"They may be able to wait a few weeks, but I'm not sure we can. I really actually don't think we can wait that much longer. For starters, let me put it this way: my lady said that she does not approve of the king on the hill."
"Well, I'm absolutely shocked to hear that."
"No, no, no, it goes beyond that. Brigid is one of the goddesses of sovereignty," she reminded us. "One of our tasks ultimately will be to remove him from the kingship."
"Well, good. Then the sooner we get started, the better."
"And part of that is going to be consecrating the temple," she concluded implacably. "Three days, my lady, that's all I need."
"Oh, fine," I capitulated with poor grace.
"Lady Ariana, when did we get a task list?" Conner wanted to know.
"Ask her." I nodded at the one who got visited by the goddess.
"I thought we just wanted to find out what killed the exchequer and go home?"
"Well, there are some other problems here that obviously need to be resolved," I pointed out.
"I think I would have made a good exchequer, because I'd rather not even notice the curtain of darkness," he muttered.
"No, that's just because there's no room on the form for it," Gannon explained. "That will be revised."
"Might I point out that we still haven't discovered what killed the exchequer?" I reminded them.
"And I'm perfectly willing to continue investigating...."
"It turns out it was just wolves," Llweder suggested with dark humor. "Farmer came around and buried the corpse later."
"But they were wolves that were acting underneath command, because we're fairly certain someone commanded the exchequer to die, because of whatshisname's lie," Meara explained in one breath.
"Emer," I supplied.
"I know, I'm trying not to say his name out loud."
"Just on the off chance that he actually has a spell that can scry easier because we're talking about him, or something."
"We talk about him all the time," I shrugged.
"Let's annoy the heck out of him, let's ask everyone in town to talk about him," Conner suggested.
Three days later, we had a shrine in the main room of the house. Meara made arrangements with the local kids to make sure the fire was tended while we were gone.
Llweder returned from communing with nature, looked around, grunted. "Nice shrine."
"Can we go now?" I asked impatiently.
Of course, first we had to decide where to go.
"Let's go back to that rose maze," Meara suggested.
"Oh?" Conner replied with an amazed look.
"Yeah!" he lied, shaking his head vigorously.
"No!" Gannon voted.
"Something was definitely up there, we should take another look around," Llweder voted.
"There were so many clues to find last time," I sighed.
"Something was definitely upthe rose bushes were up there!" Conner reminded the druid. "What if next time the ridgeline is up there?"
"Then we're really screwed, and more than just two us will be seriously hurt," Meara replied serenely.
"Not me," Gannon vowed.
I shrugged. "Far be it from me to shy away from lunatic danger. Let's go."
We retraced our path. The maze and the entrance were still there. Llweder still had the sense that there was something there for him to read, if only he could. Meara checked with her goddess and still received left as the way to go.
"Can we do all rights, just to see where that takes us, next time we go through this rose maze?" she wondered.
"On the way back, yeah," Gannon assured her blithely.
The massive pile of burned not-exactly-rose bush was still marring the manicured lawns; whoever kept the place looking so neat hadn't been around lately.
"Let's keep moving," Conner suggested. "We already know what happens here."
We headed off toward the pillar of darkness. I still couldn't pick it out from the overall night without having it pointed out, but we trusted Conner's eyes.
The pillar, oddly enough, didn't seem entirely unnatural to Llweder. It was clearly magical, but not intensely wrong.
"We may be in a place where the rules are different," I noted.
"That may explain the lack of sun," he agreed gravely.
"And in here the lack of moon, yet still present moonlight. That's another one that's making my brain itch," Conner complained.
"Just don't think about it so hard," I advised.
"Why is that making your brain itch?" Meara wanted to know. "It's perfectly natural."
We crossed the ridgeline. Things moved in the underbrush, the noise shocking after the silence of the night-clad lands on the other side of the maze. Still no birds, however. Llweder tried talking to whatever was out there, but it either didn't speak the same language or it wasn't interested.
Below the ridge the land dropped away, with a lake at the bottom. The pillar of darkness descended into an island in the center of the lake. A flat boat was drawn up on the shore below us.
"Shall we?" Meara invited. "I think we're going to have to leave the horse behind."
Clearly. "I suspect that we're not going to get out of here until we cross the lake," I stated.
"We could, it's just back that way...." Conner looked hopeful.
"Well go on ahead then," I told him.
"You're just saying that 'cause you know I won't, 'cause something'll kill me on the way back," he sulked.
"You could stay here and guard the horse," Meara suggested.
"Or have the horse guard him," I muttered. Griffon seemed to be taking this place entirely in stride, which reassured me somewhat. We climbed into the boat and poled across the still water. The water looked normal, murky, the bottom invisible.
"By the way, if any really buff young men with swords come popping out of the lake and offer you that thing, turn them down," Meara advised me.
"I have a sword; I could do with a buff young man." One of Excalibur in the clan is probably enough even for us.
"Unfortunately, if you take both the sword and the buff young man, you've got problems."
"You mean you're going through your whole life just looking for a buff young man?" Conner sounded faintly scandalized.
"No, but if one happens by...."
Something vaguely snakelike and very large swam below us, but nothing gave us trouble. The island was manicured as the garden had been. A squat, roofless, black marble building stood at the building's center. The darkness went through it.
"Llweder, does this garden feel normal?" Conner asked. Insofar as any garden could feel normal to a druid, which wasn't much, this one did. Someone had polished the rocks.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al