We spent the "night" in the druids' grove and were not disturbed.
"I'm fairly certain that it's supposed to be morning," Conner announced, looking at the sky.
"Who cares? Let's go." I was impatient to get on with things.
"That means that everything's right and natural in this section of the universe," Meara told him.
Gannon gave her a look. "Or the complete opposite of right and natural, whichever..."
"Would you guys get over it already?" I snapped. "Circle of darkness, just deal." I mean really, how much does this need to be dwelt on?
"Let's just say that this part of the universe hasn't changed from the way that it was yesterday," Conner assured his friend mournfully.
We had a cold breakfast and went back to check on the mine. The orcs were goneit looked as if they had tried to set fire to the mine timbers before they leftand had traveled north into the hills. There didn't seem to be any Fae around, either.
"Milady, do you want us to follow these?" Conner asked, looking at the tracks. His voice left no doubt as to what answer he hoped for.
"Not right now." We would have to track them down eventually, but they didn't seem to pose an immediate threat. "Shall we go back to the castle and see if Emer would like to talk to us?"
"Oh, sure, let's go get ourselves killed," Meara replied cheerfully. "I'd rather track the orcs myself, personally, see where they're going. Maybe they might actually know where the Fae have their encampment. Let's go talk to the dead guy. Actually, if we can talk to Gudrun laterif we survive thisif he doesn't know anything, perhaps we can ask her if she can talk to the head druid." There were enough people around whose status as dead seemed a mite questionable, he might be available for consultation. "Shall we approach the castle from the night side or the day side?"
"We'll do a quick circuit, just to get the lay of the land, and then try the front door," I said.
"Well...." She looked hesitant.
"What would you suggest? Try to sneak up on him?"
"No, no, we may as well try the front door. I mean, if he's going to talk to us at all it's going to be because you are who you are."
"And we're not threatening to burn the place down."
"Yeah, I don't think that would work twice," Conner agreed. "What are other effective ways to destroy a castle?"
"Bring in an army," Meara suggested.
"Catapults, large siege engines, mining," I offered.
"Bad management over the course of a couple lifetimes... that's not likely," Conner concluded regretfully. And we didn't have time for armies, siege engines, or sapping.
There was a gate on each side of the keep, a very unusual design. We were already on the dark side, so we took a look at the place where Conner had seen figures emerging that first day.
"I think we'll use the light-side gate," I decided, not thrilled with the problem. Conner gasped as if shocked. "Oh, stop that."
"I'm sorry, I'm just happy." He peered up at the walls, noted a half dozen indistinct figures. It was not distance that made them difficult to see clearly. "There are people up there. They're definitely watching us."
"Are they moving, or are they just standing stock still?" Meara asked.
"Hang on... they're shifting back and forth. Can't see if they're armed."
I waved hello.
"They're just over there." On the dark side, he meant.
"That's okay." I hadn't really expected otherwise.
"There's a very good chance that we're going to knock on the light side and no one's going to answer because it's daytime," Meara added.
"There's only one way to find out."
"Let's go see if the butler's in."
We climbed the causeway to the gate. I knocked. There were some echoes, and dust fell from the arch. That stone bothered us; it really was white, and hadn't come from anywhere around here. The door was barred.
"Does anybody else feel like there's somebody behind you? Watching the back of your head?" Gannon asked suddenly. Which was interesting, because I had in fact had that feeling for a while now.
"All right, well, we want to go talk to them on the dark side, then?" Meara said.
"I suppose we must," I nodded.
"Well, we could always try climbing the gate. That could be fun. Let's go build a ladder, see if they'll stop us."
"They might take that as being a little impolite."
"But haven't you always wanted to lay siege to a castle?"
I looked at Conner, Gannon, and Llweder. "Not with this."
"What?!" Gannon protested.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Conner stopped him. "You are actually about to start complaining because she was reasonable enough to think that we were not sufficient to besiege a castle?!" He smacked Gannon on the side of his head.
"Yeah, but now it sounds like an affront...."
"It's a statement of reality! You're an accountant, I'm a tailor, no!"
We circled around to the dark side of the keep, one eye out for the figures on the wall. A line of unlit braziers ran up to the gate. I knocked. More echoes, less dust. A bell rang somewhere.
A skull with green flaming eyes opened a small hatch in the gate and looked out at us, grunted with a vaguely interrogative sound.
"Good morning," I started, a bit more tentatively than I would have liked. "I am Ariana ap Rhys, on a mission from King Connol, and I would like to speak to His Late Majesty Emer." The hatch closed, and loud footsteps stomped away into the echoing building. "Well, they haven't killed us yet," I noted hopefully.
The gate opened. We walked through it into a large courtyard that seemed even larger for its emptiness. There were some well-banked green fire braziers scattered about the place; they gave off a strong reek.
Llweder grunted, displeased.
"What are they burning?" Conner asked him.
"I don't know, but it's not good."
"The souls of their enemies, no doubt," Meara suggested darkly.
"You mean that metaphorically, right?" Conner looked, if possible, even more nervous than he had before.
"Whatever it is, it's an obscenity," the druid declared. He looked for oghams and found none
That sense of being watched was stronger than ever. We waited in the courtyard until a figure emerged from the great hall. Emer's ghost was over six feet tall, an indistinct human figure in funerary robes with sickly green flaming eyes. It wore a barbed crown of three twisted strands, a plain-looking sword, and a simple ring with a massive square-cut black stone set in it, all of which were clearly visible, unlike the rest of his attire. I bowed carefully.
"Yes?" a deep, resonant voice demanded.
"Your Majesty, good morning. I am sorry to disturb you; we were wondering if perhaps you could tell us the cause of your current circumstances?"
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al