Inside the ring of stones the rowan fire blazed, as it had through the rainy night and the long, damp day. Now, as darkness settled once more on the Plain of Teeth, Farrel leaned close to examine the fire. As far as he could tell, no more of the fuel had been consumed than in the first few moments, before Valin dusted the blaze with his magic powder.
Glenna sat next to Farrel, knees drawn up to her chin. Sontoral lounged nearby, stretching his legs and eyeing his boots with gloomy distaste.
“Is something wrong with your boots?” Glenna asked him abruptly.
“Every time I look at you you are staring woefully at your boots.”
“They are Farrel's cumbrous boots,” the harper answered, “stuffed with cloth for my smallish feet. They are not at all of a style I would care to be seen in.”
“But they are better for travel than the gilded velvet shoes you left behind,” Farrel said. “You are not at some Welsh court playing the dandy now.”
“True,” Sontoral answered. “I am in the Irish wilderness playing the fool. Still, you could have commissioned your cobbler to resole my own boots before we left.”
Farrel stood. “My cobbler, as you call him, is simply a farmer who practices the shoemaker's craft in winter. He could not spare time from his harvest labors to satisfy your sense of fashion. We of the Irish wilderness must observe certain priorities.”
Sontoral merely sneered into the fire.
Farrel stamped around the edge of the circle, anger rising in him, then flowing out again. He expressed the last of it by kicking a pebble out into the field.
“And what is your trouble?” Glenna asked him.
The young chieftain looked at her, smiled ruefully and went to sit beside her. “Three moons and twenty days Kerrawyn and I had together,” he said, “a whole summer and more. Yet now it seems only a few precious hours. I do not like being parted from her.”
Glenna's tone bespoke her own grief and fear at being parted from Valin. Farrel placed his arm around her, and she willingly rested her head on his shoulder.
“Do not worry,” Farrel whispered. “Valin will return to us soon, I am sure.”
Yet he wondered how convincing he had sounded.
“Did you hear that?” Sontoral jumped up, staring across the field. “The stones are singing again.”
Farrel and Glenna listened. From out of the dark it drifted: the faint, many-toned chorus of moans and sighs that Sontoral had dubbed the singing of the stones.
They had first heard the sound last night while they tossed uncomfortably, huddled under blankets in the rain. Farrel had even speculated that the noise might be an illusion caused by the falling rain or the wind sighing among the stones.
But now no rain fell; no wind blew.
As they listened the singing grew louder, closer. The nearly full moon shone in the east, and in the moonlight it seemed that the standing stones had grown more numerous in the field—or moved closer to the charmed circle. Tense, Farrel and Glenna stood up next to Sontoral.
As the three friends watched, more stones materialized—ever closer, looming up from the shadows of others. The weird singing rose to a bone-shaking clash of disembodied voices, some high and piercing, some low and rumbling like drums.
Without knowing why Farrel drew his sword and sprang to the edge of the circle. Glenna and Sontoral chased after, grabbed his arms to restrain him.
“No!” They both shouted—then stood frozen as their shouts echoed and reechoed upon the Plain of Teeth.
The singing of the stones had diminished to an almost imperceptible rustle, which might have been the sea brushing the distant shore, or nothing.
Farrel gazed at a flicker of movement among the stones that had sprouted near the circle. Hand shaking, he pointed his sword as one of the new stones hobbled toward them across the dim field.
As the apparition came closer, they saw it had taken the form of an old woman, white-haired, cloaked and hooded in black. She stopped just short of the barrier of stones. Gray, somber eyes looked out from a wrinkled face.
“May I enter your ring of stones?” Her accent was of the local region, her voice surprisingly hearty and genial.
It was Glenna who found voice enough to answer. “No one intending evil can pass this boundary. Therefore, enter if you can.”
The woman's pale lips bent in a fleeting smile. She started forward and Farrel moved aside to give her way. As she entered the circle, he saw her bare foot pass through, not over, the protecting stones. He forced himself to swallow and sheathed his sword.
The old woman sat on the ground. From within her cloak she drew a small bag. Shaking it, she spilled the contents out on the ground—pebbles and bones, a wise woman's tools for divination.
“Who are you, old one?” Farrel demanded.
“Old one will do.” Her gray eyes looked almost clear in the firelight. “Farrel, son of Arlen, your mother's mother and I were born in the same moon and fostered together. I owe her a debt that I have waited two lifetimes to repay. I repay it now by reading your fortune.”
She lifted a handful of pebbles and bones and tossed them on the ground. Farrel repressed a shiver. The old one studied the configuration.
“My words may sound like riddles. But through the mists of life and death, they are the clearest vision I can offer:
“You who would rather follow, a leader must be, and yet not lead. You who would be true to your love will be true, yet false will be. You who believe your friend is true, has a true friend, though the friend be false. One thing more I warn you: Beware the Gray Master's beguiling words. And if you enter his realm to sunder the tethering of worlds, take with you the smallest, keenest knife.”
Her eyes rolled up to glance at Farrel. He was scowling, trying to puzzle some meaning from the riddles. He thought of Kerrawyn, always so insightful, and wished he could ask her to interpret the reading.
“You will speak with your true love soon,” the old one said, reading his thoughts. “Sooner than you think.”
Farrel stared in blank bewilderment as the old woman put the bones and pebbles back into her bag. Finally she stood.
“Farewell, child of my dear friend's child. The gods go with you.”
The old woman turned and started away. As she stepped through the boundary of the circle, her body slipped into the earth and she was gone.
Beyond, Farrel saw that the standing stones had seemingly retreated to their former positions away from the circle. The moon rode high over the Plain of Teeth.
When the moon reached the top of the sky, Valin rose to his feet and walked to the edge of the cliff. Setting his toes over the rim, he gazed down for a moment at the black sea foaming over jagged boulders a hundred feet below. Then the druid arched his neck to stare overhead at the disk of the moon.
His voice rose faintly in a mumrmurous chant, an ancient lay praising the grandeur of the moon and invoking her power. As he sang, Valin felt the power drawn down to him, imbuing his body and the space around it like an invincible aura. Immediately in front of him he sensed the gateway opening, as the master had promised. Valin's eyes never left the moon as he stepped off the cliff.
An act of absolute faith, that even the Earth's hold on his body could be defied. Such was the last, crucial ingrediant of this enchantment to free the body of the Earth.
The druid's feet found soft but sufficient purchase in the air. Lowering his gaze, he perceived that he walked in a gleaming corridor, curving up and outward over the sea. A glance over his shoulder revealed the cliff and the Plain of Teeth receding in the night—receding much faster than Valin's unhurried steps alone could account for.
He searched within for Glenna's presence and found it. They shared a linking of hearts rather than minds—although, if need be, the one could be established upon the other. Through the linking, Valin could sense Glenna's mild and accepting nature, her steadfast love for him. More faintly, he could also sense the mercurial Sontoral and the brave, determined Farrel.
Valin marched on along the path of light. The Earth became a featureless darkness below and the stars seemed to burn closer and brighter. But the moon still drifted overhead, his beacon. So long as the enchantment lasted, Valin would see the moon exactly as if he still stood on the edge of the Plain of Teeth. Thus he would know when the time grew near for the gate to close.
“Help me! Oh, help me!”
The voice, frail and desperate, called from the darkness to Valin's left. Instantly, the druid lifted his blackthorn wand for defense.
A figure stepped through the wall of light, a thin, naked woman with wild black hair. She looked almost lovely in a rare, unearthly way—except that her eyes were swollen and her body wasted by starvation.
“Help me, traveler. Please.”
“Who are you that walks the upper air?” Valin demanded.
“A woman merely, a woman of Earth exiled here by an evil wizard. Stranger, I beg you to help me if you can.”
Her long white hand reached out to grab his wrist. Valin had let the wand dip. But suddenly he thrust, stamping the tip down hard on the woman's bare foot.
She screamed. At first it sounded like a woman's cry. But then the scream tore off from any likeness to human sound and ended in the strident shriek of a wounded bird. In a jagged flash of blackness the woman changed into an enormous crow, hopping in fury on one foot as she dangled an injured claw.
“I know you, morrigu,” Valin announced sternly. “Of old your kind whipped men to battle frenzy, then feasted on the bloody result. Why do you provoke me?”
The crow winced as she set pressure on the damaged foot. “Starve for an answer, mortal.”
“I charge you to speak by the Soul of the Sacred Blackthorn.”
The morrigu cowered behind one dark wing, daunted by the power in his voice. “Very well. My tribe is allied to the men of Balor, charged with guarding the upper air that no one of Earth may cross into their world.”
“You cannot stop my passing,” Valin asserted.
“No, great wizard,” the morrigu hopped aside. “Pass if you will. But you may find it easier to go than to return.”
The druid scowled, wondering if the morrigu had some means of contacting the Balorians across the outer darkness. Or did the shadow folk count on the crow's simply killing any who attempted to pass this way? The morrigu was already slipping from the path, fading into the dark. To catch and bind the spirit here in its own element would be difficult, especially without his oak wand. Better not to try, Valin decided. Better to hurry on and waste no more time.
The magic corridor leveled for a distance, then swept downward. Through the shiny haze that supported his steps, Valin gazed down on an unfamiliar sphere.
Balor sprawled beneath him, well-named the Gray World. Steams of gray-white cloud rolled upon a leaden ocean. Dim stretches of land brooded beneath trails of fog. In the dismal twilight all shades from deep black to gleaming silver could be seen—but little sign of color. Valin, who in visions had peered into many strange worlds, yet found the view disconcerting. He turned his eyes upward, to where the familiar moon of Earth gleamed reassuringly.
Now the path grew steeper, curving down toward a large island that glistened a paler gray than the adjacent lands. By this paleness, Valin recognized the realm of King Porteas. According to a legend the druid had been told by an Osprey-Spirit, the entire island had been stolen from another world ages ago. Such monumental magic was strange to ponder, yet undeniably possible to the folk of Balor.
As he neared the island, Valin spied the bridge of light rising up from a marshy shore. Nearby a curved peninsula lay crowded with tents and pavilions—the camp of the Balorian host.
Across a narrow inlet from that peninsula stood Valin's goal: a small, cone-shaped mountain. This mountain was but the first of a line that marched tall and rugged into the distance. But it was this first low peak, black and smooth as obsidian, that the Balorians venerated and that contained their sacred well—the place where Valin must cast the magic stone, to break the bridge and sever the worlds.
Valin expected the magic corridor to lead him to the very rim of that well. But as he neared the ground, he realized something was amiss. Against his will the path of light was turning away from the mountain peak. Valin strained to bend it back, to assert control. But the speed of his descent increased. His steps skidded, and he found himself gliding, then falling toward the base of the black mountain.
He landed tumbling on hard, sandy ground.
The druid lay on his back, cautiously shifting his limbs. Slowly, he climbed to his feet, dazed and aching.
The air of Balor was thin, hard for earthly lungs to breathe. Stranger still, Valin felt the spirit of the world vibrating up through the soles of his feet, humming in his bones, filling his awareness. To the druid's mind Balor felt ageless and full of power—like the Earth, but less solid, more changeable.
The stony landscape shimmered beneath a dull purple sky. Valin crouched on the edge of a wide pavement, a ceremonial square set at the base of the sacred mountain. Black standing stones lined the edges of the square—like the menhirs on the Plain of Teeth, but more slender and elegantly carved. Across the pavement, twin rows of silver-flecked columns formed a gate to a narrow path leading up the mountain.
Valin wasted no time in hurrying toward that gateway. The great square looked empty, but the druid knew that whatever enchantment had caused him to fall from the sky would probably also have alerted the Balorians to his intrusion. Bent low, he kept to the edge of the pavement, using the tall, tilted stones for cover. Then, nearing the base of the mountain, he ran across a corner of the square toward the columns that guarded the upward path.
A freezing wind blew, seemingly from all directions at once. Valin sensed his peril, but before he could react the wind had wrapped him in a blinding fog.
The druid stopped, gripping his wand, waiting.
Hollow, mirthless laughter drifted to his ears. The wind stirred again, shredding the mist. Directly in front of Valin a figure stepped forward, a warrior in silver armor. He carried a curved sword and dagger in his belt, and a long, metal-hafted spear. A helmet with full visor concealed his face. He halted a few yards from the druid and planted the spear firmly in the ground.
“I am Porteas,” he declared in a grave and sonorous tone, “high-king of this land.”
The magical fog was lifting, and Valin could see other warriors. Armored in silver, though not so richly clad as their king, they stood in a wide circle surrounding the druid.
Porteas lifted his visor. Cold blue eyes peered from a handsome, human face. A hint of mockery tinged his voice.
“Welcome to my kingdom. I have long looked forward to meeting the illustrious druid called Valin.”
The use of his secret druid's name chilled Valin's blood.
“Yes, I know your name,” Porteas said. “You see, I have better vision into your world than you suspected.”
Unnerved, Valin reached inside himself to draw upon the minds of the others: Farrel's dogged courage, Sontoral's unpredictable cleverness. “I have come to your world to engage you in single combat,” he told the Balorian king. “For I knew you would not have the bravery to answer my challenge.”
Porteas smiled and shook his head. “I know not what power you acquired on the Plain of Teeth, or exactly what you planned in coming here. But I know you are not such a fool as to seek combat in my world. Surrender to me, and your life will be spared.”
The fog was gone now and the sky brightening. Valin could see that all the warriors in the circle were Balorians rather than trolls. They stood smaller than men, with stooped bodies and long, slender limbs. If he could slay Porteas, Valin might have a chance of winning past them and reaching the sacred well.
But first he must tempt the high king to accept his challenge. “You will never conquer my world, Porteas. For the men of Balor are weaklings compared to the robust men of my race. Why else would I, who am no warrior and a mere youth among druids, have walked alone into your world to challenge you?” He lifted his staff and poked it provocatively at the Balorian's chest. “Now will you fight me, half-man, or show yourself a coward to all present?”
Ire flickered briefly in Porteas' eyes, then faded into cool determination. “It is a pity you leave me no choice but to destroy you. You might have lived here as my vassal, learned from me and I from you. But so be it. If we must fight, I will at least grant you equal equipment and weaponry.”
So saying, he stamped his spear once on the ground and pointed it at Valin. In a noiseless wave, gleaming armor encased the druid from head to foot. Sword and dagger now hung from his belt, and his wand had become a spear.
Valin wondered at how easily the accoutrements had materialized. But he sensed at once how, in this Balorian clime, he could reverse the spell just as quickly.
“I thank you,” he said. “But I decline.”
The druid stamped the butt of the spear on the ground and changed it back into a staff. The heavy armor vanished and his own garb reappeared.
For an instant, Porteas' expression disclosed his surprise at how readily the druid wielded the powers of Balor. Then the high king shrugged and touched his spear point to his chest.
“As you wish,” he said. “The killing will take longer this way. But I will not have it said I slew you with unfair advantage.”
As he spoke his armor vanished. Now he stood clad in silk and linen, a dagger like Valin's in his belt, a stout quarterstaff in his hand.
Valin spread his feet and leveled his staff, his confidence rising. Though Porteas was a mighty warrior in this world, Valin had greater size, and knew well the use of staff and dagger.
Even as he set his eyes on Porteas, the druid fixed his mind on his friends, and through them, on the Earth. Valin needed that connection with his own world. For the spirit of Balor was a constant presence, a vast intelligence seeking to pry its way into his thoughts. The druid realized that if he once let sympathy for that great spirit creep into his mind, his will would falter and his defeat would be sure.
The combatents circled, Porteas moving with the assurance of a practiced warrior, Valin's motions equally smooth. When Porteas showed an opening, the druid attacked without hesitation.
The staffs met with a loud cracking noise. Valin swung and thrust and leapt backward, reaching with his mind to cripple his foe's confidence, repelling a similar mental attack by Porteas.
With minds and limbs they grappled, the fury of the combat growing. Finally the sticks crashed together with such force that both splintered and broke.
Valin stood panting, the thin air of Balor starting to affect him. Porteas gave a flinty smile and drew the black-bladed dagger from his belt. Valin drew his knife and the circling began anew.
For a while Valin had the advantage. Quick feints and darting thrusts drove the smaller Balorian back and kept him on the defensive. But Porteas defended well, and soon Valin's arm grew heavy, his lungs struggling for breath.
His sense of contact with the Earth began to weaken. The great soul of Balor pulled at his mind. What right had he to tamper with the foundations of this world? Was not the integrity of this land as sacred as any other? Such questions nibbled at his will even as Valin fought to suppress them.
Porteas read his plight. “You made a mistake in coming here, Valin. You might have had a chance to triumph on your soil, but not here. Not when you cannot close your mind to the voices of the world.”
His black blade swung in and Valin had to stagger back to avoid it. Realizing he could not last much longer, the druid attacked with desperate intensity.
But Porteas had waited for this. He showed enough of an opening to tempt Valin's thrust, then sprang aside, dropping low and stabbing at the druid's leg. Valin drew his knife back to parry, but Porteas' arm bent around the parry as no human arm could have bent.
The point stabbed into Valin's thigh. The druid froze, pain searing through all the nerves in his body. With a grimace, he gazed down at his leg.
It was turning to stone.
A hoarse cheer arose from the Balorian soldiers. The noise grew louder and louder in Valin's skull. Groaning in despair, the druid searched overhead for the moon of Earth, saw it sinking toward the west. With a sudden thought he reached into his pocket and grasped the stone given him by the Master of the Plain of Teeth.