Instinctively, Farrel reached for his sword, only to remember he had left all his weapons behind. Terror squeezed his vitals as he gazed at the weird, faceless heads of the shadow men.
I will not even die like a warrior, he thought. Not even that.
“Up!” The nearest Balorian prodded him roughly.
Farrel rolled over and climbed stiffly to his feet. Six warriors confronted him, armed with long pikes and curved, broad-bladed swords. Though Farrel stood head and shoulders over the tallest, he knew at once there was no hope of fighting them all. He raised his hands. Aching, light-headed, he felt totally helpless and a fool.
Aidan stood up beside him, white with fear but not trembling.
Seeing that she was a woman, the Balorians tilted their heads to one another and made sniggering sounds. Suddenly, one of them pulled open Aidan's cloak. When she tried to grab it back, another soldier poked her groin with the butt of his pike.
“Stop!” Farrel gripped the spear and yanked it, pulling the warrior to the ground.
Holding the pike, Farrel crouched, expecting the other shadow men to attack.
Instead, the warriors stared at him with eyes of yellow fire that suddenly appeared in their black visages. Farrel sensed that they were startled by his voice. He weighed the Balorian pike in his hand, then casually tossed it to the ground.
The fallen warrior retrieved his weapon and pointed it at Farrel as he backed away. “You may be a great wizard in your world. But here your power is small. Do not think to enspell us with your voice.”
“Then do not molest my companion,” Farrel answered. So they thought him a wizard.
“We are ordered to take you to our high king. Make no resistance and you will not be harmed.”
Farrel gazed at the hovering spear-points. The eyes were gone from the Balor-men, but even in the featureless shadows Farrel could perceive their hatred and keen wariness.
He turned to Aidan and tried to reassure her with a faint smile. “We will go and hear what their high king has to say.”
“Aye,” Aidan whispered, “as if we had a choice.”
The warriors marched the prisoners through fields of slanted crystals and towering columns. The daylight shone brighter than Farrel remembered, making him believe that day and night did have a cycle here after all. Painted lizards skittered over the smooth rock formations, sometimes pausing to stare at the party with startling, gem-like eyes.
The terrain grew more rugged, and soon Farrel's lungs were laboring in the thin air. Aidan stumbled, and Farrel caught her by the arm.
“We cannot keep up this pace,” he complained to their captors.
The Balorians said nothing. Holding Aidan's arm, Farrel resumed with deliberately slower steps.
Eventually, they emerged from the groves of crystal and found themselves on a level path made of wide, disk-shaped stones. Beside the path flowed a shining canal filled with a liquid like quicksilver. Gazing at the surface of the canal, Farrel saw green hills that did not exist in this world—hills covered with the trees of Earth.
A wave of dizziness fluttered across his brain. He had to force himself to look away. In the distance lay the tents and turrets of the Balorian camp. Faintly visible, an arc of blue light curved grandly into the sky: the bridge, the cursed bridge. Farrel searched for the black mountain, but it was gone—hidden by some veiling mist or vanished in some incomprehensible rearrangement of the land.
“The map,” he whispered to Aidan. “Remember the map. Keep it in your mind.”
The canal widened, then emptied into a broad marsh. The path became a causeway with glittering wetlands on either side. Approaching the camp, the party passed the base of the bridge—a bare, sandy circle crowded with engines and strange devices of stone and glass. Dozens of Balorians—wizards with their acolytes and attendants—scuttled about, tending the equipment. The black and gray-robed figures shimmered like illusions in the pale, malevolent blue light.
Crossing a narrow isthmus, the prisoners and their guards entered the camp of the Balorian host. A maze of colored tents and pavilions stood clustered on the long peninsula. Leaden waters lapped the camp on three sides, lending the air a dank metallic smell. No roar of surf emanated from the sluggish sea. Flags and banners hung limp for want of a breeze.
Denizens of the camp—faceless Balorians and hulking, monstrous trolls—noticed the prisoners and paused from their duties to taunt and jeer. Fear surged anew in Farrel, and he strained to keep his steps even, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
At length they came to a grand pavilion pitched at the far end of the camp. Long canvas walls of purple and gold suggested spacious chambers within. The prisoners were herded through a dim entry-way guarded by twin rows of shadow men in silver armor, then into a long chamber well-lit by candles in glass globes. At the far end of this chamber, a gilded throne stood upon a dais nine steps high.
On the throne sat a man with white-blond hair and finely-chiseled, human features. The lone occupant of the throne room, he watched as Farrel and Aidan were led forward. Dressed in royal robes of silver and black, the man seemed at first glance the picture of noble humanity. But as Farrel approached the dais, he noticed that the man's arms were excessively long—and that a dim witch-shadow seemed at some moments to hover about his head.
Farrel and Aidan were forced to their knees. “Kneel before Porteas, High King of the Bright Islands.”
No sooner were they kneeling than Porteas rose from his throne and gestured the warriors back. With a lithe grace impossible to human kind, the Balorian king descended the nine steps of the dais. His white hands reached out to Farrel and a wide grin creased his regal face.
“Welcome, kinsman. I am gratified that you should choose to visit me. Especially since you knew that, had you waited, I would soon have come to you.”
The king's manner seemed a mixture of irony and genuine warmth as he raised Farrel to his feet. Next he turned to Aidan and beamed. “And who is this lovely princess with whom you travel?”
“She is Aidan,” Farrel stammered. “Why do you call me kinsman?”
“Because you are my blood kin. Indeed you wear a token of our kinship around your neck.” His fingertip touched the Talorbeck. “And since you come here bearing no weapons of iron, as is the law of our land, I can regard you not as an enemy, but a guest. Indeed,” his merry eyes strayed to Aidan, “I will be pleased to count you both my guests indefinitely.”
“We did not come for a long stay,” Farrel answered, playing along. “Though it is true our intentions are peaceful.”
“We will speak later of your reasons for crossing into my world,” Porteas assured him. “I know you are weary from your journey. Here is food and drink to refresh you.”
Three harp-notes rippled the air. Farrel and Aidan followed the king's gesture to a corner of the chamber where a wide banquet table had miraculously appeared. Servants moved gracefully about, setting down bowls of delicacies and filling goblets from golden ewers. A harpist sat near the table on a gilded stool. He and all the servants were dressed in silk tunics with golden belts. They had human faces with placid, delicate features.
As Farrel turned back to Porteas, he discovered a lady standing beside the king. A ruby circlet adorned her curling yellow hair. A gown of scarlet silk clung to her shapely figure. Her large, sea-blue eyes gleamed at Farrel, beguiling and somehow familiar.
“This is Apridora, my dear half-sister,” Porteas introduced her. “She would delight in your company at the banquet.”
“I would indeed,” the woman said, hugging Farrel's arm to her breast as she led him toward the table.
Porteas turned to Aidan and offered her his arm. “My dear?”
“Thank you, my lord,” Aidan murmured, avoiding his eyes. She felt overwhelmed by the high king's presence, almost giddy.
It is the thin air, she told herself, and my fear.
Weak-kneed, she struggled to keep her gait even as she walked beside Porteas.
At the table, servants removed the travelers' cloaks. But Farrel insisted they keep their packs of provisions with them.
“We are grateful and honored by this splendid feast,” he said. “But I judge it prudent that we eat and drink only what we have brought with us from our world.”
To his relief, Porteas reacted with a bland smile. “As you wish, cousin. Though you would find the fruits of our world incomparably sweet. In time, I am sure, you will develop a taste for them.”
Farrel filled two cups with water, and handed one to Aidan. “You call me kinsman and cousin,” he said to Porteas. “I do not understand how we can be related.”
“Through an uncle on your mother's side, some five generations back,” Porteas replied. “In those days our worlds were significantly closer and with only a bit of magic one could easily pass between. Hence this uncle of yours was visited by the then queen of this land. I am the offspring of their amorous union.”
“Five generations,” Farrel marveled. “That would make you—”
“As old as your grandfather's grandfather,” Porteas said. “Were I of the Earth. But time weaves a wandering path through this world, not straight and constrained as in yours.”
“If you find our world so constrained, why do you seek to conquer it?” Aidan startled herself by speaking up.
She had come to the point of the matter, Farrel thought, cutting through the elaborate shams of hospitality and friendship.
But once again, Porteas responded with mildness. “I do not seize your land for the sake of conquest, but for the survival of my people. This island that is my principal realm was brought to this world long ago by magic. But now the land is old and has begun to dissolve. This sounds incredible to you, but the components of a world change with time. Once, within the memory of my people, your island of Ireland did not exist; there was only sea. Even so this land, as it dissolves, is sinking into our sea. As you approached our camp you observed the evidence of our problem, for all the marsh along this coast was once arable land.”
He paused, staring glumly at his delicate hands, which rested on the white tablecloth. Farrel and Aidan had stopped eating. They gazed solemnly as Porteas continued.
“We will take only that part of your world that we need to ensure the prosperity of our race. Your people would do the same—indeed they have done, all through your history.”
“But you are doing more than changing the rulership of the land,” Aidan said, her voice less angry, less certain than before. “I have seen what your magic will do: destroy the land so no earthly thing may thrive there.”
“This is necessary,” Porteas replied, “so the living things of our world may flourish. To you it may seem destruction, but in truth it is only an alteration.”
“But why can't your tribe seek another land in your own world?” Farrel demanded.
“Why should we?” Porteas asked in return, and now there was iron in his voice. “Would it be more honorable to make war on our neighbors than to subdue a more distant realm?”
Farrel met his glaring eyes a moment, then looked away. He lacked the rhetorical skill for this debate. In fact, he saw no inherent wrong in Porteas’ position. The Balorian chieftain was not the brutal savage he had expected, but a king with as high a sense of honor as any earthly prince Farrel had known. And added to all, he was Farrel's kinsman, if what he said was true.
But was it true? Or was Farrel deceived, beguiled by cunning lies and the unknown magic of Balor? He blinked, straining to clear his mind, to remember his purpose and the vague plan he was trying to compose—a deception of his own.
“The fact is,” he said, “our ability to resist your invasion has dwindled to almost nothing. I have come to propose a bargain: we are prepared to cease all resistance, in exchange for the life of our friend Valin.”
“That may be possible,” Porteas remarked, “once the bridge is complete and the work of converting your land well underway. But not before.”
“Surely that is enough talk of serious matters for one meal,” Apridora cajoled, leaning close to Farrel. “Perhaps, my lord, you would care to walk with me along the beach? It is evenfall, and the stars of our world shine gorgeously over the sea.”
After several moments of silence, Farrel realized he was gazing dumbly into her eyes. He turned away with an effort. “Thank you, my lady, but no. I think it better if Aidan and I stay together.”
Farrel saw relief on Aidan's face, and a grim half-smile curling Porteas’ generous lips.
“Your mistrust does us a disservice, cousin,” the high king said. “Not that I blame you for being cautious.”
Porteas lifted Farrel's jug and poured more water for his guests. He turned the conversation to more convivial topics, describing some of the history of his family, and how they had often crossed the barriers between worlds to mingle with other races. He confessed how his blood-tie with Farrel had enabled him to forge a mind-link that, from the start, had alerted him to all the plans laid by Valin and his friends.
“But that is over now, the game near to checkmate. I hope, cousin, now that you are in my realm we may forge a link of true friendship, and share the best of what both our worlds can offer.”
Why does he bother with this? Farrel wondered. How could it benefit him? Unless they were kinsmen in truth, and his offer of friendship sincere.
Porteas spoke on and on, his rich and pleasing voice weaving and weaving. Farrel and Aidan lost themselves in the sounds and rhythms of his discourse, till they no longer knew anything for certain, till Porteas' realm began to seem their home and their own world but a vague and unimportant dream.
Neither Farrel nor Aidan remembered falling asleep. They awoke lying on the soft carpet, the banquet table cleared away, the throne room empty.
Daylight gleamed through the far entrance of the pavilion. No guards were visible in the entryway. Farrel and Aidan glanced at one another, then got to their feet. Without speaking, they crept across the chamber and peered outside.
No soldiers patrolled the immediate area. Across the compound a few faceless ones loitered among the tents and alleys, but they seemed remote, as if glimpsed through layers of glass. The breathless air held only silence.
“We can escape,” Aidan whispered.
“No.” Farrel gripped her arm. He felt an inner impediment—like an anchor chained to his waist. “He has bound us here. Can't you feel it?”
“No.” Aidan pulled her arm away with an expression of horror.
She stared at Farrel, and saw instead Porteas with his fierce, irresistible eyes. She cringed inside, envisioning herself his captive, his possession. Her fear burst into panic and she ran.
The ground slipped like sand beneath her frantic steps. Space seemed to wind and turn. The stifling air blurred and Aidan's stomach writhed with nausea.
She stopped, gasping. Raising her head, she saw she was back where she had started, standing before Farrel.
He grasped both her arms. “Aidan, listen. We are bound here by Porteas’ magic. We cannot run away.”
The girl shuddered, sobbing. “What shall we do?”
“We must maintain our self-possession,” he urged. “We must remember why we are here, and pay attention. If we let them believe we are lulled by their enchantments, our chance may still come. But we must stay awake within ourselves. Do you understand?”
Aidan stiffened with the effort to control herself. She nodded.
Farrel gazed deep into her eyes. “Can you do this?”
She took a long breath, growing calmer. “I will try.”