One perfectly normal, nonmagical horseshoe nail came free, and our awestruck group watched the sun rise gloriously from six feet away. Meara began to sing. As later explained, the spell itself was ambitious but not terribly complicated, and someone somewhere was just presented with one heck of a bill.
"Congratulations," I told Conner. "Nicely done." I really hadn't expected it to be that simple.
"Anyone have any ordinary alcohol?" he wanted to know. Meara passed him her whiskey flask, which made him cough alarmingly for a moment but did the intended job.
We went outside, into the light. Snuffles' body was beginning to evaporate, along with the gore soaking Gannon's clothes (at least, the gore that wasn't his). We poled back across the lake and watched the sea serpent in the lake gambol, scales glittering as it leaped and crashed. On the shore a couple of sea lionsfront half of a lion, back half of a sharkwere trying to menace Griffon without any great success. They grumped back into the water as we neared land.
"Why do I have this awful feeling that if we held our breath long enough and dove off of this thing, we'd pop up in the bay?" Meara wondered.
"You can try the experiment if you want to," I told her. "I'll be perfectly happy to go back home the normal way."
"Oh, the normal way...."
"You know, through the rose maze, the door back into the regular reality."
"The place that up until five minutes ago was in perpetual darkness for fifty years? Yeah, normal," Gannon muttered.
The birds were back. "Where've you been?" Meara asked them.
"Dark. Went to sleep," they told her.
The place was even prettier, and a lot less menacing, in the daylight. Meara left an offering of catnip and jasmine at the pool. The rose maze was still there, and when we emerged the sun was shining over a beautiful early afternoon. Llweder made another attempt at reading the oghams there, and found them similar to the ones at the sun's prison: more Fae magic. There was a Greenway spell, a Shining Gate, and a confusion spell over the maze. More ground for future magical studies.
"So where to from here?" Conner looked around at the rest of us.
"Want to see what happens if you go right through the maze?" Meara asked.
"Not particularly," I replied. I was a bit concerned that the author of the sun trap might come by at any moment to find out what was going on.
"No," was Conner's more succinct answer.
"I think I'm personally comfortable not doing that," Gannon voted.
"I think you'd be personally comfortable healing," Conner observed.
There was that. We took a slightly longer route than necessary so we could check around to the north of the village for signs of an immanent orcish invasion, but all remained quiet. The swamp looked even more impressive in the light, the bay glittered and the fish gamboled, the castle was still half white stone and half black stone. Meara still wanted to talk to Gudrun, but the hut remained absent. Artos was standing on the end of the pier collecting fish the easy way: batting them into a boat with a spear as they leaped in joy.
"That just seems mean," Conner commented.
"Hey, Artos, maybe you should let the fish celebrate," Meara suggested.
"Well we've only been a fishing village for a couple of hundred years," he pointed out. "You'd think they'd notice. They can celebrate over there."
"I don't suppose you saw a sea serpent gamboling by?"
"Noyou saw a sea serpent?" He was clearly disappointed at having missed it.
"And a couple of sea lions."
"It wasn't really here," I added hastily.
"I'm sorry," she said to his crushed look.
"We'd have brought you along, but we didn't think Rhonwen would approve.... I don't suppose Gwydion's around?"
"Hasn't had so much business in years." He left off fish-swatting to hear about our encounters as we returned to the little house. There was a general sense of good cheer in the valley that extended to the villagers as well. No one except Artos commented on the disappearance of the darkness, but now that we knew about the spell on the kingdom we weren't surprised.
"So once he's healed up I guess we have to head north and check out some orcs," I said hopefully when the physician had gone.
"Why? What are the orcs doing?" Llweder asked.
"We don't know; that's the problem."
"There's actually a number of things that we probably really should do before we launch a full-scale attack against the orcs," Meara said.
"Did I say anything about attacking? Just investigate."
"I mean, if they happen to attack us, that would be horrible...."
"Yeah. I gotta finish learning some of my spells, I was sort of rudely ripped out of my school and sent on this harebrained little quest. There's a couple things that really need to be done. Wouldn't you like to be able to have Fire Coat? Wouldn't that be a glorious thing, you and your mount shining with golden fire?"
"That would certainly be nice," I shrugged. Not as nice as going out and doing something now.
"Well, that involves sitting still in one place for a while."
"I don't know, it depends."
"Besides, it's not just the orcs, there were also those goblins with their nice little flag," I reminded them.
"Oh, I agree completely that there's a lot of stuff that needs to be done, it's just that there are limitations to certain things. My lady, do you have by any chance three gold crowns?"
"I should hope so."
"I can get started on that Fire Coat ring...."
"Be my guest."
I don't know what the magic folk did to keep themselves busy during the next week. I rode out to the other side of the valley to check the condition of the watchtowers there, which seemed to be in good repair. The indistinct figures we'd seen on the Keep walls were still there, but only at night. When evil travels best? I went out on the boats with Artos a couple of times, which was hard work but rewarding, and took part in some sparring sessions. Rhonwen was quite good, Gaenor stunning, Artos sloppy but usually made up for it with raw power.
"Do we expect to be here for a while?" Conner asked when we were almost ready to leave again. "Are we going to winter here?"
"I've been convinced that that would not be the best idea," I told him. I'd been of two minds on the matter anyway; I didn't want to abandon the valley to possibly fall victim to the struggle their late king was waging, but neither was I looking forward to spending month upon possibly-very quiet month there.
"We need supplies," Meara explained. Buttercup would probably make it through all right, but the village didn't have many large animals and their store of grain was too small to support an extra warhorse they hadn't been expecting.
"Besides, the family will get worried if we're gone for a whole year."
"Particularly if they get our message."
There were still things to do before we departed, however. For one, Meara went to visit Gudrun. As expected, she was more talkative at night.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al