In the midday glare, Farrel paced across the meadow, wandering in what he hoped would appear a random pattern. Porteas, he knew, might be watching. And Farrel wanted to look as if he were still totally enspelled.
Or perhaps he was still enspelled, and this present, dim sense of purpose and power was but another illusion, another thread in Porteas’ web.
Farrel could not be sure. It was so hard to think lucidly in this world, where every thought threatened to lead the mind into mazes of idle reverie.
Farrel's head lightened. The air, he thought, the damned thin air is part of the trouble. Disgusted, he kicked the spongy grass, which merely bounced back against his foot.
When last he had looked, only a quarter of the rations brought from Earth remained. Farrel estimated that he and Aidan had been in Balor six or seven days. Time was running out, but they had come no closer to breaking free. Half the time, he could not even find Aidan. When he did, she appeared ever more distant and fey, more plainly under Porteas’ influence. Yet the high king never seemed other than the kind and noble host, so charming and genial that Farrel found himself liking Porteas against his will.
Climbing to the crest of a low dune, the chieftain of Tronwall sat down and stared at the murky sea.
Use the wand, an inner voice told him.
Take the wand and touch it to your forehead.
Farrel felt inside the lining of his jerkin. In his befuddlement, he had all but forgotten the wand's existence, had never considered that it might help break the spell. He hunched his shoulders over the wand and held its silver tip against his forehead.
Closing his eyes, Farrel let the wand's energy flow into him. His anxious soul grew calm, imbued with the vast, serene power of the Oak Spirit, the power of Earth. He breathed deeply. When he opened his eyes, his mind was clear and alert.
“I have tried to call on you,” he whispered to Valin.
And I have tried to reach you, ever since your capture. But Porteas' magic numbed your awareness, and my powers grow weaker the longer I am imprisoned. I could not make you hear me.
“But now his spell is unravelling,” Farrel muttered.
Through your doing, my friend. And it is well done. You must act now, while you have the chance.
Farrel sat listening a few moments more. Then he slipped the wand back into its hiding place and stood. He walked down into the meadow, moving with the same aimless gait as before. But now he deliberately wound his way to Porteas’ pavillion.
Entering, he found the long throne room deserted. Farrel walked to the far end where a hanging behind the dais gave access to a number of smaller chambers and alcoves. One of these, used for storage, contained what he and Aidan had carried into Balor—their earthly rations and their cloaks.
Farrel had meant to retrieve the cloaks and then to go and search for Aidan. But as he passed a dim, lavishly appointed chamber, he discovered Aidan sleeping on a white silken couch.
Glancing about warily, Farrel stole into the chamber. Drapes of maroon velvet hung on the canvas walls and ceiling, filtering the daylight into a dense, ruddy shade. The cool air smelled of lilac-scented candles. Aidan lay sprawled as in a drunken sleep, her skirt disarranged, her bodice untied.
Farrel touched her on the shoulder, but she made no response. Bending over, the chieftain shook her gently and spoke her name. Aidan twisted on the couch and groaned. She opened her eyes and looked up dreamily.
“Porteas,” she murmured. “Is that you? I had a strange dream about you.”
Farrel winced. He started to speak, then checked himself and reached into his jerkin for the wand. He sought Valin's guidance for the proper words, then touched the wand to Aidan's forehead.
“By the Spirit of Oak and the Earth that is Mother to us, I banish deceit and illusion from your mind.”
Aidan frowned, the focus of her eyes altering. After a moment, she blinked and leaned up on her elbows.
“Oh, it is you, Farrel. I had such a strange dream ...”
Her face colored. She glanced down and, seeing her condition of disarray, hastened to tuck in her blouse and smooth her skirt.
“How strange,” she muttered, fumbling with the laces of her bodice. “What has happened to us, Farrel? We are—”
“We have been in this world too long,” he answered. “We cannot wait longer. We must try to reach the well.”
“But Porteas’ spell keeps us prisoners.”
“We shall see.”
Grasping her wrist, Farrel stalked from the chamber, Aidan stumbling after. They found the storage area where their packs and cloaks were laid. Farrel could not remember when last they had eaten, so he took the time now to unpack some of the dried food and water. Nourishment would bolster their strength, he reasoned. And filling their stomachs with earthly substance might help them hold firm to their purpose.
While they swallowed down the cakes and berries, Farrel took out his map and spread it on the carpet.
“Here is the well within the mountain,” he said, “and here lies Porteas’ camp. Our safest path would seem to be this: along the shore of the inlet, then over this hill to join the path that leads up the mountain.”
“Surely the way up the mountain will be guarded,” Aidan pointed out.
Farrel nodded. “But we still have the faery cloaks.”
“They did not save us from capture before.”
“Because Porteas was reading my mind,” Farrel reminded her. “The cloaks will still hide us from most Balorian eyes, so Valin believes. As for Porteas, I hope to reach the well before he realizes we are out of his power. I have done what I can to shield my thoughts from him, but that is all the more reason why we must hurry.”
Finishing the hasty meal, Farrel and Aidan donned the black and gold cloaks and pulled the hoods well over their heads. Thus attired, they left the high king's pavillion. As they walked across the meadow, Aidan lagged behind and Farrel had to take her arm to keep her from wandering off. Presently, they reached the lagoon and proceeded to the spot on the shore where Farrel had stood so often and searched for the sacred mountain. Looking across the silvery inlet, they both could see the line of black mountains standing clear and sharp against the bright sky.
Farrel judged this a positive omen. “Come on,” he said, holding Aidan's hand.
She pulled back. “This is the boundary. Don't you recall?”
“Aidan,” he said. “The spell of imprisonment is in our minds. If we set our minds to it, we can break free.”
“Just forget there is a spell. And remember what we must do.”
Gripping her hand, Farrel started forward. The space around him blurred and twisted, as it had whenever he tried to break free. A twinge of nausea tugged at his stomach.
“I can't,” Aidan stammered, her weight dragging him back.
Seizing her wrist, Farrel resolutely set one foot before the other. He kept his eyes on the ground, refusing to doubt that he was still moving forward. His sense of balance faltered, and the world tilted wildly.
Suddenly the strain on his senses broke. He stumbled several steps and fell down, Aidan tumbling beside him. He sat for a while on the powdery sand, while the dizziness receded. Finally, he wiped his forehead with stiff fingers and looked at Aidan.
She was pale and breathing heavily. But she gazed back with clear eyes and nodded.
“Thank you, Farrel.”
He stood carefully, then helped her up. “Come,” he said. “Let us do what we came here to do.”
Side-by-side, they marched along the edge of the lagoon. Farrel kept glancing at the black mountain that was their destination, but the sight of it never altered. To their right, the line of dunes that separated the Balorian camp from the inlet dwindled to a low, sandy ridge. A guard post commanded this ridge at the end of the peninsula, where the inlet curved around toward the mountains. Farrel and Aidan strode deliberately across the guardsmen's line of sight, watching, ready to run if the sentries raised an alarm. To their relief, the guards gave no sign of having seen them.
“A blessing on Lady Bremmen,” Aidan whispered, almost lightheartedly.
They followed the shore halfway around, then turned inland and climbed a steep, sandy hill. Topping the hill, they crossed a meadow full of colorless weeds and tall, orange growths that resembled huge mushrooms. Farrel noticed a horned snake that slithered away as they approached. Tiny flying reptiles buzzed in the warm air.
Beyond the meadow, Farrel and Aidan climbed a short, rocky slope and peered out upon a broad pavement of black stone. Lean, carved pillars of rock bordered the ground on all sides, marking it as a place of ceremony. At one end of the square, a double row of columns formed an approach to a narrow path that zigzagged up the smooth face of the sacred mountain.
Two armored Balorian warriors stood guard before the ascending path. But Farrel and Aidan strode boldly across the open square, confident now that their cloaks rendered them invisible. Taking care to move noiselessly, they passed between the faceless guards and headed up the slope.
Cut into the side of the featureless mountain, the path rose in three slants and three abrupt turns. Rounding the second of the turns, Farrel glimpsed a broad vista of ocean and marshy coast. At the third turn, he could see the wide plain and the distant mountains where he and Aidan had entered this world. How far away those mountains seemed, how remote the possibility that they would make it back across the plain and across the barrier to their own world. Grimly, Farrel pushed these pessimistic considerations from his thoughts. This moment required concentration on the task at hand.
His heart raced as they hastened up the final leg of the path. Ahead stood the entrance to the sacred cave, a portal carved with pilasters in the shape of two axes. Farrel halted at the edge of the portal, stopping Aidan with a gesture. Cautiously, he peered inside.
A short, low-ceilinged passage gave access to a larger chamber beyond. No guards stood watch in the entryway. Farrel and Aidan edged along the wall and leaned around another axe-shaped pillar to gaze within.
The narrow entrance belied the vastness of the cavern. A conical ceiling sloped up to the summit of the mountain, where shone a yawning circle of daylight. Two wings of a crescent-shaped gallery curved out from the entrance. The gallery overlooked an enormous hall whose size and bordering pillars matched the ceremonial square at the base of the mountain. Farrel could barely discern a low, triangular cleft on the far wall of the cavern. According to his map, that cleft led to the sacred well.
On the floor of the hall, before a forest of rough-hewn, upright stones, stood an assembly of Balorians and trolls some fifty strong.
Farrel leaned back out of sight and pulled Aidan with him.
“Can't we slip past them?” she asked.
An inner sense warned Farrel. Frowning, he shook his head. “Risky. Some of them are doubtless wizards and might sense our presence.”
“Well we can't wait here for them to come out.”
“True.” He pointed along the gallery, which curved halfway around the chamber before merging with the wall. “We'll hide there in the shadows and wait for them to leave.”
Farrel took Aidan's wrist, and together they crept from the entryway. Passing the grand, carved stair that led down to the floor of the cavern, they slipped into the shadowed gallery. Arches and buttresses of rock supported the rugged, silver-flecked walls on their right. Stalagmites and jagged ridges stood along the left, providing a measure of cover.
On the wide floor below, a Balorian priestess droned a long invocation. Her words, meaningless to the travelers from Earth, floated upward with hollow reverberations. From time to time, Farrel glanced down at the group that stood listening to the priestess. Among the tall trolls and long-limbed Balorians, he saw one in regal robes of silver and blue. Though that one's face was a mere shimmer of darkness, Farrel could tell by his dress and his pose that it was Porteas.
The instant after Farrel reached this conclusion, he thought he saw Porteas turn his head, as if to glance up at the gallery. Farrel froze, unable to do ought but stare. But if the high king saw the intruders, he gave no sign. Farrel bent lower and hastened on, not even sure, at this distance, if Porteas had indeed turned his head.
Farrel chose a hiding place near the end of the gallery, where a narrow auxiliary stairway slanted down to the chamber floor. Farrel and Aidan crouched in a murky recess that afforded an open view of the assembly and the standing stones.
The priestess finished her recitation and, bowing her head, moved to one side. Porteas stepped forward to take her place at the head of the gathering. He gave a signal, and two bound and hooded figures were marched up before him and forced to their knees. Farrel noticed these hooded captives for the first time: they were larger and thicker of limb than the men of Balor, though not so brawny as the trolls who stood over them. Porteas drew a long, black-bladed knife and held it aloft.
Farrel glanced from the knife to the mute throng of standing stones. He realized he was about to witness a ritual: the punishment suffered by the enemies of Balor. And it came to him with dread certainty, as knowledge might come in a dream, that the stones crowding the cavern floor were the vanquished foes of Balor—and that Valin stood among them.
Then the hoods were removed from the two prisoners and Farrel saw their faces. They were Lecan the overseer and Garan his son.
“No.” The involuntary word escaped his lips as Farrel started to his feet.
“Hush.” Aidan tugged at his sleeve.
But apparently his voice had not carried, for none of the assembly turned to look in their direction. Porteas had begun a sonorous chant as he passed the black knife slowly over the captives’ heads.
“Those are my men,” Farrel whispered. “I have to stop this.”
No, Farrel. Valin's voice intruded on his thoughts. You cannot save them.
“I have to try,” Farrel answered.
Those two are beyond your help. Think of the rest of your people.
Farrel hesitated, ignoring Aidan's urgings that he get down. He stared at the faces of his clansmen, wide-eyed with fear, yet their jaws set with stubborn courage. The Lord of Tronwall could not bring himself to crouch here in hiding and watch his men die.
“I must stop this,” Farrel said.
Quickly, he reached into his jerkin and removed the magic stone. He grabbed Aidan's wrist and placed the stone firmly in her palm.
“You know where the well is and what you must do. Wait until the cavern empties—or at least until Porteas is gone. No matter what happens to me, stay here.”
Without giving her a chance to answer, Farrel rose and strode across the gallery.
The prisoners had been made to stand and face the assembly. Porteas concluded his chant and lifted the knife high over Lecan’s head.
Halfway down the stairs, Farrel threw off his cloak and shouted.
“Hold, Porteas. Is this another example of your hospitality?”
With a muttering of surprised and angry voices, Balorians and trolls turned to watch Farrel approach. The ceremony interrupted, Porteas lowered his knife. The familiar, finely-etched features appeared from the shadow of his face.
Farrel reached the edge of the crowd and Porteas ordered his subjects to separate and let the man of Earth pass. Two trolls with huge spears fell into step behind Farrel. A backward glance convinced him that the two giants could restrain or slay him at a moment's command.
Farrel stared into the eyes of Lecan, who recognized him as he drew near.
“Lord Farrel. Is it you, my lord?”
“It is, friend Lecan. Do not be afraid.”
“We are not afraid of death,” Garan yelled defiantly. “We have told these fiends nothing.”
Farrel turned his gaze on Porteas. “Release them.”
The high king shook his head, blackness shifting over his face. “Even if I wanted to, I could not. On the night of Valin's capture, two Balorians were killed in a skirmish at the base of the bridge in your world. These humans have been captured to avenge that loss.”
“Release them,” Farrel said. “I will pay any blood price you name.”
“Their deaths are the only acceptable payment,” Porteas replied. “They must be sacrificed to our Spirits of War. You see, the bridge of light is nearly finished, and the crossing of the trolls will soon commence. It would be unwise to begin the campaign before the honor of my tribe has been satisfied. And this can only be done by blood.”
“But this is murder,” Farrel protested, “without honor.”
“Our ways are different,” Porteas answered simply. “I knew I could not keep you enspelled forever, Farrel. It is just as well that you see this now, to know the harshness as well as the pleasantries of my world. Then you can decide for yourself to join me or not. Restrain him.”
The high king had addressed this last remark to the two trolls, who immediately stepped forward, knelt for leverage, and wrapped their arms around Farrel's arms. The young chieftain struggled uselessly, for each troll had the strength of a draft horse.
Porteas turned to face the bound prisoners. He lifted the long knife once more.
“No!” Farrel yelled.
In desperation, he stamped on the foot of one of his captors, and for a moment tore free of the loosened grip. But the injured troll responded by viciously driving a fist into Farrel's groin. The chieftain doubled over in agony, blackness flashing across his vision.
Porteas spoke ritual words as he drew the blade slowly down before the stern, rigid face of Lecan. The knife descended past the man's neck and chest, then turned to point at his belly. With a final invocation, Porteas turned the knife and stabbed upward, the point penetrating only an inch or less.
Lecan grunted, mouth gaping, eyes wide with shock. A quivering started in his belly, spread upward to his shoulders and his arms, still gripped by the trolls. As the shaking moved through his hips and thighs, he looked down and gasped. His stomach had become a sheet of shiny black stone. Lecan began to babble with terror, then to scream.
The stone moved in crackling surges down his legs. When the trolls released his arms they fell to his sides, already turning black. The stone erupted outward, beyond the outline of its victim's body, surrounding him like a dark, inflexible cocoon. Lecan's screaming head was the last to be transformed, the stone closing over it like a huge, devouring worm. Then no human shape remained, only a twisted mass of stone. The horrible shrieking echoed a moment longer in the vast cave.
By now Porteas had moved over to Garan and begun the ritual once more. Lecan's son, his nerve broken, whimpered and pleaded for his life. But Porteas spoke the words in a passionless voice and moved the knife inexorably into place.
On his knees, arms twisted behind him by the trolls, Farrel watched through tears of rage until the black blade entered Garan's stomach. Then he dropped his head and wept bitterly, the howls and screams of the young farmer mauling him inside.
At last the chamber grew quiet, Garan having joined his father in death. Porteas wiped the black knife clean on a linen cloth provided by an attendant. He closed the ceremony with a short recitation.
The priestess moved off through the standing stones toward the portal at the rear of the chamber. The rest of the gathering also turned to depart, except for the handful of Balorian and trolls that made up the high king's retinue. At Porteas' command, Farrel was lifted to his feet.
The high king's face shone clear and mild as he returned Farrel's fierce gaze. “I make no apology for what you have witnessed,” Porteas said. “But I repeat my earlier offer of friendship, and an honored place in my kingdom.”
Farrel strained to keep his voice level, his thoughts unreadable. “How can I accept the hand of friendship with my arms pinned behind me?”
Porteas stared into his eyes. “Release him,” he said, after a moment.
Reluctantly it seemed, the trolls let him loose. Farrel stretched his arms, grimacing at the stiffness. The instant he sensed the two giants relaxing, he struck.
Farrel's right hand closed on the troll's spear while his left hand, with all his weight behind it, shoved into the giant's chest. Caught off balance, the troll let go of his spear as he staggered backward. Farrel lifted the weapon awkwardly and charged at Porteas.
The troll on the other side dove after Farrel and dragged him down by the waist. Falling, Farrel cast the spear. But Porteas leaned aside and caught only a glancing blow on his forearm.
In moments, Farrel had been wrestled to his feet, his arms pinned securely once more. Porteas angrily swept aside his guards and solicitous courtiers and stalked forward to confront his attacker.
“You are a fool,” he said.
“And you are a torturer and a coward,” Farrel yelled back, struggling madly, “a killer of helpless men. Will you use your black blade on me now?”
“You have made that choice yourself,” Porteas answered. “I said you deserved an honored place in this land. But this place is as honored as any.”
He drew the long knife from the scabbard at his hip. “But before I give you that honor, Farrel, there is another who must choose her place.”
The high king walked past his faceless guards and attendants and stared up at the gallery from which Farrel had descended.
“Aidan,” he called. “Come down and join us, my dear.”