A Bridge From Balor

by

CorbinJay

Chapter 7 - A Diversion of Minikins

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A note from CorbinJay

Posting this one a bit early because ... reasons. :-)

The weather stayed cold and rainy that year, making the harvest a frantic race to get the grain reaped and stacked and stored inside before it rotted in the fields. Farrel was away three and four days at a time—overseeing the labor, keeping accounts, dispatching extra workers to the far fields when needed.

When the barley and oats had all been gathered, Farrel hosted the traditional ten-day celebration at his manor house. Clanspeople from all over Tronwall came to pay their respects, to deliver the lord's share of the harvest, to partake of feasting, dancing, and games. But there was little merriment at Tronwall Manor this year. The wet, chilly weather dampened everyone's spirits, and Farrel had other things on his mind.

He used the festival days to form a militia, selecting twenty of his stoutest clansmen and drilling them as if for battle. The militia would be needed in the Wormwell Marsh, as part of the diversion called for in Valin's plan, and to guard the marsh against the appearance of any trolls.

When the festival ended, Farrel rode the circuit of the land, visiting the guardposts along the borders as he had done in the spring. Sontoral rode with him, for want of something else to do.

Aidan had little time to spend with her brother. She slept in the day and labored all night with Valin and Kerrawyn, preparing to weave the illusion that would deceive the Balorians. These preparations took place in an upstairs bed chamber given over to the purpose and sealed with druidic charms. Details of the work were kept secret. All Glenna, Farrel, and Sontoral knew of it was a brief ceremony in which they were required to prick their fingers to provide two drops of blood—that and the fact that Glenna was put to work with needle and thread making dolls' clothes.

Sontoral did not complain about the secrecy, having maintained a moody silence on all such issues since the night the troll appeared. But when Farrel and the harper returned from their patrol of the borders, Valin volunteered a demonstration of the illusion.

The group had just finished their evening meal. Valin, pale and sunken-eyed from lack of sleep, smiled wanly at Farrel and Sontoral.

“I thank you both for your uncharacteristic display of patience. We have kept the work secret till now to aid our concentration. But now the spell is woven and only requires practice, so secrecy is no longer needed.”

The druid led the way upstairs, Farrel, Sontoral, and Glenna following eagerly. Last came Kerrawyn and Aidan, walking together.

Farrel scarcely recognized the upstairs chamber. Yards of linen painted with runes covered the walls. The floor was scattered with rushes, stones, and pieces of bark. In the center of the room stood a large table spread with a layer of mud and dried grass. The mud had been scooped out in places and the depressions filled with water. Once the first shock wore off, Farrel realized that the table formed a rough map of the Wormwell Marsh.

Valin knelt and pulled a wicker basket from beneath the table. Raising the lid, he grinned slyly.

“In repayment for their forebearance, Sontoral and Farrel will have the honor of providing our demonstration.”

As he spoke, Valin placed on the table two tiny clay figures. In shape and dress, the figures markedly resembled Sontoral and Farrel.

“Kerrawyn and Aidan,” Valin said. “If you please.”

The two women smiled, joined hands and stared down at the clay figures. Farrel leaned over and peered in astonishment as the tiny replicas came to life.

The Sontoral-doll approached the figure of Farrel, bowed low, and offered his hand. With graceful, lifelike movements, the two figures began to dance.

Valin laughed and started clapping his hands in time to the unheard reel. Glenna joined his laughter and leaned close to embrace him.

“A most cunning artifice,” Sontoral allowed. “But that minikin must dance a better reel if he's to impersonate me.”

“No worry,” Farrel asserted. “So long as his opinion of himself is life-sized.”

Now Kerrawyn and Aidan joined in the general laughter. But the dance of the miniatures continued. Once animated, the figures would play out whatever charm was laid upon them, so Valin explained it. Only when the dance ended did the figures resume the appearance of inanimate dolls.”

“Wondrously done,” Sontoral cried. “My compliments to you all. As ever, Aidan, your hidden talents astound me.”

“It is mostly Kerrawyn creating the charm,” Aidan answered. “She is a hare and I a snail in this craft.”

Kerrawyn touched Aidan's hair and gazed at her warmly. “Little sister, do not underestimate your part in this.”

“But will these clay dolls fool the Balorians?” Farrel demanded.

“They should,” Valin replied. “Remember, they are not mere figures of clay. Each is tinctured with a drop of blood from the one they represent. On the ethereal plane, where size has no meaning, they look exactly like us.”

“Must Kerrawyn and Aidan work them constantly?” Glenna asked.

Valin shook his head as he lifted the figures from the table. “Several hours of effort each day will suffice. The appearance of animation will linger.”

As the druid knelt to replace the dolls in the basket, Farrel glimpsed two sets of figures, several not yet complete.

“Two drops of blood were taken,” he remarked. “And I see two dolls for each of us. Why are there two?”

“This is required by the nature of the enchantment,” Valin said. “One set will remain here, where Kerrawyn and Aidan will create the appearance of life. The others, animated by their sharing in the spell, will go with Farrel's men to the Wormwell Marsh. This chamber is protected from view by charms, as we ourselves will be on the journey. Thus, spying on us from their world, the Balorians will see only our replicas at the base of the bridge. At least, that is our hope.”

On a bleak and rainy afternoon, Farrel and Kerrawyn led the band of militia men to the Wormwell Marsh. Wrapped in hooded cloaks against the steady, chilling rain, the chieftain and his lady rode on horseback, along with Lecan the overseer. Nineteen of the men of Tronwall, including Lecan's son Garan, marched behind their lord. Garbed in wool and leather, the clansmen carried javelins, axes, swords, and bows. Several packhorses, weighed down with provisions, brought up the rear of the party.

It was the right and duty of all free men to carry arms in defense of their land. One of a chieftain's main responsibilities was to supply the weapons and be sure the men could use them. Like most Gaelic lords, Farrel employed professional soldiers at the guardposts along his borders. But for this duty of standing watch against the Balorians, he had deliberately chosen farmers and herdsmen—men loyal to the clan and to Tronwall.

Passing along the trail that skirted the marsh, Farrel gazed at the far hilltop crowned by the ring fort. In deep melancholy he remembered the spring night he had dreamed of that hill, and the summer night he and his newfound friends had feasted there among the bright spirits. But now autumn had come. Soon he would be leaving his love behind and riding to ... he knew not what.

“This way.” Kerrawyn steered her mount from the path, heading into the marsh.

Hooves slipped and skidded on the soggy ground. Unfamiliar with riding, Kerrawyn held on bravely, one hand clutching the wicker basket strapped to her saddle. Behind, the marchers slogged through ankle-deep mud, grim but uncomplaining. Some distance into the bog, Kerrawyn halted and pointed.

“Can you see it?” she asked.

Farrel could, but barely: a faint blue gleam amid the gray shimmer of the rain, an arc of light bending into the sky.

“I see nothing,” Lecan said.

But as the party moved closer, everyone could discern the effects of the Balorian intrusion. In the area beneath the bridge the bog had changed to an ashy yellow. The rushes, poisoned as if by blight and withered to dust, now formed in puddles of ugly paste.

“Here is the spot you must guard,” Farrel said.

The men set up camp a short distance from the bridge, on a low swell of land surrounded on three sides by standing water. Unpacking the horses, they erected small sailcloth tents, which would afford but little shelter from the damp.

While the men worked, Farrel repeated his instructions to Lecan and Garan. If only a few of the unwordly creatures were seen in the marsh, they must be seized and slain. But if many should manage the crossing and appear at once, the men were to flee and rouse the countryside for battle.

“If all goes well, none of this will happen,” Farrel reminded them. “By Samhain Day, the druid will have thwarted the invasion. Now there is one other thing, good Lecan and Garan, that my lady Kerrawyn must show you.”

Carrying the wicker basket containing the miniatures, Kerrawyn led the overseer and his son into one of the tents. Farrel remained without, shouting encouragement to the rest of the party as they finished laying out the camp.

When Lecan and Garan followed the sorceress into the daylight again, their brows were arched and their mouths clenched in dumb amazement.

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About the author

CorbinJay

Bio: Wandering scribe washed ashore in this strange and wondrous land.
Published in other places under the name "Jack Massa."

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