In the cold, murky twilight preceding dawn, Farrel and Kerrawyn, Valin and Glenna, Aidan and Sontoral huddled together in the courtyard before the manor house. Four horses, saddled and packed with bundles for the journey, waited nearby. The party would leave at dawn, Valin had decided, believing the first rays of the sun would help hide their departure from spying Balorian eyes.
“Let no farewells be spoken,” the druid said. “For in heart and spirit, we will not be parted.”
On his prompting the friends joined hands and formed a circle, heads bowed. The familiar stillness of the shared meditation lightened Farrel's heart momentarily. He squeezed Kerrawyn's hand after the circle disbanded.
“When we all meet again, it will be to celebrate our victory,” Valin said. “Let us hold that belief in mind.”
With that he walked to his horse and mounted, Glenna following.
Sontoral paused to kiss Aidan's cheek and whisper a parting word.
Farrel hugged Kerrawyn, and felt a stab of bleak emotion emanating from her. The pain of separation, or some prescient fear of what was to come? Farrel was unaccustomed to feeling another's emotions. He could not bear to meet Kerrawyn's eyes when he broke the embrace. Instead he turned and strode deliberately away, hurrying to catch the others.
The riders left the courtyard and turned east along the muddy road, facing the sun as it peered over the far wooded hills. Valin still had not announced their destination. He led the way, Farrel riding at his side.
Bareheaded, the druid wore a plaid cape over his brown woodsman's garb. He carried a long knife in his belt and the blackthorn staff strapped to his saddle.
Beneath his green wool cloak, Farrel was clad in leather breeks and jerkin. Broadsword and hunting knife hung in scabbards from a wide, brass-studded belt. The gear packed behind his saddle included a bow and a quiver of steel-tipped arrows.
Glenna and Sontoral rode behind: she wrapped in a hooded gray mantle, the harper in his elegant and colorful traveling clothes. Mounted on his Welsh pony with its fine saddle and colorful trappings, Sontoral might have been a king's scholar or wealthy bard, the other three riders his servants and bodyguard. Only his boots contrasted with this illusion. They were an old mud-stained pair borrowed from Farrel, replacements for the harper's own boots which had worn through the soles.
Several miles from Farrel's house, the party left the road and entered the forest. Now they proceeded single file, Valin in the lead.
The rocky path sloped upward, carpeted with moss and layers of slippery fallen leaves. In places withered foliage still clung, speckling the woods with dull reds and yellows. But most of the leaves had fallen in the recent rainstorms, so that the tall oaks and birches arched bare limbs overhead, spreading a stark web through the light of the climbing sun.
At last the travelers crested the hill and started the long descent into the next valley. The wind blew briskly, smelling of salt, for it was only a few miles north to the sea.
Sontoral took his harp from its linen bag, intending a tune to relieve the monotony. But when he played the first notes, Valin whirled in the saddle and warned him to be silent.
“Why?” the harper cried.
“Because your distinctive music could easily attract the notice of our enemies.”
Sullenly, Sontoral put his instrument away. As soon as Valin turned his back, the harper made a sour face and moved his lips in a spate of voiceless mimicry. Farrel grinned and shook his head.
The forest thinned as the hills slanted down to a broad valley. Copses of juniper and yew grew in glens sheltered from the wind. A few stony fields showed the marks of the plow, but mostly the land was given over to pasture for sheep and swine. A wide, sluggish river curled through the midst of the valley, marking the limit of Farrel's domain. In late afternoon, the riders crossed the river by ferry.
About a mile to the south, Dungiven Abby crowned a hill overlooking the river. The rough-hewn gray stones of the edifice almost seemed to sprout from the rugged landscape. Yet at the same time, by the straight lines of roof and steeple, the abby imposed a strict, manmade order on the surrounding countryside.
Sontoral remarked that the monastery could provide them decent shelter for the night. But Valin answered that their road lay in the opposite direction. The druid's tone made it plain that he would have felt less than comfortable sleeping in a stronghold of the Church.
They rode on till dusk and spent the night in a deserted shepherd's hut. To his credit, Sontoral made no complaint about the lodgings. But Farrel tossed and pitched through a restless night, missing Kerrawyn, unable to forget the keen ache of their last embrace.
At dawn the riders traveled on, heading more northward now than east. They climbed a series of barren hills and skirted the shallow, wooded valleys between.
Each time they passed a rowan tree, sprouting from a sheltered pocket of soil or clinging to a rocky hillside, Valin would stop and dismount. Taking a bronze hatchet from his pack, the druid would stand before the tree several moments, then lop off a single branch.
“Firewood,” he explained tersely, in reply to Farrel's question.
The chieftain was dubious as to how well the unseasoned wood would burn. But he did not inquire further.
They pushed on, a cold wind in their faces, the tang of the sea smelling stronger on every gust.
“I hope our destination is not much farther,” Sontoral called over the wind. “Else, from what my nose tells me, we'll be riding in the Land-Under-Wave.”
Farrel, familiar with maps of the coastline, had by now guessed where they were heading.
Past mid-afternoon the riders dismounted in a high, grassy meadow. On Valin's instruction they unpacked the horses and left them to forage. Shouldering their gear, they clambered up a bouldered hill.
Reaching the top, they paused and stared at a broad headland laid out with numerous standing stones. Most of the stones were man-size or smaller—simple rugged columns jutting from the ground. But others were menhirs, freestanding, ponderous giants three or four times the height of a man. Still others leaned together in groups that supported a great, flat stone on top. The headland slanted gently upward for nearly a mile before meeting the dusty blue sky. There at the edge, Farrel knew, shear cliffs overlooked the sea.
The Lord of Tronwall had heard of this place but never been here. The stones were erected, so the story went, by a vanished people that dwelt in Ireland before the Gael—before even the Daanans, that race of bright magicians who preceeded the Gael and whose remnant was known now as the Faery Folk. The headland was deemed a sacred place by the Old Religion. It was said that no one ever ventured here save hermits and madmen—and audacious druids seeking power.
So this was the place Valin had chosen to open a passage to Balor—while miles away, on the Wormwell Marsh, the enchantment of miniatures would hopefully hide his actions from Balorian spies.
“The Plain of Teeth,” Farrel muttered, for so the headland was commonly called.
“Aye,” Sontoral replied. “We have such places in Wales, frequented by madmen and poets. I suppose we four will feel at home.”
Valin smiled with grim amusement and tilted his head for them to follow. With his pack and the bundle of rowan wood slung over one shoulder, the druid strode across the Plain of Teeth, his blackthorn staff striking the ground at every step. Farrel and the others marched behind, weighed down by their weapons and provisions.
Their path curved among broken columns and along massive, tilting slabs. More than once, Farrel tensed and glared at a coarse, shadowy surface—and thought, with a prickling on his scalp, that the faceless stone stared back.
When they had walked about halfway to the end of the headland, Valin halted at a stretch of open ground. They set down their burdens and Farrel and Sontoral wearily flopped themselves down too.
But Valin waved his staff impatiently. “You'll have ample time for resting later. First help me gather some rocks: none smaller than your fist, none larger than your head.”
Farrel, Sontoral, and Glenna wandered about the field collecting stones of the proper size. They laid the stones on the ground where Valin specified. When finished, they had set down a circle some fifteen feet across and as perfectly round as the druid's trained eye could measure.
Now Valin drew the short oak and silver wand from inside his tunic. While the others sat within and watched, the druid paced twelve circuits around the ring of stones. All the while, he gestured with the wand and recited incantations in the ancient druidical tongue. Finally, he stopped and laid the wand across the stone border.
“That's set,” he declared, stepping carefully over the stones. “The charm will last three days, or until the wand it removed.”
“You're leaving your oak wand here?” Farrel asked.
“It will hold my place in the circle,” Valin answered. “As you three are my anchor in this world, the wand is my chain.”
“I thought you would need it to open the gate to the Gray World,” Farrel said.
Kneeling to untie the bundle of rowan wood, Valin shook his head. “No, a greater power by far will accomplish that—if all goes according to plan.”
The druid set to work with his hatchet, shearing off twigs, chopping the larger branches in half.
“What happens after three days?” Sontoral asked him.
“I hope to be back before then.” Valin paused, his face sober. “If I am not, pick up the wand and leave this place. After that, seek Kerrawyn's counsel. It will be up to her then, and the rest of you.”
Farrel glanced at Glenna, saw a glimmer of pain in her eyes. She clenched her lips and stared forlornly at the ground.
Valin's attention was on starting the fire. He spread some crushed leaves and laid rowan twigs on top. Next he struck sparks from a pair of pocket-flints, until a lick of smoke curled upward. Valin whispered to the sticks and lengths of branch as he slowly added them to the fire. Soon orange flames leapt and crackled.
The fresh-cut rowan burned like well-dried logs, Farrel noted, not really surprised. He leaned close, warming his hands.
Valin took a drink from a waterskin, then passed it to Sontoral. “Now I must speak you a warning,” the druid said, staring gloomily at the fire. “Great powers dwell in this place, and it is dangerous here, especially so near the dying of the year. Take no account of what you think you see or hear outside of this ring of stones. And do not venture past the the stones, especially at night.”
“I thought the circle was for your protection,” Sontoral said.
“Mine and yours. It will hold your minds and feelings within, which will help me stay in touch with the three of you, and, through you, with the Earth. But the stones will also serve to keep other powers outside. No spirit or spell of evil intent will be able to cross the barrier. But remember, you are only protected while you stay within.”
“A cold vigil we'll be keeping,” Sontoral mumbled. “With only enough firewood to last an hour.”
“Oh yes, I almost forgot.” Valin reached into his tunic. He tossed a handful of some druid's dust onto the fire, which instantly flared to bright incandescence.
“Now the fire will fuel itself, as long as the magic of the circle lasts.” The druid stood. “It is time for me to go.”
Valin embraced Farrel and Sontoral in turn, then took Glenna's hand and walked with her to the edge of the circle. They stood close and whispered beneath the chill sky. Then Glenna hugged him fervently and trembled in his arms. Farrel and Sontoral glanced at each other, then stared into the fire.
When Farrel looked up again, Valin had left the ring of stones. Carrying his blackthorn staff, the druid marched across the open field, rounded a great standing slab and was gone.
Glenna stared after him a few moments. Then, eyes red, she came back to sit beside the fire.
“May as well heat some porridge to warm us,” Sontoral remarked. “I mean, just in case the magic slips and the fire burns out before sundown.”
Braced by a sharp sea wind, Valin tread among the massive stones. His wary eyes peered into every nook and shadowy corner, and paused in their sweep to scrutinize certain gnarly surfaces.
Numerous spirits dwelt here in the stones. Valin's mind, burnished to bright receptiveness by two days of fasting and inward chanting, perceived each spirit's presence. Some he heard singing with voices like chimes. To these he smiled and nodded in amiable greeting. Other spirits whispered to him in bleak, urgent voices. Valin turned his steps away from those, and made finger signs to ward off evil.
The young druid had walked once before on the Plain of Teeth. When he was fourteen his teachers had left him here for a month-long vigil of initiation. More than enough time, it had been, to learn the names and ways of many who dwelt here. One in particular had become his great master and spirit guide. Now Valin was returning to this One, to seek his help.
The druid reached the summit of the headland, turned and paced along the edge of the bluff. The gray sea churned over boulders far below, and the wind roared. In the west the sun hovered low, an orb the color of drying blood.
Valin approached a line of menhirs erected at a high point on the cliff. Ancient and weathered, the black stones tilted inward from the sea. Near the top of the tallest one, an odd indentation gave the appearance of a single eye.
Valin used his staff to trace a pattern in the dust—a rough figure of a tree crowned by a circle. With a last, cautious glance over his shoulder, he sat down in the circle and laid the staff across his knees. Straightening his back, he breathed deeply, stared up at the indentation that looked like an eye, and whispered:
“Ramor. Valin molnot. Occu narrobith, heclach.”
The red sun drifted into the sea. Day faded to twilight, then to dark.
Valin sat erect and stared at the stone, waiting. He kept the vigil through the night, oblivious to the cold and the lashing of the wind. Rain fell and soaked his garments. Valin never shivered. His posture, the rhythm of his breathing, never changed.
Morning dawned gray and dreary. The rain ceased and the sky cleared, but the biting wind kept blowing. Valin continued staring at the black column. With heightened awareness, he watched life seeping into the stone.
Late in the afternoon the spot resembling an eye opened and Valin saw himself enveloped in a ray of scarlet light.
“So, small one, you have come to visit me again. To what do I owe this honor?”
Valin trembled at the sheer power of the voice that rumbled in his brain. Reverently, he bowed his head and laid out a hand in greeting.
“Exhalted master, I have come to ask your help. A threat has arisen against my race, and all the native spirits of this land. This land is in peril of becoming a gray and lifeless place ...”
A sound like a vast sigh roared in Valin's skull. “Mine is a long sleep, periodically interrupted by quizzlings like yourself. But I have told you before, small one, I cannot help you to unseat the Eastern God. The age of his ascendancy has not yet reached its peak. The older powers that you know must continue to retreat for many generations yet unborn. A gray time must come to the world. It is the natural drift of things.”
“You misunderstand me, master,” Valin said. “I do not wish to tamper with the natural course of the world, but to preserve it. This land is beseiged from another realm, called Balor.”
He began to explain about the bridge.
The master's ruby eye seemed to widen with mild surprise. “So, there is squabbling once more between the worlds. And you say a portal is opening wide enough to permit an invasion? I would not have expected this so late in the present tide.”
“I have been called upon to stop the invasion,” Valin said. “I and some friends who have joined me for this purpose. That is why I come to you, O Master of the Plain of Teeth.”
“If your desire is to preserve the natural order, then indeed I ought to help you. What would you ask of me, small one?”
“First, that you open a path that I may enter Balor, in body as well as in spirit.”
“That is easily done. But to take your body to another world is a dangerous thing.”
“I have taken what precautions I can. The hearts of my friends will keep me linked to this world.”
“Then this I grant. What else?”
For answer, Valin reached into his tunic and took out a small leather pouch sewn with arcane symbols. From the pouch he drew a strip of parchment written over with runes. Gingerly, he spread the parchment on the ground.
The beam of scarlet light moved over the writing. “You are wise not to speak such things aloud, Valin. Or are you all the more foolhardy to even hold them in your mind?”
“It is within your power to grant this, is it not?”
“Oh, yes. I can easily reach back through the ages to acquire the thing you need. But take care, small one, when you think of altering entire lands.”
“I do not consider it lightly,” Valin responded. “I realize it will change the balance of that world. And yet, from what I have heard, this would in fact right a balance upset long ago.”
“Even so, it is a grave matter. You seek to alter Destiny, small one. But Destiny usually extracts a price.”
“I am aware of the laws of power, master. I choose this way because I can see no other.”
The red ray glared down on Valin, seeming to ripple through his body, examine his soul.
“Very well,” said the Master of the Plain of Teeth. “I will grant what you ask.”
The beam focused once more on the parchment—which in a moment burst into flame. The ink used to write the runes flared briefly, before the whole crumbled into dust.
On the ground amid the dust lay a black-green stone, in size and shape like a bean. With a faint, wolfish smile, Valin picked up the stone, which was perfectly cool, and placed it in his safest pocket.
“Great master, I thank you, in the name of the Earth.”
“I can assume you know how to use it?”
The druid nodded. “The spot is chosen, a sacred well near the base of the bridge in Balor. If your pathway will bend to my thoughts, it will lead me there.”
“It shall be done. Is there more you would ask?”
“No, most generous master.”
“Then prepare yourself. The moon will rise soon. When it shines at zenith, chant the Invocation of Immerleith and the way will open for you. You have until the moon sets, then the path will close. Tread with care, small one. Strangely, I have grown fond of you.”