A fire gleamed beneath the rosewood mantel, warming Farrel's study against the damp and cold. Outside a rainstorm filled the night, blowing in from the dark northern sea.
Farrel sat near the fire, with Kerrawyn perched on the arm of his chair. She wore a long gown of green wool and red felt slippers, concessions to the draftiness of the house. Aidan and Sontoral sat nearby on a high-backed, cushioned bench. On a stool beside them, Glenna mended a shirt with needle and thread.
It was Valin who had called the group together. The druid paced back and forth, dressed in a white tunic and brown surcoat, the oak and silver wand clutched in his hand. While the others listened, Valin reviewed all that had been learned of the Balorians: the nature and powers of their race, the size of their army including their trollish allies, the reputation of their king and the tale of his part-human lineage.
“That they did not attack us throughout the summer does not necessarily mean they were unable,” Valin said. “I suspect they have been watching us, waiting to see if we might make a move. Meanwhile the bridge is nearing completion. Already the reeds and ferns in the marsh are beginning to die. Soon, perhaps by the first of winter, the bridge will be strong enough for their army to cross over.”
“We expected all along the invasion would come with winter,” Farrel said. “What do you propose we do?”
Valin paused to lean against the hearth. “Kerrawyn and I see only two alternatives. The first is defensive: we make counterspells against the bridge, seek to loose the moorings that fasten it to the Earth.”
“The flaw in that plan,” Kerrawyn said, “is that the Balorians have a legion of wizards who have worked long to create the bridge. To unravel their defenses will likely prove an intricate and baffling task. It may well be beyond us.”
“That is so,” Valin affirmed, “especially with time so short. Our other choice is to try to destroy the bridge at its source. For this, we would need to seek the aid of a greater being, One whose name I would not speak aloud. If this One agreed to help us, I would slip into the Gray World and unleash the power that he bestows. This path is dim and twisted with uncertainty, but I believe it offers our strongest hope.”
Glenna spoke up anxiously. “Surely our strongest hope must be to fight the enemy in our own world rather than theirs.”
A tender smile passed over Valin's lips. “Dear one, you speak from a heart full of worry for my safety. But the plan is not as dangerous as you may think.”
“You have told me,” Glenna argued, “that one who crosses into another world can easily be trapped there. And how can you hope to slip into Balor unnoticed if the shadow folk are watching our every move?”
“I can forge a link with you and the others to bind me to this world even as I walk in the other,” Valin said. “That will protect me from becoming trapped in the Gray World. As for evading the scrutiny of the Balorians, Kerrawyn and I have discussed a diversion.”
The druid paused to rub his beard, blue eyes gleaming. “This Porteas prides himself on his prowess in single combat. Therefore, I will challenge him to a contest of weapons and magic, with the threatened land as the prize. Kerrawyn, assisted by Aidan, will weave the illusion that the six of us are here, preparing for the combat. In fact, the rest of us will have ridden off to seek the help we need to destroy the bridge. I will not say where we will ride, or the nature of the power we seek. Such things are best not divulged to many or even spoken aloud. The most propitious time for me to enter the Gray World would be Samhain Eve, when the year turns and the Earth is opened to proximate realms. I will therefore issue the challenge for the following day. While Porteas awaits me at the base of the bridge, I will be crossing into Balor by another path.”
Concluding, Valin scanned their faces for reactions. The group returned his stare in silence, except for Glenna who refused to meet his gaze. Eyes lowered, she nervously jabbed needle into fabric.
“It would seem,” Farrel ventured, “that we all agree to abide by your judgment, Valin, and adopt this plan.”
“Not entirely,” Sontoral said. “Your plan seems sensible, druid, in so far as I can make sense of it. But I see no reason why Aidan and I must be separated.”
“Valin and I considered all this with care,” Kerrawyn answered. “Three is the ideal number to form the circle that will serve as Valin's anchor when he walks in the other world. Glenna is the first choice, for her closeness to him. Through her, you and Farrel will be able to add your strength and will to Valin's own. Aidan and I have a more delicate task: holding together the illusion. For this, we are best suited.”
The harper crossed his arms and scowled. Aidan laid a hand on his shoulder.
“My brother and I have always faced trouble together, so you can understand our reluctance to be parted. But I think we must agree, Sontoral. I am convinced that Valin and Kerrawyn know best what we must do.”
“Well, I am not convinced.” Sontoral stood and paced across the room. “For two months and more I have heard threats of dire events, tales of imminent doom. And I have been asked to wait and wait, while seeing nothing to convince me that all the talk is true. I would never have stayed this long but for Aidan's insistence. Now you want me to go blundering off with you, somewhere you won't even name, and to leave Aidan behind. No! I am not convinced it is necessary.”
He ended staring with sulky defiance at Valin. The druid gazed back impassively for several moments, then gave a shrug.
“We cannot succeed without the full-hearted participation of all. But perhaps I can show Sontoral something to convince him that all the talk is true. We will need a messenger to carry our challenge to Porteas. I will summon one now.”
From inside his surcoat, the druid produced a small stone cup. He knelt at the fireplace and filled the cup with ashes. Outside, the wind moaned against the eaves and shutters of the house.
Directing the others to push their chairs and benches back, Valin spread the peat ashes in a circle in front of the fireplace. Then, murmuring a spell, he walked three times around the outer edge of the circle, gesturing with his oak wand at each step.
“Now,” he said, “the circle of Earth and Fire is closed, and the area within opened to the Gray World. A troll is a better choice than a Balorian for our messenger, since they are more substantial beings and easier to hold on the Earth. It should be a simple matter of searching with the mind ...”
He shut his eyes, lifted the wand and moved it slowly through the air.
“... finding a troll, somewhere near the source of the bridge and ... pointing!”
The last word was a sudden shout, punctuated by Valin's thrusting the wand high. Slowly, arm trembling, he drew the wand around, aiming its tip toward the circle of ashes.
A smear of bluish light appeared in the air, drifting in accord with the motion of the wand, floating down toward the circle. When the light touched the floor it shimmered and folded in on itself, vanishing for an instant. Then came a sound like the cracking of a vast stone and the sweep of light burst outward—revealing a troll.
The creature was taller than any man Farrel had ever seen, with massive chest and shoulders and long, muscular arms. Dressed in a rough leather tunic, he carried a brutal, stone-headed hammer. Immediately on appearing, the creature tensed and thrashed about, small eyes glaring, lips opened in a snarl revealing curved yellow fangs.
Farrel and his companions shrank back, appalled. Farrel thrust Kerrawyn behind him; Sontoral did the same with Aidan, though she insisted on gazing over his shoulder. Even Valin looked aghast at the monster he had summoned. But though the troll's arms struck furiously at the air, the circle of ashes held him imprisoned.
“Be still, child of Vlachmeir,” Valin shouted above the creature's growl. “You will not be here long. Though, if I wished it, I could imprison your puny soul forever in a stone or tree.”
The troll locked eyes with Valin. Gradually, the creature calmed, though his chest still heaved and his voice, when he spoke, was like the throaty roar of a bear. “So, you have snared me into your world, Earthly wizard. Porteas the high king warned us that such was possible. What are you called, little man?”
“My name is not important,” Valin retorted. “My wand is of oak and silver and it has a name I will not tell you.”
“You mock me with riddles? Of old, my people treated your kind as cattle. We will do so again with the help of this Porteas.”
“I am heir to all the druids of the Gael,” Valin replied. “Of old my forebears routed your clumsy race from this island.”
“Your forebears are dust,” the troll said. “Yours is known to be a dying magic. The hour of our return is near.”
Sontoral surprised everyone by yelling: “Slow-witted oaf, you are deluded by the Balor-men. They will never gain a foothold here.”
Bursts of blue light sparkled about the troll's body. “Already I feel the mind-nets of the Balorian wizards drawing me back. I will tell King Porteas how puny are the men of this world.”
“Tell him this,” Valin said. “That a champion of Earth challenges him to a combat at the base of his bridge of light, at sunrise on Samhain Day.”
“I will tell him,” the troll answered, hefting his hammer. “Meanwhile I leave you this, to remind you of the race of Vlachmeir, soon to return to this country.”
The troll wheeled, lifted the hammer high and smashed it down on the rosewood mantel, cleaving the cross-piece in two and splittling the wood panel above to the ceiling.
The troll faded, his loud, mocking laughter dwindling as the blue light around him brightened. Then the light vanished, leaving the circle empty.
The six companions stood in silence, passing dazed glances to one another. Stricken, Farrel stared at his father's broken hearth. Vaguely, he became aware of servants knocking frantically at the door, shouting to ask if those inside were well.
Sontoral's eyes wandered until they met and were held by Valin's. The harper swallowed and grunted to clear his throat.
“I am convinced,” he said.