A Bridge From Balor

by

CorbinJay

Chapter 16 - The Smallest, Keenest Knife

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Glenna moaned and turned over on the grass. Farrel and Kerrawyn moved to her side and helped her to sit up. She looked at them with confusion and mounting fear.

“Valin,” she whispered. “I have lost him.”

In panic, she tried to rise. But Kerrawyn and Farrel restrained her.

“No,” Kerrawyn soothed. “Do not worry.”

“But the contact is broken.”

“It had to be broken,” Kerrawyn answered firmly. “While you held it the Balorians held part of you captive with Valin.”

“Yes,” Glenna murmured. “I suppose that is true ... But now he is lost.”

“No. He is in touch with Farrel now. And with Valin's help, Farrel will lead us.” She placed a hand on Farrel's wrist. “You are well, my love?”

Farrel nearly laughed. “Well” was, after all, an understatement. How could he express it? He needed Valin's fluent tongue, which unfortunately had not been given to him—at least not yet. He grinned like a young man well into his cups. “I am fine,” is all he said.

Kerrawyn beamed and squeezed his arm.

Paper lanterns of orange and blue gleamed in the night, strung on silver chains above the countess' terrace. A splendid banquet had been laid to welcome Kerrawyn back to her foster home.

Mild breezes sighed over the pond. The forest resounded with the calls of frogs and the summerlike chirping of insects. The moon was just rising among the trees.

Farrel and Kerrawyn arrived arm-in-arm, followed by Glenna, Sontoral, Aidan. All were dressed in colorful silk garments provided especially for the occasion. Lady Bremmen, radiant in a shimmering violet gown and silver bangles, greeted each of her guests in turn and indicated their chairs.

But Farrel and his friends were not to be the only guests. No sooner were they in their seats than a trio of young ladies strolled onto the terrace—to everyone's surprise except Lady Bremmen's.

One of the girls was tall and fair, with a gold sheen painted on her cheeks and eyelids. Another was lithe and swarthy, a net of emeralds flashing in her opulent black hair. The third stood tiny as Lady Bremmen, with snow white hair and eyes that glittered like sunlight on water. The three ladies looked like princesses newly arrived from India or far Cathay—though more likely they hailed from even more exotic, elfin lands.

Kerrawyn, crying with delight, greeted the newcomers as sisters. For, as was soon explained, these were other wards of Lady Bremmen, with whom Kerrawyn had been fostered.

“Dear children, to have you all together,” the mistress exclaimed. “This is happiness indeed.”

The party sat at the long banquet table, partaking of honeyed wines and assorted delicacies. Kerrawyn and her visitors reminisced about their childhood together, and the enchantments they had learned in the many rooms of this uncanny house—while Aidan and Sontoral listened with rapt attention.

Glenna also listened quietly. But Farrel could sense how her mind kept turning inward—seeking Valin and aching with a dull grief to find only emptiness there. After a time, Farrel moved his hand on the table and placed it over Glenna's. She accepted the gesture with a wan smile, her eyes moistening.

As the later courses of the banquet arrived—brought by waiters who came and went with noiseless efficiency—Farrel only toyed with his food. A procession of thoughts passed through his mind, images and reflections conjured up by Valin. Together, Farrel and the druid pondered the enigmas of Balor, and how best to breach the ramparts of that baffling, shadowy world.

When the meal was finished and musicians had appeared, Farrel excused himself from the dancing. Leaving Sontoral to glory in the exclusive company of so many lovely ladies, the young chieftain made his way into the darkened house. He lit a candle, found a writing table, sat down with crow's quill and paper. The laughter and lively music drifted unheard to his ears as he precisely laid down the lines of an intricate map.

Next day, Farrel and his companions conferred with Lady Bremmen in her sewing room. They sat in chairs of carved ebony arranged in a circle. An ornate gold pentacle interlaced with flowering vines adorned the rug at their feet. Twin skylights of blue-tinted glass provided abundant illumination. Farrel concluded that the skylights must have been covered—or else had not existed—on his previous visit to this chamber.

Lady Bremmen presented Farrel with two cloaks of heavy satin. He recognized the swirling gold patterns woven into the black material.

“Your loom was weaving the fabric for these mantles two days ago when I was here—before I even knew I would ask you for them.”

The Lady smiled as she took her seat. “Your request was not preordained, young lord. Nor was I aware of what was weaving. I simply bent time upon the loom so that these gifts would be ready when you needed them.”

“They are devices of concealment,” Kerrawyn observed. “But meant for this world, or the other?”

“For Balor,” Farrel answered. “At Valin's suggestion, I asked the Lady yesterday if she could provide us two cloaks that might hide our presence in the gray world.”

“I regret I cannot guarantee their effectiveness,” the countess cautioned. “The laws of perception and magic work differently in Balor. But the mantles contain all the potentcy and artifice that my folk can invest in them: this much I promise.”

“For that we thank you,” Farrel said. He paused and met the eyes of each of his friends. They waited in solemn quiet for him to continue. “Clearly, it is necessary to follow Valin into the gray world. His plan still offers our best hope of destroying the bridge—and now it is our only hope of rescuing Valin. As Valin's successor, I must make the journey. It is also clear to me that one other should accompany me into Balor. That one, if she is willing, is Aidan.”

Aidan had been staring glumly at the carpet, expecting once more—so Farrel saw in her mind—to have little part to play.

Now she stared at him wide-eyed, excitement and fear mingled in her.

“Why Aidan?” Sontoral cried sharply. “Why is that so clear to you?”

“Through feeling rather than reason,” Farrel admitted. “Do you remember the old woman who appeared to us on the Plain of Teeth? All that she foretold in her riddles has come true: I, who would have chosen to follow, have become our leader, though in fact it is Valin who leads. And I have been true to Kerrawyn, my true love, and yet, unwittingly, I have been false. Now I must enter the Gray Master's realm. The old one said to take with me the smallest and keenest knife. I puzzled over the meaning of that riddle, until Valin reminded me of the small knife that Aidan always wears around her neck.”

Everyone stared at the young Welshwoman. Inadvertently, Aidan's fingers had sought the small, filigreed scabbard that rested over her heart.

“Drivel,” Sontoral announced with agitation. “Feelings and riddles instead of reasons. The same sort of soft-minded drivel I got from Valin whenever I asked for explanations. And look where he ended.”

“He has not ended yet,” Farrel flared, standing, “not by a long way.”

Sontoral turned to his sister. “You do not have to go.”

Aidan had to struggle to keep her tone even. “Kindly let me decide that, brother.” She glanced at the others, then gazed at Farrel. “Truly, I do not know how much help I can be, compared to Kerrawyn or Glenna.”

Farrel moved across to her chair, the two satin cloaks on his arm. “I can offer no sure answer to that. I can only say that I and Valin both feel that your presence may be crucial to our success. But you are right to be hesitant. It is not a decision to make lightly.”

All in the chamber awaited Aidan's answer. She swallowed hard, wishing momentarily that she could once again be given a minor role. She glanced about uncertainly, then set her jaw, rose to her feet and looked up into Farrel's eyes.

“I am ready to follow you, wherever we must go.”

Farrel bowed with deep respect and handed her one of the cloaks. “My lady, I shall be honored to have you as my companion.”

Aidan took the cloak and awkwardly sat down.

“There has to be a better way.” Sontoral was on his feet, waving his arms in an outburst of emotion. “I do not doubt your sincerity, Farrel. And I do not disagree simply because you've chosen my sister. But surely we can all see that Valin's plan failed once, with Valin himself making the attempt. Doesn't it stand to reason we ought to try another way?”

“There is no other way,” Farrel declared, still standing next to Aidan's chair.

“Dear Sontoral,” Lady Bremmen went and laid a consoling hand on his shoulder. “I do not know Valin myself, but he is known among the spirits. The birds and insects all say there breathes not a wiser druid in Ireland, for all that he is only two years and twenty. And I recognize that Farrel now speaks with Valin's wisdom, if not with perfect understanding. Your best hope lies in heeding their decision.”

And hoping it is the right decision, Farrel thought grimly. But he set aside the needling doubt. He too must put his trust in Valin's judgement now. Turning back toward his chair, he met Kerrawyn's troubled eyes.

“Sontoral is correct,” she said, “in that this plan has failed once already. And this time we have no diversion prepared.”

“The diversion did Valin no good, in any case,” Farrel answered. “But this time Lady Bremmen will supply a spell to conceal our movements while we journey to the place of departure. Also, we will enter the gray world at some distance from the Balorians' camp—I have a map of their land drawn from Valin's observation. So our chances of slipping into their realm unnoticed are good.”

He had walked back across the flowered rug and settled once more into his chair. “We will all travel together as far as the gateway. Sontoral, Glenna, and Kerrawyn will be needed to open the gate and keep it open for our return. Countess, if we may impose yet further on your generosity, we will require food and water to last ten days, and travellers' lanterns to light our way.”

The Lady nodded. “I have already made the arrangements.”

“Then we shall leave tomorrow at sunrise,” Farrel said.

“Leave for where?” Aidan asked him.

“Torth-haven.”

“The Hall of the Danaan Kings?” Sontoral cried. “But no one knows where that is—or even if it exists outside of legend.”

“It lies nearby,” Farrel replied quietly. “Lady Bremmen has already told me the way.”

“The legends say it is a forbidden place,” Glenna remarked.

“It is forbidden only to the unwelcome,” Lady Bremmen answered. “But you have a token of introduction. Farrel wears it on his chest.”

All of them turned to look. Farrel's own glance followed theirs, to rest upon the Talorbeck.

Flashes of moonlight danced on the black water of the pond, shattering as the ripples broke against the wide rock where Aidan sat watching.

Pitiless rock, she thought, and shivered.

She hugged the plaid shawl against her bare arms, feeling exposed and vulnerable. Though she had come by herself down the path from Lady Bremmen's house, she knew she was not truly alone. Faint wisps of light drifted in the woods; insect voices hissed and chirped. Spirits of Air and Water hovered in abundance. Did they watch her? Read her thoughts?

Aidan could imagine herself glimpsing some faery being in the pond, a shining prince of the water folk. An easy thing, seduced by faery-light, to lean too far over the edge, to plummet in and drown.

“Oh!” Her head swung up to look at Sontoral. “You startled me.”

“Ahem.” He cleared his throat, strummed three notes on his harp and sang:

“Dear sister, we have fallen in

With a troop of raving Gaels.

Let us fetch broomsticks from this shore

And fly us back to Wales.”

Aidan laughed with appreciation, her morbid mood dispersing. Sontoral had grumbled half the afternoon against her decision to go with Farrel. When she remained adamant, he had sulkily refused to join the company for dinner. Aidan was grateful he had come to find her now. She reached out to take his hand as he crouched beside her on the smooth rock.

“You are one to chide the raving Gaels,” she teased. “You'll soon be more elf-mad than Kerrawyn if you keep up this amour with our faery hostess.”

His reply was unexpectedly somber: “You are still my dearest love.”

She turned back to the water, so he would not see the tears welling in her eyes.

“Aidan,” he said. “We are dealing with dangerous powers here ...”

“I am no longer a child, brother.”

“No. But—”

“I am well aware of what we face, and well frightened too. But we have all pledged ourselves to this task. And to one another. I must go, for Glenna's sake, for Valin.” She added in a small voice: “for Aidan.”

Sontoral gave a woeful sigh. “So be it. It is true you are no longer a child. I will pay you the respect of letting you choose your own road.” He grasped her shoulders and looked intently into her eyes. “But I will ache in my heart all my days if you come to harm.”

Farrel knocked quietly on Glenna's door, then entered. In the candlelight he saw her, seated on the rug with legs folded in a posture of meditation. She looked up at him calmly. Farrel closed the door behind him.

Glenna stood as he approached. She wore a shift of white linen that left her shoulders nearly bare. Red-brown hair hung unbraided to her waist.

“I was practicing the mind-disciplines Valin taught us,” she said. “I was concentrating on him, trying to feel his presence. I am beginning to feel it strongly again ... especially in you.”

Farrel sensed the quiver of embarassment in her, but he reached out and drew her into his arms. She clung to him, recognizing Valin's strong embrace. Farrel's mind reeled with love of her.

“Hair red as rowan bark, eyes green like rowan leaves ...”

In the murmur of Farrel's voice, she heard Valin. Faint and confused, she gazed into his eyes. When he kissed her, she pulled her mouth aside.

“Farrel.”

Hearing his name brought him back starkly to himself. Dazed, he yet held tight against her weak effort to break the embrace.

“Farrel, this is wrong.”

“No. It is Valin who wants you. Though I admit, it is Farrel too. Truth is, I can no longer tell where Farrel ends and Valin begins.”

“But Kerrawyn. She watches you hold my hand, walk with your arm around my waist. There is hurt in her eyes.”

“The pain she feels is for your sake. Kerrawyn sent me here. She loves you and keenly feels your need of Valin.” His fingertips caressed her face. “Valin also has need of you.”

After several moments, he bent and touched his lips again to hers. This time Glenna did not turn aside. She kissed him tentatively at first. But as Valin's presence rose in him, she responded ardently.

As they stood clinging to one another, he was Valin, then Farrel, then Valin again.

Glenna whispered in his ear, “My love, my love.”

 

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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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