Utter blankness of sensation: how long it lasted, Farrel did not know.
Eventually, he became aware of a watery grayness that floated about him. He was drifting; he sought with his feet but could find no solid place.
A dull noise buzzed in his skull ...”Farrel?”
Something tugged his hand. He looked and amid the flood of gray saw a face he did not recognize, a woman's face, strained and contorted.
“It will be all right, Aidan. In a few moments, the fluctuations will pass.”
Vaguely, he recognized his own voice. Where the words had come from he could not say, but they proved accurate. Gradually the ebb and flow of blankness ceased and the surroundings settled.
He and his companion stood in a small dome-like chamber, bordered by walls of luminous gray that seemed at once both solid and airy—like a gleaming fog drifting behind rough-cut glass. The floor had the same misty appearance, its vapory light hovering about their ankles.
Farrel blinked and looked at the one clutching his hand. “You are ... Aidan.” His voice sounded uncertain.
“And I am Farrel?”
“Yes. Are you—”
“It is all right.” He held up a hand to silence her. “My memory is seeping back now.” He looked about with a puzzled expression. “What is this place?”
“I don't know,” Aidan cried in anguish. “The last I remember, we were in the Hall of the Daanan Kings. You wove a spell to open a gate between the worlds.”
“Ah,” Farrel rolled his eyes over the swimming walls and ceiling. “Then it's obvious, isn't it? We are between worlds. We have already left, but not yet arrived.”
“But how do we proceed from here?” Aidan demanded.
Farrel lifted his chest with a deep breath, glanced about once more, and finally shrugged. “We could walk, I suppose.” He looked down and for the first time noticed the wand in his hand. “Wait. I know. Valin's wand will lead us. The silver tip will glow when we move in the proper direction, and dim if we go awry.”
Satisfied with this assertion, Farrel held the wand at arms length and slowly turned his body. He had not completed half of a turn when the wand did indeed begin to shine. He continued, more slowly, while the silver gleam intensified, then halted and swung back a bit when the glow faded.
“There, you see,” the young lord grinned with bravado. “Come.”
He started off, leaving Aidan to follow, a confused but hopeful look on her face.
At first it seemed they would walk straight into the wall. But to Aidan's surprise the solid-looking surface retreated before them, like fog pushed back by a puff of wind. A glance over her shoulder showed the walls closing behind them like mist.
“Truly, we are no place,” Aidan murmured.
Farrel gave no reply. He seemed utterly absorbed in following the gleam of the wand. In fact, he pondered inward messages—fragments of thought and vision that surfaced spontaneously in his mind. Slowly, he pieced together the plan that Valin had left for him to discover.
He revealed the plan to Aidan later, when weariness prompted them to rest.
Farrel drew a circle of protection of the shining floor and he and Aidan sat within. From a pocket, he took a folded sheet of paper and spread it out on his knees.
“I almost forgot about this,” he muttered. “It is a map of King Porteas' realm in Balor.”
Aidan leaned over to examine the map with its finely drawn mountains, rivers, and shoreline.
“Commit the details to memory,” Farrel told her. “In Balor, the very lay and features of the land can shift and change. But so long as we hold this picture in our minds, the landscape we find will match it.”
Aidan gave him a quick, bewildered glance before dutifully returning her gaze to the map.
Farrel smiled to reassure her. “I understand all this no better than you, though the explanations spill from my own lips. We both must trust Valin's word in these mysteries. Remember what Lady Bremmen said of him: that not a wiser druid is known in all Ireland.”
“Now then, when we pass through the gate we will emerge ... here,” Farrel pointed to a rank of hills on the edge of a broad plain. “As you see, the place is far from the Balorian camp. This should allow us to pass into the gray world unnoticed. The disadvantage is that we must then travel overland. That is when we must hope these faery cloaks will hide us. The air in Balor will be thinner than we are used to, a finer mixture that will make it difficult for us to concentrate. We must manage as best we can.”
“Where is our destination?” Aidan asked him.
“Here, in this mountain near the shore.” He indicated a black triangular shape which lay across an inlet from the camp of the Balorian army. “Within the mountain is a cave and a sacred well, a font of great power that the Balorian wizards are tapping to build the bridge. Our task is to shut off that flow of power, and the instrument is here.” He opened his hand and showed her the smooth green stone. “This stone was given to Valin on the Plain of Teeth. We must cast it into the well. When that is done, we must find Valin, who I believe will be nearby. The oak wand will free him from the spell that holds him captive, and he should be able to help us escape back to our world. I am not sure what effect the stone will have, but I suspect we will need to flee quickly.”
Aidan shivered beneath her cloak, though the place was not cold. “I still wish I understood why I was choosen to come with you.”
“As to that, I know no more than I told you back at Lady Bremmen's. Somehow it seems that your very youth and lack of experience could be essential to our success.”
Aidan gave a wry frown. “If doubt and fear are also useful, I have abundance of these as well.”
They continued walking, following the beacon gleam of Valin's wand. After an indeterminate time, Farrel stopped, struck by a new insight, another bit of knowledge left to him by the druid.
“We must carry no iron with us into Balor,” he said. “That metal would give away our presence as surely as pipes and trumpets.”
He unbuckled his belt and removed the scabbards holding dagger and sword. “I wish I had realized this back in our world. This sword was given me by Cadron, my foster father. If I leave it here, it will be lost forever, I am certain.”
He paused a moment, then regretfully tossed both weapons away. With a mournful expression he watched them sink, as though into a mist-shrouded pool.
“I have no iron with me,” Aidan said. “No weapons at all except my dagger, which is silver.”
She pulled the knife from it's sheath. The blade was no longer than Farrel's finger.
“Yes,” Farrel noted. “The smallest and keenest knife.”
“It is mostly an ornament, really,” the girl reflected. “Though it could do some damage if required.”
“Valin and I agreed that the old one's riddle referred to you, Aidan, and not to the knife itself. Still, since it is not iron you may as well keep it,” Farrel decided. “It is not a weapon anyone would take seriously.”
Appropriate for me then, Aidan thought. For I too am a weapon no one will take seriously.
A short while later the fog parted to reveal a blank gray wall that looked like stone.
“I believe we have arrived,” Farrel declared.
He stood a moment, gathering himself, then pulled the hood over his head and warned Aidan to do the same. With the oak and silver wand he traced the outline of a door on the smooth wall, then carefully hid the wand inside his jerkin. Stepping forward, he pushed lightly on the wall with his hand. The stone swung open as if on hinges newly-oiled.
Thin, cold air and a blue-tinted daylight swept through the opening. Sensing the gate would close again in a moment, Farrel took Aidan's hand and hurried through.
They stopped on the other side, never noticing when the portal swung shut behind them. Gazing upon Balor absorbed their whole attention.
Farrel had expected a colorless, shadowy world—tinged perhaps with the rot and decay he had seen in the Wormwell Marsh. But here was another world entirely, more unearthly and bizarre than anything he could have imagined, yet strangely, compellingly beautiful.
A domelike sky stretched overhead, filling the air with dense blue light. Below spread a silvery plain, bordered far off by black mountains and a gray, glinting sea. Columns of colored fire rose wavering from the ground, spreading out into patterns that resembled leaves and flowers except that they were constantly changing. Rock formations—tremendous crystals of amethyst, beryl, and quartz—rose from the hillsides as if seeking to embrace others of their kind that hung unaccountably from the sky. A frosty breeze drifted up from the plain, seeming to move the hills and rocks into different shapes as if ...
As if the world were breathing, Farrel thought.
He shook himself. The air. He prodded Aidan. “The thin air is affecting us. We must move, keep moving.”
Like sleepwalkers, they marched down the hill, knees wobbling, minds ablaze. Clear, spongy grass squished beneath their feet. They passed through a grove of the tall fire-trees and found it pleasantly warm. The wind stirred the glittering branches, calling up pale tones of sound that stopped as soon as the listeners turned their eyes away. At the base of the hill, they forded a dark stream alive with multicolored, winged fishes.
“What a glorious place,” Aidan said. “I could never feel at home here and yet ... It is almost painfully beautiful.”
Farrel made no reply. He struggled to keep alert, to watch for any sign of Balorians, and at the same time to keep the image of the map fixed in his mind. Ahead lay their destination, the foremost of the black mountains standing above the sea. He lifted his eyes to it every few moments, half-expecting it to shimmer away into nothing.
They trudged on for what seemed like hours. The dull, dreamy twilight hung over the plain, unchanging. If day and night even existed in this world, they must be of extensive duration. Or perhaps, Farrel thought, his sense of time had already started to slip. The black mountain seemed to draw closer, but with excruciating slowness. His steps grew dreadfully heavy.
Aidan stumbled. Farrel bent to help her up and almost tipped over, dazed.
“We must sleep,” he muttered. “I had hoped to reach the well without stopping. I did not know it would be so far.”
They found a small grotto formed by the intersection of several large crystals. Crawling into the snug space, they loosened their packs and only then thought of food and drink.
While Farrel was eating, a new warning bubbled up in his thoughts. “Whatever happens, we must not eat or drink of the food of this land. Many legends warn of this. The truth is, if we take elements of this world into our bodies, they will change us. Time will begin to pass for us as it does in Balor, instead of in the way rightful to us. Returning to our world would then become more difficult.”
They fell asleep close together, wrapped in their faery cloaks, in the cleft of softly-breathing stone.
Farrel woke to a cruel poking in his ribs and a brusque jibber of voices. As he opened his eyes and rolled over he heard Aidan gasp.
A troop of imp-like warriors stood over them, legs bowed, pikes ready to thrust. The Balorians wore scarlet capes and silver mail—and helmets above the empty shadows where faces should have been.