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In Balor during the long day, the sunlight intensified slowly to a piercing brilliance at noon, then dimmed gradually to murky twilight. The sun itself was never visible, eternally veiled by a sky that ranged from palest lavender at midday to deep purple at dusk.

Farrel and Aidan discovered these peculiarities their second day in the gray world, as they paced about the area of Porteas' pavillion, deliberately testing the boundaries to which they were confined. They found they could walk but halfway across the parade ground toward the other tents before the high king's spell bent the space around them, forcing them back. To the sides and rear of the pavillion, they were given more room. The enchantment allowed them to stroll over a gently sloping meadow, covered with a spongy grass that was colorless like water. Beyond the meadow lay a beach of ashen sand and the sluggish, metallic sea.

In the growing glare of the Balorian noontide, Farrel and Aidan followed the deserted shoreline. It led them around behind the meadow, to a narrow inlet that separated the pennisula from the mainland. The flags and turrets of the camp lay off to their right, separated from the inlet by a line of dunes.

When they had walked as far as the imprisoning magic would permit, Farrel paused and stared across the glittering lagoon. Frowning, he reached into his jerkin and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. He crouched on the powdery sand and unfolded the map.

Aidan peered over his shoulder. “What is it?” she asked.

“Something is wrong.” Farrel looked up to scan the flat landscape across the lagoon. His finger traced over a portion of the map. “Here is the camp. This inlet is here. The black mountain should be on the other side.”

Aidan squinted across the lagoon, which flashed like molten silver. “Maybe the map is wrong. Maybe Valin was mistaken.”

“No.” Farrel rejected that possibility. “Either Porteas' spell prevents us from seeing the mountains, or they have moved with a shift of the landscape. Remember, such shifts are possible in Balor.”

“If that is the case, how will we find the mountain, even if we do escape?” Aidan asked him.

“By bringing it before us with our wills,” Farrel answered confidently. “The land here is fluid and will respond to our expectations. Therefore, we must fix it in our minds that the mountain is there, across the inlet where it ought to be.”

Farrel stood, squared his shoulders and gazed across to the opposite shore. The dazzling daylight made his eyes water and his vision blur. But after some moments the light darkened and began to coalesce, forming at last a row of black mountains. The foremost peak was cone-shaped, with smooth and regular slopes.

“There it is,” Farrel announced triumphantly. “Do you see it?”

Aidan stood beside him, shading her eyes as she peered. “No,” she answered. “I do not.”

“You have been seeking a way to escape,” Porteas remarked to them that evening, amid glowing candles and the sumptuous aromas of his banquet table.

“No,” Farrel corrected, “merely exploring the bounds of our prison.”

The high king smiled, and moved to fill Farrel's cup from a glass decanter of sparkling wine. But Farrel placed his hand over his goblet, regretfully, since he had already drunk his ration of earthly water. Porteas filled his own cup before continuing.

“I regret the necessity of keeping you confined, kinsman. But it is a necessity. I am sure you understand. After all, it is an ancient tradition among your Gaelic tribes for kings to keep noble hostages in order to insure the peace.”

“That is true,” Farrel answered dryly.

Porteas gestured expansively with a bejeweled hand. “I have extended as far as possible the boundaries in which you may walk, allowing you exercise and fresh air, and what changes of scenery are available.”

He turned his agreeable smile on Aidan. “Tell me, my dear, what do you think of my kingdom? Many women of your race have visited us in the past, become enamoured of the beauties of our world and stayed to add their loveliness to its splendor.”

Aidan lowered her eyes, her pulse quickening at his attention. “Your world is lovely,” she admitted shyly. “But it is so ... strange, bizarre. It frightens even as it delights me.”

“There is nothing here will harm you,” the high king murmured, staring at Aidan with an intensity that made her squirm in her chair.

“There are no trees,” she remarked to deflect his attention. “Not like the trees of Earth. And yet, I notice the banner above your throne represents a tree, an ash of the kind found in our islands.”

“Yes. The banner displays my family's coat-of-arms. It refers to a legend about how my people first came to dwell in this island.”

“Tell us,” Aidan said, “if you would. Please.”

Porteas smiled at her fondly. “It is rather a murky story, but I will tell it if you wish. According to the tale, this island once existed in another world, one adjacent to Balor. A giant, magical tree grew in this world, dominating the land and creating an atmosphere inimical to my race. But a great wizard, my ancestor, fashioned a magic axe, and with it he cut down the giant tree. He captured the broken magic of the tree and used it to transport the island into Balor—refashioning the land and air into forms suitable for the habitation of our people. Then he led his tribe to settle here, and here we have prospered ever since.”

The similarity of this legend to present circumstances was not lost on Farrel: another instance of what Porteas would call a mere alteration of the land. No wonder he sees nothing wrong with ravaging our world, Farrel thought. Such destruction is part of his heritage.

For Farrel and Aidan the days in Balor merged one into another, time seeming to roll in upon itself. They passed the daylight hours outside, wandering the meadow, the dunes and the shore. The temperature never changed, and no puff of wind ever stirred the thin, metal-scented air. Evenings invariably found them in Porteas' pavilion, seated with the high king at his feasting table. Farrel and Aidan consumed only their meager rations of earthly food and water, though each day the Balorian banquet seemed more tempting.

Some nights, the nobles of the high king's court attended. Charming and convivial, human-seeming as Porteas himself, the courtiers feasted gayly and danced gracefully to measured, formal music. Once Porteas invited Aidan to join the dance. When she refused the high king himself refrained. Instead he sat watching Aidan with a bland, appreciative mien that caused her face to go pale and her palms to perspire.

On other occasions the royal bard performed. White-haired and solemn, he sang haunting poems that lingered in the mind and incited eerie dreams. Some told of love between Balorians and humans and how, in the service of such love, magic was used to cross the barrier between the worlds. Other songs told of ancient wars fought on many worlds and among many nonhuman peoples. One such epic recounted how the race of trolls had once conquered parts of the Earth, devastating their human foes with the help of a certain Balorian metal. This “Blood of Balor,” as it was called, had the magical property of turning all flesh that it cut into stone.

Aidan recognized the essentials of the tale as matching certain Gaelic legends, except that in the earthly versions the trolls were called Fomorians. The bard's song reminded her of the trolls, and of why she had come to Balor. Startled as if by a dash of cold water, she momentarily shook off Porteas’ enchantment.

“Why have you made alliance with the trolls?” she asked him angrily, interrupting the climax of the bard's performance. “In all your careful justifications you have made no mention of their place in your plans.”

Her outburst made Farrel look up in dull surprise and caused the Balorian bard to knit his brows with indignation. But Porteas merely regarded Aidan mildly for a moment, then dismissed the bard with a gesture.

“The trolls will be needed to guard the borders of our earthly realm,” he explained in level tones. “They are substantial beings, like your people, far more substantial than we of Balor. For we are truly called shadow folk by your race, and until we have fully converted your land to our needs, we will exist there only as shadows. As such, we will lack the strength and substance to defend ourselves. If your people do not attack us, we will not send the trolls against them.”

Aidan returned his steady gaze, feeling herself slipping once more under his influence. She resisted, and wrung further protest from her numbing mind. “The troll that Valin summoned ... boasted that they would turn our people into cattle, with the help of King Porteas.”

The high king gave a hard half-smile. “I needed to make such promises in order to recruit the giant ones. They are a savage race, and have not evolved in morals or intelligence in the ages since they last prowled the Earth. No doubt they will be needed while we are carving out our new realm in your world—and no doubt, some of your people will be killed, for some resistance is inevitable. But once our conquest is complete, I will have no qualms about breaking my promises to the trolls and banishing them back to their own world.”

“Why should we trust you?” Farrel demanded. “When you boast of how you will break your promises to your allies.”

Porteas' placid glance showed he had taken no offense. His gaze swerved back to Aidan as he answered. “Because your people are dear to my heart, Farrel, increasingly dear. Remember, I am your kinsman. I would no more cause unnecesary harm to your race, than I would treat either of you with discourtesy.”

He is so persuasive, Aidan thought. It is so hard to keep from believing him.

Aidan took to passing the days alone, wandering the shore, lying amid the dunes. Though she tried to concentrate, it became harder and harder to remember her own world. She could not recall the faces of her parents, nor even of her brother from whom she had just parted—How many days ago?

More and more her thoughts dwelled on Porteas. He was doubtless the most powerful lord she had ever known, yet so charming, so kind. She remembered standing behind the curtains in his throne chamber and listening as he gave audiences and heard disputes. He proved himself a patient and wise king, and was especially gentle with the children brought there for his blessing.

But perhaps Aidan had dreamed this episode. It was difficult, in Balor, to tell her dreams from waking. She often napped in the afternoons, snuggled in the soft and colorless grass, in the pleasant, unchanging warmth.

At first she had stayed near Farrel, but now she found herself hiding from him. This proved easy to do. Sometimes he would walk right past, calling her name. But because she did not wish to be found, he would not see her. Sometimes she almost remembered why they had come to Balor. But more often it seemed not worth the effort of recalling.

As Aidan grew more distant from Farrel and her memories of her own world faded into grayness, Porteas strode ever more prominently through her thoughts, containing in his presence all colors, all worlds. All that she desired was to gaze into his eyes and hear his mellow, soothing voice.

I am falling under his control, she told herself, then wondered: Is this a bad thing, after all?

In the violet darkness of the Balorian night, Farrel stood alone on the sand. Before him lay the silvery lagoon, rippling gently in starlight. Eyes narrowed to slits, he gazed across the lagoon to the opposite shore.

Gradually, a vast shape rose in his vision. In an empty place where no stars shone, the smooth bulk of a black mountain reared upward. Farrel stared until the clean-lined slopes and flattened peak showed clearly, and other dark mountains appeared in the background. Only then was he satisfied and allowed his eyes to drift away.

But he remained standing on the shore, puzzling in his mind as to why he came here each day and night to summon up the image of the mountain. He clutched at his beard in frustration, unable to remember. It had meant something important once.

A hand touched his shoulder, and he whirled.

“My lord, I did not mean to startle you.” Green eyes beneath yellow hair showed alarm, fading to amusement.

“Apridora.” Farrel mouthed the named torpidly. He had seen the high king's sister once or twice at the banquet table, but had not spoken to her since that first night.

“I saw you standing here alone,” she said. “I thought you might have lost your way.”

“No.”

“It will be Full Night soon,” she murmured. “Not a good time to be out alone.”

Farrel glanced from her eyes to the sky. She was right: the unfamiliar stars were beginning to wink out. For just as the Balorian day grew dazzlingly bright at noon, so the night, at its nader, darkened to an utter blackness that consumed even the stars.

“Come,” Apridora took his arm. “Walk with me.”

Farrel complied, shortening his stride to match her steps, conscious of her perfume and the firm pressure of her breast against his elbow. Her voice droned pleasantly, speaking with mock-seriousness of the phantom dangers of Full Night.

“But do not fear, sweet human lord,” she laughed. “I will give you shelter.”

He did not remember entering her pavillion, only finding himself there amid the beaded curtains and silken tapestries.

Red lamps glowed dimly in the corners, and alluring music drifted faintly in the scented air. Apridora draped herself about him as he reclined on a broad divan. Her satiny arms slipped over his ears and beard. Her mouth was a moist fruit offered to his lips.

Farrel's body responded to her. It had been ... how many days since he left his Kerrawyn?

The thought of his true love reminded him of where he was, and why.

“Nooo,” Apridora moaned as he pulled his mouth away.

“I must not.”

“Shhh.” She touched a finger to his lips, then slid gracefully from the couch. In the scarlet lamplight she unpinned her hair and let it tumble to her waist. Her eyes locked with Farrel's, she unfastened her gown and artfully peeled it from her shoulders.

Farrel started to protest, but then a rising surge of lust choked off the impulse to speak. He watched as the high king's sister pushed the gown past her full hips and let it drop to the rug. But even as she stepped toward him naked, something nagged at his mind—a faint warning, something he needed to remember ...

“Am I not pleasing?” she asked.

“Yes.”

He cleared his throat, started to rise. But Apridora slid into his arms, bearing him down again.

“Best of all,” she whispered amid hot kisses, “I can be many women. Any woman you desire, Farrel.”

A chunk of ice dropped into his belly: The house of Lady Bremmen, the withered shadow woman.

He gripped her shoulders and forced her away as if she were a wolf seeking his throat. With a growl of loathing he rolled over, holding her down while he clambered to his feet.

“I know you,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “I remember you, from the last time.”

His hand clamped over her mouth, stifling a cry of fear. “Do not try to tempt me again,” he warned.

Apridora watched aghast as Farrel turned and staggered from her tent.

A shadow-faced figure in a gray robe stood before a long, gilt-framed mirror. His hand, long and elegant, touched the surface of the glass with wide-spread, translucent fingers. His touch held steady the image in the magic mirror—the image of Aidan, sleeping on a couch of white silk.

As the Balorian studied the young woman from Earth, his face of shadows gradually solidified. Features emerged, faint and ashen, but soon becoming plain enough that Farrel or Aidan herself would have recognized the face of Porteas.

The high king gazed upon the mirror until his reverie was abruptly snapped. Holding his fingertips against the glass, he turned an annoyed look on the one who had approached.

The intruder was small and supple in the way of Balorian women. A scarlet gown hung loose on her gaunt frame, its color a vivid contrast to the pallid limbs and dim facelessness.

Porteas nodded sourly. “The fact that you are here, sister, indicates that you have failed.”

“Farrel recognized me from when I visited him on Earth,” Apridora said. “He remembered seeing me as I truly am. He is not so deeply enspelled as you believe.”

Porteas sighed. “I should never have sent you across the barrier to his world. I did so only because the faery's protection was weakening my link to Farrel. As it happened, your vain attempt to read his mind nearly broke the link entirely. No doubt your clumsy attempt at seduction has wrought similar damage tonight, startling him out of his enchantment.”

“You had best destroy him while he is still in your power,” Apridora warned. “And the girl as well.”

“No.” Porteas returned his gaze to the mirror. “They are still my guests.”

“They are dangerous. You would see this too, but your attraction to Aidan blinds you.”

“Your thwarted desire for Farrel makes you thirst for his death. I will not let your wounded pride dictate my decisions.”

For an instant, eyes of emerald fire glared in Apridora's shadowed visage. “You are a fool to play with Farrel this way. He has an inner strength that resists your control. Your pride prevents your seeing this. He may yet bring the downfall of all your plans.”

Porteas’ vague features faded away with a frown. Perhaps his half-sister had a point. His feeling of kinship with the Gael must not be allowed to blind him to any possible threat.

“I will keep Lord Farrel under scrutiny,” the high king said. “If he is able to break the enchantment, I will know of it. As for you, sister, keep out of his way.”

 

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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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