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Piercing daylight filled the vast cavern, shining down from a yawning hole in the cone-shaped ceiling. Motes of dust swam in the dry, stifling air.

King Porteas and a troop of his warriors stood on the floor of the cavern. Before them ranged uneven ranks of standing stones—too coarse and rugged to be statues, yet cracked and twisted with such expressive agony as could hardly have been shaped by nature.

Porteas spoke to one of the stones. “This hall is a sacred place, where my people come to hear divinations and worship the spirits. It will be your permanent home, Valin. Just as your ancestors collected the heads of their enemies and built the skulls into their walls and columns, so we of Balor collect our enemies entire bodies, transformed to stone. As you would expect, the captured ghosts are tapped to add power to certain rites and spells.”

“My lord,” one of the warriors spoke from behind a gold visor. “His plan.”

“Patience, Gulvog,” Porteas said. “Such a worthy foe as this deserves to know what fate he has brought on himself. Oh, I realize you are not yet a ghost Valin, that you survived the transformation with your life intact. A most impressive feat. But you and I both know it cannot last for many days. And yet, if you were willing to change your loyalties, to pledge fealty to me and cooperate with my plans, your life could yet be spared, your freedom restored. It is not too late to save yourself.”

The high king paused, staring at the mute pillar. “I must know what your plan was, what you intended on coming to this world. I know that the Master of the Plain of Teeth endowed you with some power, and that the intent of your plan has passed to Lord Farrel. I offer you this chance to help us partly out of respect for you, Valin. Think well before you cast the opportunity away.”

Porteas waited several moments, but the mind within the stone sent him no reply. “Then you condemn yourself to a slow and miserable death. And it will not aid your cause. Farrel lacks your knowledge and training. He will never succeed where you failed.”

“My lord,” the warrior named Gulvog said. “Perhaps it would be wise to slay Lord Farrel, to make certain—”

“No!” Porteas’ shout rang against the cavern walls. “Farrel must not be killed. I have my reasons for this.”

His mighty voice seemed to quicken the swirl of dust motes in the air. The warriors raised no further question, but bowed their heads in submission to their high king's unfathomable will.

Wisps of malefic steam drifted over the Wormwell Marsh, tainting the air with a putrid odor. Poisoned stalks of sedge and reeds leaned away from the circle of gray muck where the bridge from Balor touched the ground.

“Can you see the blue arc?” Kerrawyn whispered, visibly distressed by the scene.

Aidan could only shake her head.

Dressed in hooded cloaks, the two women stood at dusk on the edge of the decaying ground. They had ridden that afternoon from Tronwall Manor. After inspecting the withered remains of the Balorian wizards and verifying that their mirrors had been broken and scattered, Kerrawyn had next insisted on coming here, to examine the base of the bridge. Lecan and several of his clansmen had walked with them from the tents.

“It is like an open sore on the Earth,” Aidan observed.

“Truly, and the sore is spreading,” Lecan reported gravely. “It has widened by half since Lady Kerrawyn spoke to us in her tiny shape the other morning.”

“Then it is worse than I expected,” Kerrawyn murmured. “Before the Balorians were driven back they must have succeeded in strengthening the spell to some degree. I can feel the Earth spirit dying in this place and a new spirit coming to birth.”

“Perhaps it is time we withdrew,” one of the clansmen suggested. “And leave the bogs to this new spirit.”

“No,” Kerrawyn answered. “You must stay and guard the land as Lord Farrel commanded. Let this evil gain a foothold here and in time it will destroy not only your land, but all of Ireland, perhaps all the Earth.”

The men of Tronwall stared back at her, grim and dispirited. Their jerkins were stained with mud, their beards wet and tangled beneath the leather helmets.

“I will do what I can to reverse the spell,” Kerrawyn told them. “I want all of you to stay in your tents tonight. Let no one look outside till morning.”

“My lady,” Lecan asked, “you don't mean we should post no sentries?”

“No one,” the sorceress repeated. “Not so much as a glimpse. And set one tent aside for Lady Aidan's use.”

Aidan waited till the men had started back toward the camp. “What will you do?” she asked.

Kerrawyn regarded her with haunted eyes. “I'm not sure. But the power bestowed on me by Valin's master has not completely faded. I will use it as best I am able.” She embraced Aidan briefly. “Go and sleep now, sister.”

“Kerrawyn, I wish I could help you.”

“The task is not yours. Go now.”

Reluctantly, Aidan walked back across the soggy field. Lecan had unsaddled her horse and placed her things in one of the tents. Night was settling; the clansmen stoked their meager peat fires and cooked supper. Aidan sat by one of the fires for a while, but could not bring herself to eat. She kept staring across the dim marsh to where Kerrawyn was seated, still and lonely as a cat. At last Aidan retired to her tent.

She lay that night on the damp ground, catching only snatches of sleep. Several times she was wakened by wild, unearthly cries shrieking across the marsh. She was not entirely sure the cries could have come from Kerrawyn's throat. Often she was tempted to look outside, to see if she could spot what the red-haired sorceress was doing. But always Aidan denied that impulse. If she could not help, at least she would not hinder.

Toward morning thunder sounded, unusual this time of year. A driving rainstorm came and the walls of the little tent shuddered in the gusts of wind. Aidan put on her shoes, paced and fretted, fearing for Kerrawyn's safety in such weather. But she forced herself to wait until the first glimpse of light definitely shone through the tent's slitted opening. By then the storm had ended.

Aidan pulled open the flap and saw Kerrawyn, trudging toward her in the gloomy half-light. Drenched and shivering, Kerrawyn sank to her knees as Aidan reached her. The Welsh girl removed her cloak and wrapped it around Kerrawyn's slim shoulders. The sorceress seemed frazzled, on the verge of tears, and yet she laughed.

“I believe that will help ... for a while at least.”

Several moments passed before Aidan understood what she meant. By then the day had brightened enough for her to see some distance across the bog.

Miraculously, the circle of decay had been transformed, won back for the Earth. Beneath the dismal wintry sky a circle of violets bloomed as though in spring.

“I'm beginning to think we will walk in this forest forever,” Sontoral muttered as they led their horses up a hill.

Glenna held aside a bare, low-hanging branch as she answered. “Be patient. Such a house as we seek is not to be found on a main thoroughfare.”

Farrel, who led the way, could appreciate the harper's discouragement. They had ridden hard for two rainy days and nights, stopping to rest only twice. Both times they had napped for a few hours on muddy ground, lacking even dry fuel for a fire. The third morning the rain ended, leaving cold and desolate weather that chilled them in their wet clothes.

That morning they had ridden into Pemminwood, an ancient forest of towering ashes and oaks. Sometime in the afternoon they left the main trail to follow this deer path, tugging their horses along by the reins when the low, tangled branches no longer permitted them to ride. Farrel led them over hills and through small, mossy valleys, searching for a certain stream that emptied into a certain pond. All the time, he felt sure he was following the directions Kerrawyn had sent as images to his mind. Yet now, with sunset nearing and a raw wind blowing through the forest, he wondered if he had not taken a wrong turn and gotten lost.

He trudged up the last few yards and stood panting at the summit of the hill. As he gazed down into the next valley, his spirits rose and he grinned.

“Look,” he said. “We have found it, the stream Kerrawyn showed me.”

Glenna and Sontoral hastened up the path to stand beside him. The stream was a narrow brook running over smoothly-polished boulders. The walls of the little valley rose exceedingly steep.

“There will be no path along those banks,” Sontoral muttered. “We'll have to walk in the water.”

“Come on,” Farrel said. “The house is not far now. We can be there before nightfall.”

They dragged their reluctant horses down the slope. Even on the well-trodden deer path the way proved treacherous and slippery. In places they had to slide down on their backs, the horses skidding dangerously behind. But they reached the bottom without mishap and leapt splashing into the brook.

Farrel led the way through the icy, rushing water. In the constant splash of the stream and the sigh of the wind through the trees, he began to imagine voices. All at once the landscape seemed alive with myriad presences—spirits of trees and water, ferns and stones. Some whispered about the human intruders, others laughed at them merrily. Still others held deep and solemn conversations on unrelated, incomprehensible subjects.

Farrel glanced over his shoulder. Glenna and Sontoral seemed totally unaware of the teeming voices.

This was not Farrel's first experience of such sensitivity. Moments of heightened awareness had come to him several times during the past few days, since he had acquired Valin's mission and his wand. But these weird episodes had brought no practical benefit. Meantime, his halting attempts to communicate again with Kerrawyn had met only silence.

As the sun was setting through the trees, the companions reached the source of the stream, where the water cascaded down from a large, still pond. They climbed the bank and sat down to shake the water from their boots and dry themselves as best they could.

The pond was roughly an eighth of a mile across, set in a basin among close, steep hills. Thick oaks covered the slopes all around, with crooked alders and willows edged along the shore. There was no sign of the cottage they were seeking.

“I trust you are sure this is the right pond,” Sontoral remarked glumly.

Farrel sighed. “It seems like the right pond. What more can I say?”

“Perhaps the house is set back among the trees,” Glenna suggested.

“A good thought. That must be it.” Farrel stood and picked up his horse's reins.

They hiked along the shore, fighting the steepness of the bank and the skittishness of the horses. When they had circled half way around the pond, they paused and looked back. They could faintly discern the mouth of the brook, but there was still no sign of any cottage. Grimly, they pushed on, their hopes of reaching the house before dark now dwindling toward nothing.

Blue twilight settled, bringing a deeper chill to the air. Farrel kept thinking they must soon complete the circuit of the pond and reach the stream again, but they did not. The opposite shore now looked unfamiliar, but he assumed this to be a trick of the dimming light. Finally they stopped to rest.

“I don't understand this,” Sontoral exclaimed. “I am sure we should have come back to the stream by now.”

“I think so too,” Glenna said. “Unless we've entered some enchantment. If this Lady Bremmen is Kerrawyn's mentor, she must be a great sorceress. Perhaps she hides her house with a spell.”

“Why hide it from us, if she's expecting us?” the harper grumbled.

“Maybe Kerrawyn was unable to tell her of our coming,” Farrel surmised. “Or perhaps Lady Bremmen assumes we know how to penetrate her spell.”

“Do we know a way? Can we find a way?” Sontoral hugged his cloak and shivered. “I hope we can, for I fear another night in the open will give us all fever.”

Farrel sighed, staring dully at the ground.

“Well, I cannot do it,” Glenna declared. “Such enchantments are beyond my depth. We need someone with Valin's powers ...”

She glanced, full of meaning, at Farrel. After a moment the harper caught her intent and also turned to the chieftain. Farrel scowled.

“Well. Try at least,” Sontoral said.

Wearily, Farrel climbed to his feet. He went to his horse and took the oak wand from the saddle. He held the wand for several moments, wondering what to do. Then, following his intuition, he strode over to an oak tree and tapped the wand against its bark.

“What is the way to Lady Bremmens house?” he asked.

To his surpise, Farrel heard the oak-spirit's answer clearly in his mind: You are going that way. You must continue.

“How far is it?”

Not far. She has opened the way for you. But you must hurry, while there is still light.

“Are you getting any answers?” Sontoral asked in a puzzled voice.

“Yes!” Farrel put the wand inside his shirt. “We must hurry.” He started away, then stopped and bowed hastily to the oak. “Thank you.”

Go on, the tree replied.

Farrel and his companions tugged their horses reins and strode quickly on. Before long their way began to seem easier, and the chieftain realized that the slant of the bank had leveled.

When they had traveled perhaps halfway around the pond again, Farrel glanced at the sky. Somehow, the twilight seemed to be growing brighter. Presently Sontoral noticed it also.

“It is definitely less dark than it was a short time ago,” he declared.

Just then Farrel stopped and pointed across the water. “Look!”

There on a gently sloping lawn gleamed an elegant white cottage with thatched roof and red shutters on its many windows.

“We have found it,” Farrel said. “The house of Lady Bremmen.”

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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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