know not where for we know not what reason. When we both know we ought to be at home, doing the work that must be done. Can you blame me for thinking us mad?”
“When we awoke on the first of May you agreed the dream had seemed real,” Aidan reminded him. “And when I had the waking vision in which the druid summoned us, you again agreed, albeit with some hesitation, that—”
“I know,” Sontoral interrupted. “I said we must be mad, not you alone. I do not exclude myself from the state of madness. Indeed, I consider myself the madder of us two. For you, being a mere girl and of a romantic twist of mind, could be expected to fall prey to such outlandish fancies. Whereas I, older and more sober—”
“Hush,” Aidan told him. “Look.”
They had come to a place where the forest thinned. Through a rift in the wall of foliage a distant brace of hills could be seen. Aidan pointed to where a craggy hilltop flickered with a silvery glow. Squinting, Sontoral remarked that he thought he could see the stump of manmade stonework on the hill's summit.
“Come on, then.” Aidan swung into the saddle and kicked her horse to a trot.
“Wait,” Sontoral shouted, mounting awkwardly. “We don't know what we will find.”
“And won't till we get there,” Aidan called back to him. “But I have a feeling ...”
“Feelings again! Intuitions, dreams, visions!” Sontoral grimaced and kicked his horse to catch up.
They rode over grassy meadows, traversed patches of trees, splashed through narrow rills. Within the hour they reached the base of the hill, the weird light now a shimmering beacon under the cold, low-hanging stars.
They circled the hill for some distance, but could find no path the horses could climb. Finally, they left the mounts tethered to branches and started to ascend the steep, wooded slope on foot. As they climbed, scrabbling over rocks and pulling themselves up by low branches, the darkness seemed to retreat before the cool, silvery light. Like moonlight it seemed; except there was no moon.
“Sure no bonfire ever glowed like this,” Sontoral whispered. He made Aidan step behind him, so that he might be the one to walk into danger, if danger there be.
Near the crest of the hill they passed underbrush hung with spiderwebs that sparkled with beads of dew. Scarlet, gold, and orange flowers blossomed on stem and bush. All the flowers faced the upward slope, and many were of kinds that did not bloom this time of year. Muffled voices drifted down from atop the hill. Then a will-o'-the-wisp appeared, a globe of light that floated near as if to observe them, then glided away up the slope again.
Sontoral grunted and swung out an arm to hold Aidan back. With a casual movement he drew his sword.
“That will do no good against faery powers, if they mean us ill,” Aidan said.
“It makes me feel more brave,” Sontoral replied.
They emerged from the trees onto a rolling field gorgeous with purple heather. Above the field stood the broken ruins of an ancient fortress, pulsing with rays of white and silver light. The voices sounded louder now. Sontoral and Aidan crept to the outer ring of stones and gazed within.
In the courtyard of the ruined fort, a picnic was in progress. Two men and two women sat on a multicolored carpet spread with a rich repast. Surrounding them, in the air, hung an incandescent mist of light. At the edges numerous will-o'-the-wisps drifted apart. But mostly the light glimmered brightly in low-lying clouds and banks that almost resembled rows of living, floating figures.
“This is the place of our dream,” Aidan whispered. “And those four our fellow dreamers.”
“Aye, but this time we are awake,” Sontoral muttered. “I think.”
The four seated upon the carpet had noticed the arrival of the newcomers and were staring at them, smiling. One of the young men rose to his feet and raised a hand in greeting. Aidan and Sontoral both recognized him.
“Welcome to our gathering,” Valin said. “I am glad you have arrived at last.”
Farrel stood up beside Valin and addressed the two Welsh travelers, who still lingered hesitantly at the edge of the ruins.
“I am Farrel, chieftain of this land. I bid you welcome and thank you for heeding the druid's summons. Come forward. I promise, none of us will harm you. As for these gleaming apparitions who have gathered about us, I am assured that they also mean no harm.”
“Of course not.” Kerrawyn said. She knelt next to Farrel, her red hair decked in white flowers. “These bright folk are spirits native to these hills and yonder lowlands. They have assembled here to hold counsel with us. It is a rare privilege that they show themselves to mortals. Come forward now and be welcome.”
Sontoral slowly put away his sword. Hand in hand, he and Aidan walked into the circle of ruins. Smiling warmly, Kerrawyn stepped forward to clasp their hands and lead them to the others. She introduced each by name: Valin, tall and noble in his white druid's robes; mild-eyed Glenna who wore a garland in her hair; Lord Farrel in doublet of red velvet and gold-worked belt.
“You must be hungry after your journey,” Farrel gestured to the carpet spread with dishes. “Sit with us and eat.”
“We thank you, my lord,” Sontoral sat down eagerly, “for we are weary and famished both.”
“But ought we to eat,” Aidan asked, “in the presence of these—?”
Glancing about, she saw that the hovering banks of light seemed to have drifted away, or faded. The hilltop still glistened with moonlike luminescence, but now the light filled the air without definite form or source.
“Of course we may eat,” Kerrawyn laughed gaily. “The spirits are wise and polite and have no objection to our eating. And, lest you are worried, this is no faery-food that will enthrall you. Be assured it is simple earthly fare, brought here from Farrel's own kitchen.”
It was Valin who had insisted they pack the food that day and ride to the hilltop. The druid had suddenly announced—with his habitual, uncanny certainty—that the harper and his sister would arrive at the ring-fort that evening. Farrel and his party had reached the ruins at twilight, just as the glimmering lights began to gather, converging on the hill from the surrounding countryside.
Now, illuminated by the spirits' presence, the companions feasted on bread and cheeses, pears and melons, cider and wine. Aidan and Sontoral ate with good appetite, but nervously. Plainly they felt ill-at-ease in the unfamiliar surroundings and the strange, ghostly light.
“You say these spirits wish to hold counsel with us?” Aidan asked Kerrawyn.
The red-haired sorceress nodded. “They have yet to speak, but I sense that is their intention. Valin believes it also. He says it is these spirits who first caused us six to dream together.”
“That is so,” Valin commented, setting down his cup. “These local ones sensed the danger aborning in this place. In union with higher spirits whose province is the protection of the Earth, they managed to call us together in that dream. Their power to defend themselves is limited. They require us to thwart the invasion.”
“My recollection of the dream is hazy,” Sontoral remarked. “But I do recall talk of an invasion. This is something you actually believe will happen?”
“Only if we do not prevent it,” the druid said dryly. “I can appreciate your skepticism. Yet, as one versed in song and legend, you surely know there are countless tales among both our races of passages to other worlds and wars with nonhuman peoples.”
“But those, as you say, are legends,” Sontoral replied. “Rich in meaning, to be sure. But no modern authority would consider such tales literally true.”
“Some layers of truth are lost to modern ears,” Valin said. “But we are not here for poetical debate. Surely what you have seen tonight is evidence that the dream should be taken seriously.”
Sontoral glanced about, a corner of his mouth pulling taut. “It does argue for a certain open-mindedness, I must agree.”
As the party finished their meal, Farrel noticed the silvery light growing brighter. Looking up, he saw the glimmering banks of mist condensing and drifting near. Now definite shapes appeared within the light. Some were noble, some grotesque. Some stood huge and gnarled like trees, others small and furry like rodents. Some had the blithe, feathery faces of flowers. Yet others stood stark and grim, with masklike faces and insect wings.
“Listen,” Valin said. “They will speak to us.”
But suddenly Aidan stood, a vacant expression on her face.
“Aidan—” Sontoral started after her, but Valin and Kerrawyn both moved to restrain him.
“Hush,” Kerrawyn warned. “She is entranced. She will not be harmed, but you must not try to wake her.”
Aidan had taken two steps into the haze of light. Now she turned to face the others. Her mouth fell open and in a tremulous, faraway voice she began.
“This one speaks for the children of light here assembled. Children of man, we thank you for joining us here, in the name of the Great Earth who nourishes all. We have learned that the makers of yonder bridge of light dwell in the realm of Balor. In your legends they are called the shadow folk.”
“I have never heard of them or their realm,” Sontoral muttered.
“I have,” Valin said. “Druid lore tells something of the shadow folk. They are said to be shape-changers, great wizards, in their way.”
“This is because of their place in the hierarchy of beings,” the spirits said through Aidan. “In degree of substance, they stand between our kind and yours. Their material bodies they can bend and alter as they will. So it is with their entire world, for it is less solid than Earth. Forms and events in Balor are more easily shaped by the powers of mind.”
“There is one called the Gray Master,” the druid said, “who sent assassins to take my life. Is he also of the shadow folk?”
For a moment Aidan remained still, while the figures of light hovering about her seemed to bend their heads and confer. “He may be, for the realm of Balor is also called the Gray World. We cannot say for certain.”
“Why not?” Sontoral inquired. “Why do you know so much but no more?”
“Our knowledge comes from the deep Mind of All Things, and from the dreams of the Great Ones Who Sleep. But it is not perfect knowledge, nor complete. We have not the light to see all that may be seen. We are seekers of wisdom, even as you are.”
“Why have we been chosen for this fight?” Glenna asked. “Surely there must be others who are stronger, more skillful than we.”
“We did not choose you,” the spirit-voice replied. “We cried out our need in the Land of Dreams and you six chose to answer the cry. In your higher souls you each have accepted this duty and this path.”
“How are we to proceed then?” Farrel demanded. “How can we defeat these shadow men?”
“This again we cannot answer. We will continue to seek knowledge of the Balorians and to inform you of what we learn. The enemy may launch small forays through the summer, but their main invasion must wait till the bridge is complete. This will not come while the Earth is in bloom or leaves hold to the branches. Therefore, be on your guard, and use this time to strengthen the bonds among you, and to increase your powers of mind and spirit. Let the druid be your guide in this and we will lend our aid.”
Farrel frowned, disappointed that the spirits could offer no definite plan of action. He glanced around at the others, saw acceptance and grim resolve on their faces—all but Sontoral, whose look was unreadable.
“Very well,” the chieftain said. “We will do as you suggest.”
“As a beginning, let each of you pledge yourself to every other, and to the defeat of this attack upon our Earth.”
The dense light drifted away from Aidan. After a moment, she blinked and swayed upon her feet. She looked down at the faces of the seated mortals, then set her shoulders and turned to the hovering figures of light.
“I, Aidan, pledge my life to these companions, and to the destruction of the bridge from Balor.”
A moment passed, then Valin stood and spoke a similar pledge. Kerrawyn, then Glenna followed, speaking loudly to the spirits, who had faded to an indefinite, sourceless glimmer once more.
Carried away by exhiliration, Farrel rose in his turn. “I, Farrel, also pledge my life and strength and all the resources of my land to these companions and the accomplishment of this duty.”
Only Sontoral remained seated. All gazes now rested on him. With a rueful sigh he climbed to his feet.
“I am not entirely convinced,” he said, “that what you all believe to be true is true. But since Aidan has rashly given her promise, I feel obliged to protect her, if I can. Therefore I, Sontoral, also pledge myself to the defeat of this invasion—if invasion there be.”