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Farrel descended the stairs to the entry hall, the black and gold mantle floating from his shoulders. He wore sword and dagger in his brass-studded belt, and the Talorbeck on a cord around his neck. The other magic stone, passed to him from Valin, lay safely tucked inside his leather jerkin—along with the druid's oak and silver wand.

Gray predawn light illuminated the glass panels on either side of the tall red door. Sontoral paced the tiled floor, wearing his traveling garb and the brushed-leather boots given him by Lady Bremmen.

He addressed Farrel glumly: “The horses are saddled and provisioned as you asked. They await us outside.”

The harper glanced past Farrel, to where Glenna and Kerrawyn were walking down the stairs arm-in-arm. “The mistress asked me to say her farewells,” Sontoral announced, “as she finds partings too sad to bear. There is food and drink laid out for us in the kitchen.”

Farrel shook his head. “Better if we eat on the way. Our destination lies a full day's journey off, and we must be there by moonrise.”

Aidan appeared a moment later, the satin cloak shimmering upon her slight figure as she stepped down the stairs. Farrel searched her pale face, found it nervous but resolute. He grasped Aidan's hand to reassure her.

“We are ready then,” he smiled.

The sun, dull red and veiled in clouds, was rising above the hills. The travelers found their horses untethered, waiting calmly on the lawn.

Mounting, Farrel led the way, with Kerrawyn riding at his side. The party circled once around the pond, but did not come to the mistress' house again. They rode two more circuits of the shore, then headed up a deerpath that twisted steeply into the hills.

The sun wheeled upward into the sky, dappling the forest floor with light and shade. The riders travelled on through the brisk morning, following deerpaths and huntsmens' trails through unbroken wilderness.

The land belonged to the Flarnagh clan. Their chieftain was Farrel's distant cousin. Not that he expected to encounter any hunting parties or armed patrols. Given the time of year and the expanse of the forest, this was unlikely.

Less likely than you think, Valin's voice interrupted his thoughts. Already you travel through a forest slightly removed from the ordinary world of men. The shifting of space that will allow you to enter Torthhaven has already begun.

With that, Farrel envisioned countless worlds, each slightly removed from the next, strung like beads across the heavens. The notion dizzyed him.

“Too wide and deep a conceit for me to ponder,” he grumbled aloud.

That does not matter, Valin answered. But heed what I tell you now: Once you have left the Earth behind, I will no longer speak with you directly, for this would surely alert the Balorians to your approach.

Farrel eyebrows lowered. “How will I know what to do?”

I will still have contact with you, but not directly. All that you need to know will rise into your mind. When you are in doubt as to how to proceed, you need only relax your thoughts, as I have taught you. Empty your will and let intuition speak.

“I understand,” Farrel whispered.

Surrender of the mundane self, Valin commented. A lesson every wizard must master.

Like the surrender to fate every warrior must make before battle. Farrel smiled soberly at the thought. For truly he was riding into battle now for the first time in his life.

In the late morning, the travellers stopped upon a grassy knoll surrounded on all sides by treetops. While the horses rested, the friends shared a meal of faery cakes and cider. In a mood of fragile calm, they treated the meal almost as a picnic, talking idly of the scenery, of the musical chirping of the birds. As though by an unspoken agreement, no one mentioned their destination or the uncertainty of what was to come.

As they gathered their gear, Farrel stood a moment and gazed to the south, where a line of purple cliffs could barely be discerned. Somewhere in that mass of stone lay Torthhaven. Farrel clenched his jaw and swallowed, pondering the task before him. But whereas, in the past, he would have wondered about the outcome, now he put aside both hope and fear. Success or failure did not matter in the end, he thought. The courage to be tested was all.

The afternoon's ride brought the mountains steadily closer, till a bastion of gray and purple rock loomed above the forest. To Farrel, the tall uneven crags seemed to watch his approach like the dour faces of ancient warriors.

Near sunset, the riders came to a clearing at the edge of the wood. A swift stream tumbled down from the rocky steeps ahead.

“Dismount,” Farrel told the others. “We will leave the horses here.”

He was unsaddling his horse when Kerrawyn suddenly gripped his sleeve.

“Look!” She pointed overhead, to a where a solitary raven glided over the clearing. “She is a spy for Balor.”

Farrel nodded. “The Balorians know our legends and our lore. Valin predicted they would post a spy to watch this path. Do not be concerned. Lady Bremmen's enchantments are proof against our being observed, at least while we tread the Earth.”

They watched as the raven wheeled slowly above the forest, then returned to perch among the overhanging crags. When saddles, bridles, and packs had been removed, the horses were released—but not before Kerrawyn whispered a few words into their ears, a small charm to keep them from wandering far.

The travellers gathered wood and brush, and Sontoral struck a fire. Aidan and Glenna brought water from the stream and added it to a soup that the mistress had provided in a sealed pot. They set the pot to boil, then laid fishcakes on a flat stone to bake beside the fire. Most of the food they carried needed no cooking—fairy cakes, hazel nuts, dried roots and berries. But this one night at least they would share a hot meal.

In the deepening chill of twilight, they huddled close to the fire. With Aidan seated between them, Glenna and Kerrawyn joined hands. They bent their thoughts to reading the girl's spirit, and to lending her what strength and protection their combined wills could provide.

“The burden you have taken on is making you stronger,” Kerrawyn told Aidan afterwards, staring into her eyes. “You are like a young kestrel on her first hunt.”

The companions ate supper in silence and shared water from an earthenware jug. When they had finished eating and the pots and spoons had been washed, Farrel tossed some more wood on the fire.

“There is still a little time,” he said.

Sontoral took out his harp and began an idle strumming. Aidan and Glenna leaned together and stared into the dancing flames. Farrel took Kerrawyn's hand and led her to the edge of the clearing. She leaned against the bough of a hemlock tree as Farrel kissed her.

“This is farewell, but only for a time,” he whispered. “I will return to you Kerrawyn, I doubt it not.”

But even as he spoke, stinging doubts swarmed inside him. He saw in Kerrawyn's eyes that she understood.

“Our fates must be left to the Ruler of All, my dear. But believe me, even if this be our final parting, I would not have traded our brief love for any life to be had among mortals or faery-kind either.”

Farrel held her. The nighttime voices of the forest were coming alive around them.

Hand in hand, they walked back to the fire. Farrel used a burning twig to light the wicks of two oil lamps. As the others gathered up their packs and bundles, Sontoral extinguished the campfire.

The party moved quietly up the hill, Farrel lighting the way, Sontoral in the rear, holding the other lantern. For a time, they followed the course of the stream up the hillside.

As he climbed the rocky slope, Farrel drifted into a semi-trance, feeling for the path Lady Bremmen had placed in his mind. Abruptly, he turned from the stream and struck off across a flat stretch of ground. The constant splash of the water dwindled to a murmur at his back, then was lost.

Presently, Farrel stopped before a dark fissure in what appeared to be a sheer wall of rock. Lifting his lantern high revealed that the cleft was formed by two standing stones—tall boulders cut and planted at a deliberate angle, now overgrown with moss and tangled vines. Farrel turned sideways and stepped into the fissure. The others followed him without question or comment.

The passage wound and twisted into the flank of the mountain. At times the way was open to the sky and the faintly gleaming stars. More often, the rock walls joined above to form a solid roof.

The path ended in a cul-de-sac enclosed by blank walls but open overhead. Farrel turned to regard his companions, his eyes gleaming in the lantern's fire.

“The moon will rise there presently,” he said, pointing to a spot above the rocks. “Rest till then.”

They put down their burdens and sat or reclined on the ground. Farrel set down his lantern and walked to the far wall. While the others watched, he examined the rough stone, bending close several times to peer at the surface, touching it with his fingers. Finally, he took two steps backward and reached inside his jerkin. Bringing forth Valin's oak wand, he bowed his head and stood for several minutes in silence.

Suddenly, the Lord of Tronwall thrust wand and fist at the sky and gave a long, unearthly howl. His companions scrambled to their feet in astonishment.

“Don't touch him,” Kerrawyn warned, for Sontoral had started forward and nearly laid a hand on Farrel's shoulder.

Oblivious to them, Farrel began reciting an intricate chant. He scarcely understood the meaning. The invocation, taught to him by Lady Bremmen and committed to memory, was written in an elfin tongue predating human memory. Loudly, the torrent of words poured from his lips, punctuated with jabs of the wand.

As the chant neared its end a presence appeared, a whirling haze of blue light rising up from the ground. It grew to man-size, then a little taller. It hovered between Farrel and the wall, becoming almost still, and yet vibrating inwardly with a cold, unnerving power.

“Who claims entrance to the Sacred Hall of Kings?” The whirling thing spoke Gaelic—or was it simply a transference of thought that superseded language?

No matter; Farrel knew what to answer. “I, Farrel, son of Arlen, of Lacoma, of Torlach. Born of the line sired in ancient days by Beardeaghall the Great. By right of blood and this token on my chest I claim entry here. Il nayloch, rak nabeth ellorch.”

In response to his words, the whirlwind shape condensed into the likeness of a man. Tall and noble, dressed in ancient warrior's garb, the blue-lit phantom held aloft a gleaming spear.

“Child of the Great One, I acknowledge the Talorbeck. You and your retinue may enter.”

He touched his spearpoint to the wall behind him. The outline of a doorway appeared, etched in blue light. With a low rumbling that shook the mountain, stone tore itself from stone and the doorway pulled open. An instant later, the guardian warrior disappeared.

Without speaking a word, Farrel retrieved his lantern. He gave a wan smile, tilted his head for his friends to follow, then marched through the opening. Moving awkwardly, the others gathered up their gear and hastened after.

Before crossing the threshhold, Aidan took a last look over her shoulder, to where the gleaming moon was rising over the Earth.

The passage led downward some distance, then widened into a vast chamber. The feeble light cast by the travellers' lanterns revealed neither ceiling nor walls. As they filed across the dusty floor, they passed chariots and harnesses, helmets, corselets, and stacks of weapons, chests of clothing and open casks full of brooches, chalices, buckles, and coins. Here and there, altars constructed of white slabs of stone supported burial urns of gold.

“Touch nothing,” Farrel said.

But he saw on the faces of his friends that the warning was unnecessary. They were peering beyond the assorted treasures to the deeper shadows. There, dull voices seemed to whisper and flickers of movement to flee from the edges of one's vision. Yet, on closer inspection, no presences could be discerned. Even Kerrawyn, so accustomed to dealings with spirits, seemed apprehensive here among these ancient ghosts.

The party climbed five stairs at the end of the hall and entered another chamber of similar proportions and content. In total, they traversed six such halls, before coming to a smaller, circular chamber.

A shaft of blue starlight penetrated this chamber from an opening in the domed roof. Farrel directed his friends to put down their burdens, then stepped onto a round dais set beneath the dome.

“This is the place of departure,” he said. “To the Daanan kings of old, Torthhaven was not only a tomb, but a gatehouse. They used this chamber to open passages to other worlds, as we shall do this night.”

He took a third lantern from his pack. Once lit, this lantern was arranged with the others along the edge of the dais.

Enhanced by the dim starshine, the lanterns' glow revealed the extent of the round chamber. A ring of rough pillars supported jagged, overhanging arches—all seeming to glower down upon the intruders.

At Farrel's instruction, Glenna, Kerrawyn, and Sontoral sat down at even intervals between the lanterns, facing the center of the dais where Aidan and Farrel now stood.

“In a few moments, I will ask that you lend your wills to mine,” Farrel told them, “to help me open the gate. When we have gone, think of me and Aidan, and Valin too, as if we were still present. Your thoughts will keep the way open for our return. Wait for us three times three days, but no more. If we have not returned in that time, wait till bright day is visible through the opening in the roof, and leave this place the way you have come. At that time the portal will open and no one will hinder your leaving.”

“But how will you get back if we flee?” Sontoral demanded.

Farrel clenched his lips before replying. “Perhaps there will be another route.”

The light pouring down from the ceiling was steadily brightening as the moon rose higher. Farrel straightened the cloak on Aidan's shoulders, then adjusted her position so she stood within the column of light.

“No farewells between us now,” he announced to all in a sober tone. “For that would seal our parting. We must remain present in your thoughts, as you shall be in ours. Sontoral, take up your harp. We need a song to dispell the gloom settling here.” He stroked his beard, considering. “Sing us the Battle of the Ash and the Alder Tree.”

Sontoral had taken his instrument from its velvet bag. Now he scowled at Farrel's suggestion. “Are you sure that is the tune you wish?”

“Why not?”

The harper shrugged. “An ancient song, of proven poetic complexity but dubious musical worth. I hardly see ...”

“Somehow I sense it is appropriate to our adventure,” Farrel assured him with a smile. “And since I must learn to heed such inner promptings, I pray you to play it.”

Sontoral complied. The melody sprang from his harp strings and his clear, pleasing voice filled the space beneath the dome. The ballad told of a mythical battle, in which the ash and the alder enlisted the aid of all the other trees, who came marching to the field arrayed in leafy finery.

Farrel sensed the hearts of his friends lifting. He stepped into the shaft of light beside Aidan.

“Now, while Sontoral keeps singing, I ask that you pour your thoughts into Valin's wand.”

Letting Valin direct his hand, Farrel used the wand to trace a pattern in the air—four times, once in each direction. Then he took hold of Aidan's hand and knelt. Speaking in his mind a word of power, he tapped the wand’s silver tip on the floor.

Around him, the chamber flickered.

He listened a moment longer to Sontoral's song, now growing faint as if with distance. Then he struck the floor again.

Darkness fluttered across his perceptions. The harper's song was a broken murmur: heard and gone and heard again. Sontoral, Glenna, and Kerrawyn were dim shadows on the shore of a benighted pool.

Farrel reached out his mind to touch their thoughts one last time. Sontoral was repressing the feeling that he should never have let Aidan go. Glenna strained to envision Valin standing with Aidan and Farrel on the dais. Kerrawyn wondered if she would ever be happy again.

Then silver tapped stone a third time, and blackness and silence enveloped all.

 

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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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