To Aidan it seemed that Porteas’ eyes pierced the distance and gloom of the cavern and looked into her soul. The sound of his voice calling her name rang in her like music, reminding her of all his enchantment and love. But the screams of the dying men still lingered in the corners of her mind, tormenting her with more recent, brutal memories.
Her gaze scarcely left Porteas as she descended the rock stairs and crossed the chamber. As she approached him, the high king held out his hand. Almost against her will, Aidan offered her own trembling hand in response.
Porteas gently pulled the hood from her head. “Your magic cloak could not hide you from me, Aidan. The bond I have forged between us is even stronger than my kinship bond with Farrel. Do not tremble so.” He stroked her wrist. “You have nothing to fear from me.”
Aidan lowered her eyes. She could not speak.
Porteas continued in a solemn tone. “Farrel has broken the laws of kinship and hospitality by attempting to assassinate me. His treachery must be punished. However, I see no reason to implicate you in Farrel's actions or to punish you for his crime. Still, the moment has come when you must choose. You can stand with Farrel and share his fate, or remain my cherished guest, protected by my friendship and love.”
Aidan stared past the king and his attendants to where Farrel stood in the grasp of the trolls. Unable or unwilling to look at Aidan, Farrel hung his head in an aspect of hopeless defeat.
“My lord,” Aidan began, “I know Farrel. He is not treacherous. He acted in a moment of rage.”
“Do not plead for him,” Porteas said. “He has made his own choice. You must make yours.”
“I would not choose death,” Aidan answered, almost in tears. “Yet I fear giving myself into the protection of so cruel a lord.”
“So you think me cruel.”
“You have always treated me most gently,” Aidan murmured. “Yet what I have seen here—”
“You have seen more than I would have wished,” the high king replied. “But cruelty is part of kingship; this you must learn. Still, so also is mercy. Come, child, I will show you that I can be gentle even to my enemies.”
He led her to where Farrel stood.
“For Aidan's sake,” Porteas said to the chieftain, “I will give you a chance to save yourself. No, I will not suggest that you beg for your life, since I realize you would only spit back such an offer with defiance. Instead I will leave you here in the field of stones. A sacred knife will be used, but only to make small cuts in your heels. The change from flesh to stone will therefore proceed slowly, taking a day and night, or longer, to complete. You will have that long to ponder your fate. If you ask my forgiveness and swear to renounce your feud with me, a counterspell will be applied and your life will be spared. You need only call out to the guards that you are willing to do this, and they will send a messenger to me.”
Farrel's stubborn scowl had not altered during this speech, and did not alter now.
The high king turned to the woman at his side. “Does this satisfy you, Aidan?”
She regarded him with gratitude. “My lord, I thank you.”
“Then come with me, child. We will feast in celebration, for we both have escaped death this day.”
Aidan allowed him to lead her away, the high king's retinue falling into step behind them. As they crossed the vast chamber, she glanced back at Farrel. The chieftain watched sullenly, but without struggle, as two soldiers knelt and removed his boots.
Porteas paused at the bottom of the steps to speak a few words to the sentries posted there. Then the high king and his party ascended the stairs and departed from the sacred cavern. Outside, a purple twilight was settling on the land. The keen blue arc of the bridge shone bright against the darkening sky.
Scores of candles gleamed in the high king's pavilion. At a table spread with a savory feast, Aidan stared dreamily at the candle flames. Four musicians played softly in a distant corner. But Aidan preferred the sweeter, more thrilling music of Porteas’ voice.
She struggled inwardly to keep her mind awake. It would be so easy to drift under his influence once more. And she must appear to do so, while keeping her inner thoughts her own, alert and purposeful. She must wait and hope for a chance to act—for now everything depended on her.
“Many women of Earth have been loved by lords of Balor,” Porteas was saying. “A few have been granted to spend their lives in this happy realm. Fewer still have become our queens.”
Aidan faced him, lips parted, eyes widening in amazement.
Porteas covered her hand with his. “This is the honor I would bestow upon you: all the power, wealth, and pleasures of my kingdom. I know I can love you. I believe I have seen in your heart that you can love me also. Dwell with me, Aidan, and be my queen.”
She blushed, lowering her eyes from his ardent gaze. Above all, she must not lose his trust. With an effort, she controlled her voice and answered. “I believe you know my heart already, my lord. I will stay.”
Porteas wan face lit with a smile. He filled two crystal goblets with ruby-colored wine.
Earthly food and water had not been provided at the feast this night, but Aidan still had taken nothing from the table, professing that she had no appetite. Now Porteas set the Balorian wine before her.
“You will drink with me,” he whispered, “to signify that we are one.”
And so I am doomed, she thought, but aloud said: “I will drink.”
Aidan and Porteas touched the rims of their goblets together, then drank, their eyes never straying from each other. The wine of Balor tasted sweet, with a heady tang.
Soon the wine's golden warmth permeated Aidan's senses. Her cheeks flushed, and she heard a mild sighing in her ears. All the tension drained from her body. She found herself leaning against Porteas, responding with open lips to his kisses.
The high king lifted her in his arms and carried her to his private chamber. In the faint candlelight, he undressed her. Aidan stood with arms at her sides, letting him do as he wished. She gazed at him submissively, like one transfixed by love or magic.
But in her mind she held one thought against the encroaching blankness: I belong to myself, not to him.
Lilting music still drifted faintly from the outer chamber. With a contemptuous smile, Porteas examined the necklace Aidan wore, the silver dagger in its filigreed scabbard. Carefully, he lifted it over her head and tossed it away.
“There will be no more daggers between us, my child. And when next you wear a necklace, it will be of royal jewels.”
He lifted her chin and kissed her with passion, then guided her to the silk-covered couch. Aidan watched through half-shut eyes as he removed his garments. When he lay down beside her she embraced him, melting happily into the heat of his body.
But even as she clung to him, and even when she cried out in the shuddering moment of ecstasy, Aidan kept the guarded thought in her mind:
I belong to myself, not to him.
Farrel bent over to touch his knees—confirming that they had indeed changed to stone.
The great cavern was lit only by a few cressets set at the entrance, where the guards were stationed, and by faint starlight visible through the opening in the roof. In the near-darkness, Farrel could only tell by touch how far the petrification of his body had progressed.
“It has reached the knees,” he muttered.
Try the wand once more, Valin's voice answered in his mind.
Ruefully, Farrel took the oak wand in his hand and touched it against his leg. Shutting his eyes, he sought to invoke the wand's power in order to change the stone back to living flesh. Within himself, he sensed Valin adding his own efforts to the invocation.
They had attempted this several times already, without success.
Farrel opened his eyes and tapped the wand against his knee—producing a dull, stony thud. Shaking his head, he thrust the wand back into its hiding place in the lining of his jerkin.
“I am going to call the guards,” he told Valin. “And tell them I'm ready to beg Porteas’ forgiveness. I see no other hope.”
I see small hope in that plan, the druid replied. Even if he spares your life, he won't be so foolish as to leave you at liberty again.
“But he might let me get close enough to kill him,” Farrel whispered grimly. “Guards!” he shouted. “I must speak with your high king.”
Across the dim chamber, the sentries turned to look at him, then turned their heads away.
“Guards!” Farrel yelled. “Go to Porteas. Tell him I am ready to make peace with him.”
“Fool,” one of the Balorians called out in reply. “We were told you might make such a request. Did you really believe our king would be so soft-witted as to spare your life? You are doomed, human, as all your race is doomed.”
Farrel's mouth hung open for a long moment as the chilling comprehension settled on him. Porteas had lied, purely for the sake of seducing Aidan.
“We are lost, Valin,” Farrel said.
I fear it may be so, the druid's thought replied.
The Lord of Tronwall shook his head in cold despair. “I came so close, just as you did, and failed, just as you did.”
We both failed, my friend, but for different reasons. You, because you could not see beyond your own feelings and it made you act in haste. I, because I could not ignore the Spirit of this world and it kept me from acting decisively. You could not see beyond yourself and I could not act within myself.
“What does it matter?” Farrel grumbled. “Porteas’ bridge is nearly finished, and we are trapped here, helpless. We both have come to the same miserable end.”
Indeed, Valin replied. Unless Aidan can place the stone in the well.
“Yes. She might still destroy the bridge. But even that won't save our lives.”
It might. If the stone goes into the well, and it's power acts as I hope it will, it will unravel all the magic that binds in this land. That should include not only the bridge, but the land itself, and also we who are bound in stone.
“Then we would return to ourselves?” Farrel whispered. “And so would Lecan and Garan.”
There is no hope for your clansmen, Valin answered soberly. They would reappear as corpses only. The transformation to stone normally kills its victims. I survived only through my bond with Glenna, and now with you.
“Which means that soon we will both be dead.”
It depends on Aidan now.
Lying on her back, Aidan stared vacantly at the shadowy ceiling and listened to Porteas’ even breathing. She knew she had to make her bid while he slept, but she feared that no matter how quietly she moved it might wake him. While she waited, thoughts of their recent lovemaking floated with languid sweetness in her mind—alternating with the bitter memory of the two men of Ireland changing to stone.
At last, spurred by the horror of that vision, Aidan slipped from the high king's couch. She took a step backward on trembling legs, gazing anxiously at Porteas.
The king, his face half-hidden in shadow, did not move.
Dazed, Aidan dragged the tangled hair back from her face. Her clothes lay in rumbled piles on the carpet. She wanted to just gather them up and flee, to leave Porteas sleeping while she hurried back to the sacred mountain.
But she could not risk that Porteas would wake and find her gone. The cloak would not hide her from his eyes. And in this land where time and distance obeyed the minds of wizards, if Porteas woke, he would surely discover her intent and stop her.
So he must not wake, Aidan concluded with a dread and icy certainty.
She stepped to the chair where Porteas had hung his sword belt. With a stony hiss, the scabbard yielded the black blade—that which he had called the sacred knife. Aidan watched Porteas in terror, but he did not react to the noise. Shuddering, she forced herself to approach the coach.
Aidan had never slain a man. But the brothers of the Black Glove had taught her to use a sword or dagger to defend herself in the last extreme. From instruction she knew the vulnerable places on the body, the necessity of a sudden, violent thrust.
She meant to strike Porteas through the neck, severing a main artery—ensuring a quick death whether or not the blade's baleful magic worked on Balorian flesh. A quick death: more mercy, surely, than Porteas had shown to Farrel's poor clansmen.
Yet, against her will, Aidan hesitated. She could not avoid gazing at his face, full of repose and so strangely beautiful. He was a high king of an ancient and noble line. This night, he had given Aidan his trust and his love. Now she must violate both.
As she paused above him, the blade quivering in her hand, Porteas stirred, turned his head on the pillow.
“Aidan,” he whispered without opening his eyes.
She bent close to him. “I am here, my lord.”
As she spoke, she slid the point of the long dagger close to his throat. Her teardrop fell on his cheek. As his eyes blinked open, Aidan steeled herself and thrust the point into his throat.
Porteas’ eyes opened wide with shock. His hands clawed at the dagger.
Aidan fought to hold the blade firmly in place as blood spurted over her wrists. The king's body arched and twisted. More blood spilled from his mouth, drowning out a gurgling cry that might have been Aidan's name.
A shimmer of blackness spread out from the wound. Porteas' strength ebbed and his struggles subsided. But still his eyes bored into Aidan, full of agony and reproach. She turned her face aside, unable to bear his look. She was weeping uncontrollably when Porteas at last lay still.
Aidan backed away from the bloodied couch, staring numbly at what she had done. The upper half of Porteas' body was a hideous statue, a rivulet of blood still running out from around the knife. The black stone advanced over his loins and down his legs, even as it further enwrapped his upper body.
At length, Aidan recovered herself enough to gather up her clothing. Her hands trembled too much to cope with garters or laces, so she left her bodice untied and put on her shoes without hose. Searching on hands and knees, she found her chain with the silver dagger and placed it over her neck.
In the dark outer chamber, she found her faery cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders, grateful for the feeling of concealment it offered. Her fingers searched inside the inner pocket and closed on the magic stone.