"That wasn't bird," Meara observed.
Conner sent an arrow through its heart. The crow exploded into a rain of spiders, centipedes, and other crawlies that rapidly scattered. By the time anyone else got to the spot, there was nothing there to see. "Big, greasy crow," he told us.
"That wasn't a crow. Above and beyond the whole rain of centipedes thing, it wasn't speaking crow," the priestess told him.
"Oh, and that was your indicator? The green fire behind its eyes, collapsing into a pile of centipedes"
"I didn't see, there was green fire behind its eyes? What sort of green fire, was it sort of phosphorus, like the stuff you get over a swamp when there's dead people in it?"
"When was the last time I was near a swamp full of dead people?!"
"Oh, there's dead people in every single swamp."
"Where do you think the account" Gannon stopped talking abruptly.
"If you'll tell us what this is before we try to go beard it in its lair?" I inquired.
"Whatever it is, I think it probably knows we're here."
We had two or three hours of daylight left on the other side.
"Why don't we try to get shelter with Emer?" Conner suggested facetiously.
Meara laughed. "How 'bout we stay here for the night?"
"That thing might have been Emer for all we know," Llweder pointed out.
"Well then, never mind..." Gannon said hopefully.
"There was a murder of flesh-eating ravens that came out of the castle at one point," Meara reminded us.
"I thought it just came out of the darkness?" Conner frowned.
"I thought she said the castle. The darkness? Okay."
"Only half of the castle's in darkness."
"I'm not sure the other half isn't. And the whole entire bloody thing is white," she added in a near-growl; we hadn't seen any white stone on our journey. "I don't know, everybody's choice, but inside the grove's actually not a bad place to camp if we get stuck here and we need shelter."
"Yes, but we're not stuck," Llweder pointed out. "I think we should head back."
"Can we do one thing before we leave? Could you talk to the willow tree in the center?"
"I'm not quite that far along...."
"Well, see if the willow tree in the center wants to say anything to you."
"I want to go home to my mommy," someone muttered while the druid went to poke around the tree.
"Oh, buck up, Conner," I sighed impatiently.
"Just think you've got thistle, grown in darkness!" Meara encouraged him, unusually conciliatory.
"Yeah, I'm very happy with that...."
"Apple, you might want to grab some of that apple. I'm going to grab some apple, too."
"Got some of that," he nodded.
"One of the things I've been meaning to talk to you about it, I'm going to be making an item in the future, as soon as we actually get a chance to settle down and stop attending to Rhys business...."
"Everything in the kingdom is Rhys business," I replied serenely.
"Right. So anyways, I'm going to be enchanting certain items, and you know, basically you can only enchant one type of material at a time, so I thought it would work best if we combined forces. You enchanted certain types of materials that you might be interested in, I enchanted certain types of materials I might be interested in, and we exchange materials."
"What materials are you interested in?"
"Oh, I don't know, as soon as I have enough money I'm going to be enchanting some gold, but at the moment I'm just enchanting garnets and stuff."
"Have any emeralds?"
"Not yet, no. Emeralds are a little bit above my touch at the moment."
He nodded. "That's my problem, too, but I really want one."
"I want a ruby."
"I've got this nice moonstone..."
"Ooh. How about malachite? We could probably get malachite long before we could get emerald. I know it's not emerald...."
While they nattered on, Llweder checked the tree for oghams and, much to everyone else's surprise, assumed full poetic stance and began speaking the ancient Powian magespeech
The waves on the shore began running backward. The stars reversed their course. Those who understood the language heard, "This is the place where the de Danaan took the land, this is where Llwys struck his last shot, this is where wrapped in iron and sunk into the ground"
Meara cold-cocked him. Then she bowed to the tree, very deeply. Time resumed its normal course. Conner bowed as well, then made sure Llweder was okay.
"What happened?" he asked, coming around.
"The tree talked through you. We have real problems."
"Yes. We have serious problems," Meara echoed.
"What did it say?"
"We can't repeat it."
"Could you paraphrase?" I asked impatiently.
"We'll sum up," Conner offered.
There was no time. "There's something looking at us," Gannon said suddenly.
"For good or for bad?" Meara asked.
"I'm gonna guess bad."
"I think we should retreat to the day side," Llweder suggested, standing up. "Right now."
"I think that's the wisest course of action," Conner seconded. "Lady Ariana, with your permission, of course?"
I gave another sigh but nodded. Running grated, but if all the magical sorts were in agreement it was a rare enough event to mention in the annals of history, and just might bear listening to.
"This'll take just a few moments." Meara cast a spell to allow us to see in the dark. "Shield your eyes when you run over!"
"It's just going to give it more time to prepare when we come back, don't see the point of a tactical retreat, but you guys are the experts," I sighed.
"The point behind the tactical retreat is we have no idea what was looking at us."
"We're not going to know any better tomorrow, are we?"
Conner spotted more of the green fire, this time as a series of torches lining the approach to the keep. "Oh, hell."
"What?" I asked.
"There are green fire torches up by the keep. Same type. All on the dark side."
"Can you see if someone's coming out the door?" Meara asked.
"I'm lucky I can see this."
"You just want the sun, moon, and stars, don't you?" he snapped. "You are never happy!"
"I'm happy frequently."
"Just forget it, like I'm telling you anything ever again...." Wings flapped behind us in the darkness. "Keep moving!" Whatever it was, there were many of them.
Gudrun's hut had disappeared, but the bridge was still there. We crossed over into the daylight side of the swamp. There was considerable screeching behind us as the ravens came near the demarcation and swept back, lightly scorched. Those who didn't make the turn in time burst into flames.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al