a story about what might have been in another world that touched upon our own . . .
dedicated to micah & micaela pura
you guys are my warriors
i love you
translated by Murray Andrew Pura
This manuscript was originally written in a number of different languages and dialects, including French, Latin, Gaelic, Arabic, Old English and several other tongues generally unknown to Earth. In preparing this translation for English readers great care was taken to combine accuracy and fidelity to the orginal with the sort of dynamic flow that makes a story exciting to read. From time to time, at the discretion of the translator and the editors at Round Table Books, various words were retained in their original tongue and translation was foregone, in order to give the reader the flavour of the actual manuscript.
For a critical study of the text please consult the translator's companion volume, A Journey Through Blue Moon, also available through Round Table Books and Oxford University Press.
The author of this work is unknown.
The Days Before Moonrise
1 Brimm's Blink
2 The Crawl Space
3 The Attic
4 The Tool Shed
5 The Black Tents
6 The Party
7 The Trunk
8 The Sword
9 The Scarlet Mage
10 Brimm's Dagger
11 The Book Of Nine
12 The Wounds
13 The Two Hundred Questions
14 The Raid
15 The Crossing
16 The Horsemen
17 The Bridge
18 The Sacrifice
19 Brimm's Blade
20 The Fighting
21 The Nut Brown Maiden
22 The Berm
23 The Inferno
24 The Breaking
25 The Fallen
26 The Seal
The Days Before Moonrise
It was like a tunnel. A white tunnel. There was no light at the end. Everything simply vanished.
Brimm walked into it, leading his horse, a dapple grey named Mirror. The horse was seventeen hands, a giant, yet Brimm was only thirteen years old. Tall and thin, like a birch sapling. His parents always gave him things he would grow into. Mirror’s muscles rippled. He marched through the creek waters at Brimm’s side, the boy holding his reins. Every now and then Mirror snorted. The sound was like an explosion in the boy’s ears but the noise did not go far. The high banks of the creek were thick with snow. They deadened the splash of hooves and leather boots and the snort of a horse. So did the clouds that had come down to earth and obscured trees and hills and sun. But Brimm knew the creek flowed east out of the high mountains. He was working against the flow and heading west. Home was only a few miles further. Towards the ink blue mountains, their slopes sketched by a fine strong quill.
“I know, Mirror,” he mumbled when the horse snorted again and tossed his head. “My right boot must have a hole in it. My foot’s freezing. Or the waterproofing’s worn off. Only a bit further and I’ll rub your fetlocks down with clean straw. Get you some oats.”
They walked on and on into the tunnel of snow and cloud and silence. I could be walking upside down and I wouldn’t know it. He breathed out white puffs. Stew. Or soup. And bread that has seeds in it I can crack between my teeth. Cold water sprayed his knees as he slipped on a rock. And dry leggings.
He looked up from the creek and the grey rock that had caused him to stumble. A water drop was in his eye and he blinked. Suddenly a boy sat on the creekbank but he was surrounded by daisies and green grass, there was not a bit of snow to be seen. He was eating a yellow apple. His shirt was blue and so were his leggings. But they were strange looking leggings that reached to the boy’s waist and opened wide at his ankles. He wore odd white boots with laces that did not even cover the top of his feet. He was bright with sunlight. He turned his head and looked at Brimm. Their eyes locked. The boy’s mouth hung open and the apple stopped inches from his lips. Brimm blinked again in astonishment. Only a raven stepped through the deep snow on the creekbank. Mirror blew out and chopped into the emerald water with his hooves. The world was white above and below and all around. Brimm shook his head.
“I must have fallen asleep on my feet,” he muttered. But the colours had been vivid. He had felt the warmth of the sunlight. And the boy had looked directly at him. Brimm glanced at his horse. “Did you see the boy?” But Mirror just put his head down and kept plodding through the icy water.
In another half hour they were home. “How was your ride?” asked his father. “Why are you on your feet?”
“I wanted to give Mirror a rest.”
“Mirror?” His father roared with laughter. “I’ll bet your rear end is worn raw. Am I right?”
Brimm shrugged. “It’s not that bad.”
“Really? Then make sure you’ve rubbed Mirror down and had a bite to eat before you go and ask your mother for some of her herbs and a warm poultice.” Brimm’s father was tall and dark with not a stitch of hair to his head. His skin shone like copper. He put an arm around his son’s shoulders. “Never fear. One day you’ll grip the horse with your thighs. It will save your seat and you’ll have legs like granite. My beginning was much the same with Raven. And I was twenty.”
Brimm thought of the bird stepping through the snow. And the boy eating the yellow apple. He took care of Mirror, asked his mother to put a healing poultice on his backside, then stood in the kitchen of their home and ate three bowls of stew while his father stirred the fire. “Come stand on the hearthstone, Brimm,” he said, “and warm your skin and bones. It’s a chilly one. Glad we put fresh thatch on the roof this summer.”
Brimm stood next to his father. Flames made both their faces masks of red and black. His father reached up to a leather pouch that hung on a peg next to the fireplace and close by a huge sword. He pulled a long black pipe out of the pouch and a bit of tobacco, sat down on a stool and lit the pipe, blowing out a stream of creamy white smoke. “Well, my boy,” he said, “tell me what adventures you had on your ride. Anything unusual happen?”
“No, nothing,” answered Brimm, holding out his hands to the jumping fire. “The whole world is quiet.”
He never mentioned to his father or mother what he thought he had seen when he blinked.
Neither did the other boy.
The Crawl Space
The first house he lived in was the one his parents brought him home to after his birth. It did not have a basement. Just crawl space. But the space had been well lit and its floor and walls and ceiling had been smooth grey concrete. He and his sister had played down there on their hands and knees and made forts and walls and palaces out of cardboard boxes full of books and winter clothing stored in its corners.
The house they lived in now? Well, it was a great house in lots of ways. It was all on one floor and it went on forever. There were rooms and rooms and rooms. Halls and open spaces and bathrooms and closets. A huge backyard filled with poplars and elms and cottonwoods and Colorado blue spruce. A creek that ran from west to east through the yard and had its source in a painted box canyon high in the Rocky Mountains. Kingfishers, great blue herons, northern flickers, blue jays, great horned owls, peregrine falcons, all of them and more flew in and out of the trees, choosing their season, making their nests, hunting, singing, hooting, pecking, screeching. There had been deer, cougar, fox, coyote, wolf, a black bear cub once, a chocolate brown mink, beaver. And rainbow trout. Big ones sometimes that made enormous green and gold rings on the surface of the creek when they snapped for grasshoppers and flies.
But the house. The house had no basement. And the crawl space was not smooth grey cement. It was dirt and stone. And filled with snakes and spiders.
Yet Bram was down there on his hands and knees that summer afternoon. It was because of a dare. He had to find the tap that turned off the outside water. His dad had pointed it out to him once when they'd removed the trap door that led to the crawl space, a trap door built into a wall, not a floor, that got you on your stomach right from the word go. The tap was somewhere on the far side from the door. Over mounds of gravel and broken chunks of cement and splinters of wood. The bodies of dead mice. Past dozens of cobwebs. And who knew how many snake lairs. There might even be black widow nests. Their bite was seventeen times more poisonous than the average rattlesnake. Bram bit his lip. The whole thing was crazy. But Douglas, the kid down the street who had moved into town from Toronto, Douglas had said Bram could not do it. And that was that. Once the three outdoor taps couldn't squirt water any longer the others would know that Bram had succeeded. He had twenty minutes.
His flashlight picked up something shiny in the blackness. Bram crawled towards the gleam. It was right against the far wall. It had to be the tap. A stone bit into his palm and he jumped. He should have worn his father's thick work gloves. He carried on. He smelled something dead. There was a black lump to his left. Large enough to be the body of a cat. Bram felt sick but kept going. A couple more feet. Okay. He breathed out in a gust. The indigo face of his watch flashed when he pressed the button. Only five minutes left. He grabbed onto the lump of shiny metal and gave it a quick twist without bothering to examine it with his flashlight.
"OW!!" he yelped and tried to jump to his feet. He hit his head on the cement ceiling. "OW!!" he yelped again and collapsed onto the dirt and gravel. He got ahold of his flashlight and shone it on the hand that had turned the tap. It was bleeding. A lot. He thought he was going to faint. He shone the light on the tap. It wasn't a tap. It was the tip of a knife. Poking out of a heavy leather bag that had been nibbled by mice. He opened the bag. It wasn't a knife. It was a sword. A big one. There were two of them. With massive carved hilts made of what? Gold? Brass? His head began to whirl. I'm going to black out. He heard voices on the other side of the wall. Douglas. His sister Morgandy. Ian Standing Alone. He flashed his watch again. Time was almost up. He played the flashlight up and down the wall. A tap with a blue handle was only a few feet away. He twisted it with his good hand. He heard a shout outside. Then running feet as they left to check the other two outside taps. Bram leaned against the wall. I'm getting tunnel vision. He tried to take deep slow breaths.
His head seemed to clear. He took off his blue T shirt and wrapped it around his bleeding hand. Then he began to crawl back across the dark space. He tried to focus on the rectangle of light in the side of the far wall. The trap door. His knees and hands hurt and he knew he was making the cut bleed more. But he kept at it. He finally reached the trap door, poked his head out into a small enclosure that held the hot water tank, saw the narrow stairs that curved up to the kitchen. And passed out, his head hanging down towards the floor.
"His hand is all bloody," he heard Douglas. "You better get your mom."
"She's next door," he heard his sister Morgandy.
"Get some warm water and soap and let's clean it." Ian was talking. "Do you have any big bandages?"
"You better get your mom," Douglas warned.
"Bram might get in trouble," Morgandy said. "We all might get in trouble."
"Let's clean it up and bandage it now." Ian. "You can figure out what to do about your mom later."
Bram let them finish tying off the bandage before he opened his eyes. He was lying on his back on the cement floor next to the hot water tank. "Hi, guys," he croaked.
"Man, you had us worried," said Douglas. "What happened to you in there?"
"A broken bottle. Put my hand right into it."
"Are you okay?" asked Morgandy. "Should I get mom?"
"No. I'll show it to her later."
"Aren't you allowed to play in the crawl space?" Ian seemed surprised.
Bram and Morgandy looked at each other. "No."
"What are you gonna tell your mom?" asked Douglas.
"None of us should mention the crawl space," Bram insisted. "We'd get killed. We were playing in the creek. I got cut on a broken beer bottle we fished out of the water. Okay?"
"Whatever." Ian shrugged.
Bram's mom asked who had done the bandage, examined the cut, asked three or four times what had happened, then drove him and Morgandy to Emergency at the hospital to get stitches in Bram's palm and a tetanus shot.
"Did you say it was a bottle?" asked the young doctor when he was alone with Bram and suturing his hand.
"Yeah," answered Bram.
"Well. It looks like a knife cut to me." He stared into Bram's eyes. "You be careful, okay?"
Bram swallowed. His head felt cold. "Okay."
In bed that night Bram went over and over what he thought he had seen. Maybe he'd been hallucinating. I was in shock. I lost a bunch of blood. But even the doctor had said a sharp blade had slit his palm. The tap hadn't done that. So what had he really seen down there in the darkness?
It was summer vacation. Mom was at home but dad was teaching summer classes at the college. So the next day he waited until his mom was taking a nap and Morgandy was drawing pictures on the driveway with coloured chalk. Then he opened the small brass gate in the kitchen and went down the metal steps to the room with the hot water tank. In the concrete wall was the wooden trap door. He opened it and slid inside the crawl space on his stomach. He had the flashlight again and this time he was wearing his father's work gloves. There was no time to waste so he didn't stop to think about rattlesnakes or cobras or anacondas or black widows. He crawled to the blue tap, his wounded hand throbbing, and then flashed his light over the stones and dirt. Dried blood spattered some of the gravel near him. But there was no leather bag. No swords. There was nothing.
I blacked out. I dreamed the swords. I cut my hand on a piece of scrap metal.
As Bram made his way back to the light of the open trap door he remembered that his dad had been watering the flower beds that morning. So someone must have come down into the crawl space and turned the water back on. Probably his dad. I ought to come right out with it and ask them if they found the old leather bag with the swords. But once Bram was back in the sunlight and feeling warm and watching the kingfishers dive into the jade creek and patting the head of his Alaskan Malamute, whom he'd named Charlemagne, he decided to forget about it. Just like he had forgotten what he had seen one afternoon on the creekbank - a boy in a hood with a dagger strapped to his waist, leading a tall grey horse and looking for all the world like he had stepped out of Bram's book on the Middle Ages, his eyes black and shiny as mica.
Bram might be able to forget about it. Morgandy could not. At eleven she was two years younger than her brother but just as quick and just as smart. She had seen the cut on his palm. A long straight slash. As if it had been drawn with a ruler. Or a blade. Her brother had not cut his hand on a broken bottle. What had he cut it on? And why was he lying? Why were they both lying?
Morgandy ate her macaroni and cheese and a salad of greens and watched her mom and dad laughing. She did not like lying to them. They were good parents. But why did they make such a big deal about playing around in the crawl space? They got so intense whenever it came up no wonder her and Bram felt they had no choice but to lie. Mom and dad said it was because of rats and snakes and black widow spiders. But what if there was another reason? What if there was something they weren't being honest about? What if they were lying too?
The night of the day she had covered the driveway in chalk drawings Morgandy lay under the blankets in her bed and thought harder than she had ever thought before in her life. Were mom and dad hiding something? Like when they told white lies about not being able to buy a certain Christmas present? And then it showed up under the tree Christmas morning? As if by magic? Of course, they'd had their hands on it all along. They just wanted to make it more of a surprise. Was something like that going on right now?
Because something weird was happening. Her dad had walked home from the college where he taught history and stood over her as she finished a large green hill spangled with buttercups. Beside it was a lake she had coloured blue and green and white. And at one end of the lake was a pine forest with a castle made out of warm yellow stones.
"Morgandy," her dad suddenly said in the sharp voice he used when she was about to get in trouble, "where did you get that picture from?"
"What picture, daddy?"
"The picture you're doing right now. Where did it come from?"
"It came from my head."
"Are you sure you didn't see it in a book?"
"Are you sure you didn't find it in a book in mommy's bedroom?"
"Because you know mommy and daddy's bedroom is off limits, right? You and Bram are never allowed in there unless mommy or daddy invite you, right?"
"I know that."
"And you've never gone in there on your own? Or with your brother?"
"And you're telling me the truth? Because you'd never lie to daddy, right? Because lying is a big deal in our house. It's something we don't do."
"I'm not lying."
"You never saw a picture like this one you're drawing in a book in mommy's room? Not ever?"
"No, daddy. I just dreamed it up."
Her dad had seen that her eyes were filling up and he knelt down quickly and hugged her. "I'm sorry, honey," he had said. "I had a bit of a tough day. It's okay. I believe you."
But why had he become so angry over her chalk art? And what was the book in mom's room? A book with pictures of lakes and hills and yellow castles? Why wouldn't she show it to them? What was the big secret? Don't go into the crawl space. Don't go into mom and dad's bedroom. Don't look in mom's book. What else was forbidden? Oh. The attic. Her and Bram could never climb up into the attic.
She fell asleep. Her first dream was about the chalk art. Her dad was hosing it off the driveway and the colours were running down the street into a gutter. She was swept off with the rainbow water. Her dad ran after her. "I told you not to draw that picture!" he sobbed. He could not catch her and she was sucked into the dark of the sewer. The next dream was about the crawl space. Bram and her were crouched in a corner while a cobra swayed back and forth in front of them. There was a candle between the two of them and the snake. "Once the candle goes out the cobra will strike," Bram warned. She could feel her body shaking with fear. "Why did you bring us down here?" she squeaked. Bram pointed. "You see that gleam? A treasure is here. I thought we could just come down and get it. But this time we woke up the cobra that guards it." Morgandy peered through the darkness and thought she saw a flash of silver. "Is that what you cut your hand on, Bram?" "Yes," he nodded and held up a palm ugly with thick white scars.
The third dream she was in the kitchen and dressed in her pajamas. The house was asleep. She opened the fridge to get a carton of juice. Then she noticed milk spilt on fridge shelves and on the linoleum floor. There were crumbs that made a trail right out onto the carpet and down the hall. She followed the trail, picking the crumbs up and holding them in her hand. They were from cake and they stopped under the trap door in the ceiling of the hallway that led to the bedrooms. This was the entrance to the attic. She pulled the small folding set of steps from a nearby closet and climbed up, pushing open the attic door. It fell back on its hinges inside the attic and she popped her head up.
At first all she saw were thick bales of pink insulation and a few cardboard boxes of Christmas lights and ornaments. Then she saw a trail of more cake crumbs. And she realized she could see because there was a light somewhere. She pulled herself up into the attic and walked stooped over. Someone was singing softly in a deep voice. She went towards the light and the singing. She had to turn to the right and then to the left. A lantern was set on a wooden table and one of the lantern's panels was open. A candle glowed inside. A short burly man with scruffy hair had his back to her, seated at the table, writing with a quill and humming to himself. Then he sensed her presence. He got up and turned around. His face was bearded and his skin as white as snow and ice. His eyes were a brilliant blue. He bowed. "Miss Morgandy," he rumbled. "I apologize for the cake crumbs. But I was famished." He gestured to the scrolls of paper he was writing on. "I have much to do. So I just scampered down for a snack. I hope the mess did not alarm you."
"Who are you, sir?" she asked, half frightened, half shocked. "And what are you doing in our house?"
"Well. Actually it is my house, Miss Morgandy. And I have let your family stay with me. But never mind."
"You are so pale."
"Ah. I have always fancied I would look well with a tan. But I have never had an occupation that would allow me to spend long hours out of doors. First it was the mines. Now I am a scribe in the garrett. I may be luckier next time."
"I don't understand what you are doing here."
"No. Of course you do not. Your father and mother have never explained. They ought to have done so years ago. They felt you and Bram weren't ready. Kept putting it off. Now it is all happening without them. Bound to be a bit tricky for a few days. There will be a few frights. But nothing too hazardous. Not really. Though I suppose that is a matter of opinion. I have never been a parent. Tell your mother and father I have let you see me, Miss Morgandy, and that it is time, long past time, for them to open the book. But there are many books. The Book of Garments. The Books of Crossing. What is most important is that they open to you and Bram The Book of Nine. Can you remember that? Tell them things are about to occur which are well out of my control but that your family must stand firm. Open the book. The sooner the better. The hourglass is empty. All right, m'dear? Now, do not be afraid. It is just a change of weather. And you like a change of weather, do you not? Of course you do. Most humans enjoy a certain amount of diversity. Now and again. And this is the time of now and again. Out of my hands. They ought to have tended to it when Bram was seven and you were five. But."
He waved his hand and sat back down at his table, immediately beginning to scratch again with his tall white quill. Morgandy felt like she was gliding as she walked back through the attic. She hardly even bent her neck. Soon she found herself back in the kitchen pouring herself a glass of juice. She frowned as she set the empty glass down. What had just happened? Had she woken up? Had she been sleep walking? Her mother had caught her at it several times. Was this another occurrence? But the stout little man had seemed so real. She could remember all his words. There was only one thing to do. She went back down the hall and took the steps out of the closet, climbed up and popped open the attic door.
The attic was empty. And black. No one was humming. There was no smell of hot candle wax. No quill scratching over paper. She waited. Watched. Listened. Nothing. She yawned. Put away the steps and went to her bedroom at the end of the hall. Fell into a deep sleep. The only dream she could remember when she woke up, with stripes of light across her bedspread, was that of a man in the attic with a quill pen almost bigger than he was. Writing what? She had never been able to get a good look at what he'd been scribbling. Perhaps he was keeping a diary just like she did, the purple one she locked with a small gold key.
"Time for breakfast, honey!" called her mom coming into the room in blue pajamas with a bright smile on her face. "Did you have any dreams?"
"Well, I can't remember any of them."
"I can't remember most of mine either."
"Except one. I think I can remember one."
Her mom sat on the edge the bed and smoothed Morgandy's soft brown hair. "Really? What was it about?"
"A little man was living in our attic. He said it was his house and he was letting us stay here. And he kept writing and writing with a big quill pen."
Her mother laughed and got to her feet. "What a strange dream, honey. It must have been the little peppers I put in your macaroni, those hot ones you like. Anyway, get up and get dressed. Your dad wants to have breakfast with us. Waffles and whipped cream. Bram! Time to get up, honey!" Her mother disappeared into Bram's room.
Morgandy lay under her blankets a few minutes longer. Trying to figure out what to do next. Trying to see if she could remember all the words the short man had said to her.
Because she had watched her mother's eyes closely when she told her about the dream of the man in the attic. And she had seen shock and anger and confusion in them. Morgandy had not thought it was possible. But her mother knew what Morgandy was talking about. Her mother knew who the man was.
The Tool Shed
Bram and Morgandy's dad left for the college at quarter to nine, loading his leather briefcase with books, his plate of waffles empty but for a bit of leftover syrup. He kissed them and mussed their hair and set off down the driveway with long strides. His dog, who was white and gold, part lab and part coyote, followed him to the street. He bent down and petted the dog and kissed her on the forehead. The tail wagged. "Stay now, Morningstar, stay," he commanded the dog, whose coyote blood gave her sharp ears, a long muzzle, and a bushy tail. "I'll see you tonight. Bye." Morningstar watched him until he was out of sight. Then she went and laid down under a tree. She kept an eye on the street.
"Today's one of my writing days." Bram watched his mother pour hot water into a mug with a ship on it. The string of a tea bag dangled down its side. "I'll be in the studio if you need anything. You can make yourselves sandwiches for lunch. There's ham in the meatkeeper. Are you hanging around the house today?"
"Yeah, I guess," said Bram.
"Well, if your friends come over, remember what your father told you at breakfast. No one in the tool shed. Absolutely no one. Okay?"
"What's the big deal, mom?"
"Never mind. It's a surprise. Don't spoil it. Promise?"
"Great. See you later. I'm off to write this generation's War and Peace."
The doorbell rang. "It's Douglas and Ian and Keelin," she called as she shut the door to the studio.
Morgandy and Bram and their friends waded in the creek and looked for fish and threw stones and finally wound up playing hide and seek. They used the campground that was one house over and their own big backyard. Bram figured out that he didn't mind getting caught by Keelin, because she was cute, or Ian, or his sister, but he couldn't stand being caught by Douglas who liked to brag about everything. So when Douglas was it the second time, and hunting him down, Bram darted into the blue tool shed without even thinking, closing the door tightly behind him.
It was absolutely dark except for a thin crack of light that came from the bottom of the door. A fly was trapped in the shed with him and buzzed around his head. Bram panted and wiped away sweat from his forehead with his good hand. The other had a thick bandage around it. He heard shouts. He crouched down. The door opened and closed and then opened again.
"We're not allowed to go in there, Douglas." His sister.
"I'm just gonna check."
"Close it. We're not allowed."
"He could be hiding here anyway."
"Douglas. My mother will send you home. Shut the door."
Douglas muttered something and slammed the door to the shed. Bram stayed crouched next to the electric lawn mower. His eyes started making out objects. The mounds of cord that allowed his father to reach any spot in the yard. Containers that had held plants. A tub full of water guns. Shovels and rakes and hoes and mallets. He stood up and hit his head on metal. He kept himself from yelling out loud. Not another cut. He put his hand to his head but didn't feel any wetness from blood. Stuff was dangling from the rafters. Metal siding? Old eaves? He risked opening the door two or three inches to let in the sunlight. Then he looked at the rafters again.
Six knight helmets, silver and polished and gleaming, hung from a wooden beam. Behind them, on thick hangers, were two rows of medieval body armour. On a rack beside the armour were about a dozen staves. Bram carefully pulled one of them loose. The staff was heavy but balanced perfectly in his hand. It was tipped with sharp steel.
It was his sister. She opened the door further and poked her head in.
"You'd better get out here. Nobody knows where you are and Douglas swears you're hiding in the shed."
She stopped talking because she saw a row of small shields, then another row of larger shields, a rack of spears, helmets, armour, crossbows and longbows, thick sticks that dangled a spiked metal ball. And a stack of gleaming copper urns. She looked at her brother in astonishment.
"Hey, what is all this? What's going on in here?"
Bram was leaning on the eight foot spear, tip pointing up.
"Morgandy," he said, "did you ever get the feeling that mom and dad aren't being completely up front with us?"
The Black Tents
Brimm found a reason to go back to the place on the creek where he had seen the boy dressed in the strange clothing. A silver medallion, engraved with horses running, was missing from Mirror’s saddle. It was purely decorative, the saddle itself was in excellent condition, but the other three medallions were all in place, and Brimm hated the bald spot where the fourth should have been. So he took a half hour and rode east and downstream, away from the great blue mountains.
“Have you done all your chores?” his father had asked while working at the forge, coals casting a bronze glow on his dark eyes and bald head.
“Don’t stay out too long. The days are so much shorter now. Brigands are about.”
“Not this close to the village.”
“Nevertheless. Take the dogs and take the sword.”
“Take the sword?” Brimm had never been allowed anything but his short dagger before.
His father bent to hammer at a new horseshoe that was burning red. “The sword over the fireplace. My father’s.” He did not look up.
“I can take that sword?”
“The scabbard hangs with the horse leather. It straps to your back, remember, for it is too long to wear at the waist. It is sharp enough. Watch your fingers.”
“But what will mother say when she sees me?”
“Your mother and I have already talked about it. This was her idea.”
His father pounded away and the conversation was finished. In the house his mother adjusted the strap on his back and kissed him and said, “You are still a boy in many ways but you are also a young man. Defend yourself if you must. Remember what Uncle Tore taught you about swordsmanship. Now. I will pray for you. Supper will be early so do not spend too much time looking for the medallion. It's only a small piece of silver.”
“But it is not easily replaced.”
“Neither are you.”
He did not press Mirror to move quickly. The sun pulled itself free from a cloudbank and made the day shine. Light flashed off the snow and there was colour everywhere. Brimm was in no hurry to return home and split wood, though he liked hefting the axe well enough. The curve of the creekbank grew familiar. Here, it was here I saw the boy. The bank was empty but for ravens pulling at something under a bush.
Brimm dismounted and kept Mirror’s reins in one hand while searching the clear green water. His backside was throbbing and he was glad for a chance to stretch his legs. The three dogs, part wolf and part some other breed that kept their coats jet black and shiny, raced after the ravens and sent them squawking into the air. Then they snuffled around under the bush and Night, the male leader, came trotting proudly back with a dead rabbit. The two females, Dusk and Twilight, continued to look for another carcass, shoving their noses up and under the crust of snow.
“Good boy,” said Brimm to Night, “You can eat it. Go ahead.”
But Night dropped the rabbit and snarled, his coat puffing to twice its size and his sharp white teeth giving him a face of fury. Startled, Brimm straightened and looked over his shoulder. A tall man in black furs with a drawn sword, wavy on both sides of its blade like a flame, stood in the water about twenty feet away.
“Is your dog friendly, boy?” asked the man in a rough voice.
“To friends, yes.”
“Keep him back or I’ll slit him wide open.”
Instantly Brimm’s fear flared up into anger. “You keep back or I’ll slit you wide open.”
The man laughed. “With what?”
“The blade I carry on my back.”
Brimm’s black cloak covered the hilt of the sword. He pulled it to one side. The man looked and grinned. “A Great Sword. You can’t handle that. You’re just a pup.”
Dusk and Twilight came roaring back and danced around Brimm‘s feet, barking and snapping, while Night stood rigid, growling and keeping his eyes riveted to the man. The stranger had not seen the other two dogs and Brimm could see doubt spread over his face.
“Why don’t you walk away,” suggested Brimm, his eyes black with a bright fire behind them, ”and leave me alone?”
“I have my job to do, boy.”
“Keep the area clear of intruders.”
“All I’m doing is walking my horse along the creekbed.”
“It’s a beautiful day and I wanted some air.”
“Why did you stop here?”
“I’m looking for a decoration that fell off my saddle the other day. I’m certain it dropped into the water at tis spot.”
“Take your look and be off.”
“You don’t own the creek.”
“No? I can go back to the camp and get an archer or two and we’ll see how your dogs handle three foot arrows in their throats.”
Again the anger burst up in Brimm as if a smith inside him worked a set of bellows and fanned the flames white hot. “What makes you think you’d get ten steps?”
The man narrowed his eyes at Brimm but Brimm, despite feeling a lively mix of fear and fury within him, stood calmly, waiting for the man to make the first move. The man did nothing. Finally Brimm raised his left hand slightly, palm down, and Dusk and Twilight ceased barking and jumping. Instead they stood still, just as Night stood, their eyes fixed on the stranger, the three tensed like bolts in a crossbow. Slowly Brimm mounted and urged Mirror up the opposite bank, the dogs coming with him. He looked to the other side of the creek.
Hundreds of tents covered the fields just north of the stream. Men in armour and fur were everywhere. Black and red flags. Smoke rising from dozens of cooking fires. Wagons squeaking into the camp from the west bringing loads of hay. Hundreds of horses he could see back of the black tents.
“What is this?” he asked out loud.
The man glowered up at him from the creekbed. “None of your business.”
“Why all these men? Why all the weapons? There is no war.”
The man laughed like stones being dropped. “There is always a war.”
Brimm looked for a symbol other than the red and black banners. Finally he noticed farther back a black eagle set at the the top of a high pole. The man began to edge towards the bank and the camp. Brimm pointed at him. “Stay there until I am gone. It takes only one command and the ravens will glut themselves on your corpse.” He was surprised that he used such words but they came out of him from some place within where they had been stored. The man spat but stood still in the running water. Brimm walked his horse west and the dogs ran ahead. When he was out of sight he heard a voice shouting after him.
“When I see you again, boy, I will cut your throat, you, your horse, and your three dogs, and I will let you bleed out slowly while I eat and drink and empty my bladder! Think about that when you go to bed tonight! Think about Danakk!”
Brimm had to fight down an urge to turn Mirror’s head, race back after the man, turn the dogs loose and slay him. One word, just one word would do it. He had no idea such strong emotions brewed in his spirit. Where had they come from? When the man had threatened his dogs something came alive inside he had not known before.
He could not hide the day from his face and his mother demanded to know what had happened. He told her. When his father joined them he told the story again.
“Danakk?” asked his father.
“And the symbol a black eagle?”
“Do we have some of those big bones with the meat on them, mother?”
“Give them to the dogs, boy, for they have earned them.”
When he came back inside the house his mother had ladled out bowls of soup and set out fresh rounds of bread and pots of butter and pints of apple cider. They ate and drank and talked. “Don’t get worked up, Core,” his mother warned his father. His father glared at her, “So what will you have me do? Whistle a happy tune?” She shook her head, “The days have been peaceful. Don’t start something.” He belched and excused himself. “It seems to me, Ara, that something has already started.”
“Do you know the black eagle, father?”
“What is it?”
“The House of Ro. They are a long way from home. I am surprised no one has told us of their approach. They would have been strung out for miles.”
“Are they a good House?”
“They have always been loyal to the king. But the new lord of Ro is a greedy man. Perhaps there is some land dispute he means to settle.”
“Won’t the king's soldiers be watching them?”
“I have no doubt. But I had better get some facts. I’ll ride out to the tavern just now and find out what the word is about this camp.”
“Oh, Core,” said his mother, “and it’s so late.”
“I won’t be two hours.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Wait up for me, both of you, I’m certain to bring news.”
“We’re not a mile from the centre of the village.”
Brimm sat with his mother and played Chin but she won three times, collecting most of the stone counters, before they heard his father return on Raven. After he had cared for the horse he came inside and he could not hide the news from his face either. He sat down with the corner of a loaf of bread.
“Well, they have the king’s protection. No one is to go near the camp on pain of death.”
“What?” exclaimed Brimm's mother.
“Don’t worry. No one had heard anything about Brimm. No doubt this Danakk is keeping the insult to himself.”
“But why are they camped there, father?”
“No one knows. Just rumours. Some say it’s a show of force to intimdate the king. Others that they mean to fight there.”
“The king’s enemies. I don’t know who. But they are not going to budge for the better part of a week. Some of the folk are making good money off them, you know, providing food and drink for the men and fodder for the horses. I have myself been given some repairs to do. Decent money. Armour mostly. Falke will be bringing up two wagonloads in the morning.”
“You’re going to work for them?”
“Well, as rude as Danakk was, the House of Ro is not an enemy of our king. They’ll be here a few days and you can steer clear of them. Once they’ve moved on you’ll be free to roam the creek again. Did you find the silver medallion?”
“I hardly had a chance to look.”
“I can make you another with the extra money we’ll earn. I’ll need you to split wood and work the bellows and it’s probably past time I taught you a trick or two about smithing armour and weapons. What do you say to that?”
Brimm suddenly smiled in spite of himself. “You’ll teach me to make a sword?”
“We’ll get a start on it in any case. And chain mail. And helms and bucklers. Oh, lots to do, we need our sleep. Let’s make our way to bed, Ara.”
Brimm took the sword of his grandfather that he had leaned in the corner and began to place it back on its hooks over the fireplace.
“Here, boy, what are you doing?” asked his father.
“Just putting the sword back where it belongs.”
His father shook his head. “It belongs with you now. Take it to your room. Put it by your bed and close to hand. You never know what might pop up in the next few days. Thieves anxious to cash in on our good fortune. We’ll need to practice a few swings before we head to the smithy tomorrow morning. Do you remember what your Uncle Tore taught you?”
“Well, we’ll find out. Try not to chop your poor father’s head off, eh?”
Brimm lay in his room in the dark. The dogs came in from outside through their secret door and slept on the floor beside his bed. But it was a long time before he closed his eyes. He thought about Danakk. He thought about Uncle Tore. He thought about the boy on the creekbank eating the apple. He thought about the miles of black tents and the tough looking men in black armour and black furs. Then he gripped the hilt of the sword his father had given to him and thought of how strong Grandfather Barran had been, the black hair long and braided down his back and the muscles rolling under his skin. He kept the long sword in bed at his side. Help me, Grandfather, he said in his sleep.
At breakfast that morning Bram and Morgandy ate their cereal and drank their cranberry juice and listened while their parents explained about the party they were going to host in a few days.
“A lot of your favourite uncles and aunts will be here,” their mother was saying, “Uncle Bevin, Aunt Aislinn, Uncle Ahearn and Uncle Brian and Uncle Briac, Aunt Brina, your Cousin Derry and your Cousin Fiona, the whole crew.”
“Cousin Fallon?” asked Morgandy.
“Oh, especially her. She called just yesterday to say she was bringing you a special present.”
“What about Uncle Flynn and Uncle Torin?”
“Definitely. And I’ll tell you who else, Grandma and Grandpa are flying in from the coast and they’ll be staying with us for a week.”
“They are coming for sure and Grandpa said he had a trunk full of gifts for his two favourite grandchildren.”
“What about dad’s parents? Papa Sean and Nana Tara?” asked Bram.
Dad smiled as he chewed his toast. “Did you think they would miss this family reunion? They’re driving up from Montana tomorrow night. And don’t be surprised if they have a trunk or two of their own full of treasure.”
Bram felt a happy tingling race up his spine. “But why are we doing all this now? It’s not Christmas or anyone’s birthday or anything.”
“It’s a chance for the family to get together,” said his mom, “we don’t need a better reason than that.”
“But we’ve never done it before.”
“All the more reason to do it now before you two are all grown up.”
“Is everyone going to stay here?” asked Morgandy.
“Well,” said her dad getting up from the table, “not everyone is going to sleep at the house. Some are going to pitch their tents in the backyard. Some are going to live out of their trailers. We have the campground next door with full hookups so a lot of them are going to set up over there. I’ve got to run. Honey, you should tell them about the costume part. I’ll see all of you tonight.”
“What costume part?” from Morgandy.
“What are you teaching today, dad?” from Bram.
“Saxon stuff. How Charlemagne brought them over to Christianity. Well, some of them came willingly, some came by force, there was bloodshed all right. Charlemagne could be wise but he could also be ruthless. Did I ever tell you two about the Heliand?”
“An epic poem that was meant to make Christianity appealing to the Saxons, you know, the fighting race, so the poet, we don’t know who it was, a monk, I think, but a former warrior, had to be, this person put Christ in terms the Saxons could really get into and there’s a lot of warrior imagery and mysticism and what not. Some argue that the whole era of knights and chivalry came out of the impact of this poem, that it actually created medieval Europe.”
Bram and Morgandy felt excitement go through their arms and legs.
“I wish we could go with you, dad,” said Bram, “Could we? I want to know about that stuff.”
“Yeah,” said Morgandy.
Their father saw the light in their eyes and grinned. “Chips off the old block of historical marble. Not today, your mother will need your help, cleaning up the house, baking, getting balloons up and streamers, we’ll be going like crazy for the next twenty four hours, but it’ll be worth it. Is anyone coming in tonight?”
“Not tonight, honey,” said their mother, “tomorrow is when they’ll start to trickle in. I’m not even going to try and write until after this is all over.”
“My last lecture is tomorrow morning and then I’m free as a hawk and I can really pitch in and help. I’ve got to go. Bye, you guys.”
“What costume part?” asked Morgandy a second time as the front door closed behind her father.
“Well, honey,” explained her mom, “do you remember that Renaissance Fair we took you and Bram and a couple of your friends to last summer? With the jugglers and archery and roast pig and duelling and troubadours? Remember how we all had to rent outfits at the gate to get in? Well, it’s that kind of thing only it will be a bit more medieval, some will wear chain mail, you know, the knights in shining armour idea, a few of your aunts and uncles will look like monastics, a few will have big swords and helmets, the four of us will need to be dressed up too.”
“What are we going to wear?”
“Your father and I already have our costumes picked out. But for you two we have to do something and we’d better get to it today so I can sew them up as quickly as possible. Now I need the book.”
Morgandy pricked up her ears. “The book?”
“Yes, a book with costume designs in it. Here, I’ve tucked it away with our cookbooks for some reason. Look at these pictures and tell me if there’s anything you like.”
The book was about fifty large pages of creamy white parchment and on each page was handpainted a picture of a man or woman in what looked to Morgandy and Bram like medieval clothing, robes and capes and tunics and gowns and jerkins and hose and doublets, bright colours and dull colours and leather and fur trim and caps and high boots. Their mother turned page after page while they looked in astonishment at the costumes. When they had reached the end of the book Bram said he needed to see everything again in order to make up his mind but Morgandy reached over and flipped back to the middle. She pointed at an outfit with a forest green tunic and a forest green cape with black fur trim. A coat of arms with two crossed swords and two full moons, all in silver, was embroidered on the chest of the tunic.
"That's what I want to wear, mom, that's my favourite."
"Not a lady's gown?"
"Well, if I can have two things, I'll take a gown, but I'd rather have this tunic and cape thing first."
"I'm sure that won't be a problem, honey, let's see, you'll need black tights, I mean hose, and black boots and black gloves. What size are your running shoes?"
"All right, let me get a notepad and jot this down, the forest green tunic and cape, swords and moons, shoe size is seven, I'd better measure your height."
"Who did all these paintings?"
"Your Cousin Fallon is the artist in the family."
Bram was turning pages. Finally he stopped.
"Find something?" asked his mother while she ran a cloth tape measure up Morgandy's spine.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Which one? The crimson robe?"
"No, the other page."
"The blue costume. I might have known. You're my blue boy. Let me see. Blue and gold coat of arms. Flames. Sleeves on the tunic just about to the elbow. Flames on the sleeves and the back of the cape. Fox fur trim. Black hose and boots and gloves."
"Yes. But don't worry. I know how much you love animals. We don't kill anything. The animals are simply trimmed, that's all."
"Where are the animals?"
"In the States. There's a game preserve in Oregon."
"But how will you get the fur in time?"
"We keep a little bit of everything in the attic."
"Because we knew this party was coming up. Don't ask so many questions. Now can you get some of these things down from for me? They're in boxes. For Morgandy's outfit you need to bring the bolt of cloth in box nineteen, you see it corresponds to the page number, and for you, it's box thirty three. Her boots are in the box that says women's seven, and yours are in the men's box eleven."
"But I wear twelve now."
"My runners are twelves."
Bram's mother smiled and swiped at her eyes with a fist. "You're growing up too fast. Where's my five year old who played with toy castles and catapults?"
"Can I go up in the attic with him?" asked Morgandy.
"Why not? No, on second thought, we're falling way behind here, you two start blowing up the balloons and taping up the streamers, make every room in the house fancy, and I'll just get up and drop the cloth and boots and gloves down."
Before either Bram or Morgandy could put up much of an argument their mother was up the ladder. So they began blowing up balloons that were large and thick skinned and burgundy or gold and putting up streamers that were the same colours. Soon they could hear the sewing machine humming. They completed the living room and the dining room and hallway and went into the study with the sliding glass doors that looked out over the grass and trees of the backyard to the bank of the creek. Bram had climbed a chair and Morgandy was handing balloons to him that had strings attached so he could tie them to the light fixtures.
"How's that?" he asked.
"Good, maybe we should put up three or four more there in a cluster."
"It'll look better."
"I think it looks pretty good already."
"And it does, it does, young Bram, but what difference your parents think it will make, I do not know, your time would be better spent with your uncles Torin and Flynn and Briac and you, Miss Morgandy, with Cousin Fallon of the sharp wit and the keen blade. For, you see, this is not about a party, and all you are putting up is window dressing, no more, what really matters will happen out on the berm, yes, out under the trees, why not put your balloons and streamers up there?"
Bram practically fell from the chair and Morgandy squeaked, "You were not a dream, you were not!"
The burly man with the bursting hair stood in the study in a ragged brown doublet and black hose with what looked like a broken dagger in a wide belt at his waist. The belt had the appearance of being chewed over by Morningstar or Charlemagne. He bowed.
"Your eyes are blue," squeaked Morgandy again.
"My eyes are blue, my hair is fair, but I have not washed it, you see, I have been too busy keeping up with my documents."
"I saw you writing with a quill pen!"
"I was. I do. Everything must be recorded. All the dots and tittles of this entire event."
Bram stepped down from his chair. Even though the man was short Bram sensed his muscularity and power and saw how large his hands were. He makes out to be a bumbling clerk but that is as much of a show as the balloons and streamers. He had scarcely finished the thought when the man turned his eyes on Bram and smiled but the eyes were a fire of warning and words shoved themselves into his thoughts, Say nothing.
"Mother knows about you," said Morgandy.
"Indeed she does. Your father also."
"Why don't you sit down and talk with all of us at the same time and straighten this whole thing out?"
"What is there to be straightened out?" he asked.
"Well, that you exist, that you spoke with me, the armour and helmets in the tool shed, that you're standing in the study with us right now."
"Your clothing needs to be finished as quickly as possible. We must not interrupt your mother. As for straightening matters out, as you suggest, that has been taken out of the hands of your parents and given into the hands of your grandparents, all of whom will be here this evening. As a matter of fact, the two from Montana will be ringing your bell in a matter of minutes. They made good time, you see, well, it was given to them to sense that they must make good time, very good time, and they did."
"Look," said Bram, and he felt heat rising up through his chest and into his arms, "you can't just pop up whenever you like and tell us things that make no sense and then just vanish again as you please. This is our house."
"It's his house," said Morgandy.
The man bowed. "It is indeed my house. So, without your leave Master Bram, I will come and go as I please. But I will tell you one thing that will make sense an hour or two from now. Your tunics will be too large, far too large, and you will be tempted to complain and ask your mother what she was thinking. She may or may not tell you why she did what she did. But I will explain. The tunics are made a size larger so that chain mail can fit underneath. Now. You opened the Book of Garments. You must open the Book of Nine."
He was gone. Bram stood holding a burgundy balloon with a string on it. Morgandy clutched gold streamers. They looked at each other.
"Did you see him?" asked Bram.
"Of course I saw him."
"So we both saw him."
"What do we do now?" wondered Bram.
"I don't know. Keep putting up balloons."
"Keep putting up balloons?"
"Well, we can put them up in the trees like he said, and the streamers, it would probably look pretty."
Bram looked out the sliding glass doors and imagined the balloons swinging from the cottonwood trees. Then the doorbell rang.
That evening at supper there were eight of them and their father had to put two extra leaves in the oak table. Mother had quickly placed a frozen buffalo roast in the microwave and cooked it up in forty minutes while Bram made brown rice in the rice cooker and Morgandy mixed a Caesar's Salad in a large beechwood bowl. They said grace and set to with an appetite born of happiness for they wre all glad to be together. The eight of them had not been in the same room at the same time for three or four years. After the talk about Bram's height and Morgandy's beauty and the grandparents' health the talk fell to the matter of the family reunion.
"Everyone has said yes?" asked Papa Sean, their father's father.
"Everyone," said their mother, "there will be fifty or more of us."
"Oh, a lot of mouths to feed," laughed Nana Tara, "but we'll all pitch in, won't we, father?"
Papa Sean grunted. He had a thick mane of glistening white hair that tumbled down his back and made Morgandy think of a great old lion. He sawed a piece of fat off his meat with a steak knife. "Plenty enough to help with dishes and cooking. Not much against a thousand."
Bram stared at him. "A thousand what?"
"Nothing," said his mother, "Papa, can't we finish our meal first?"
Papa shrugged and chewed. "They've waited this long. I suppose another half hour won't matter."
"Look, Dad," said Bram's father, "we've been really busy, my teaching, Shylah's writing, the after school activities."
"Do you have any after extinction activities planned?"
"Sean!" snapped Nana Tara.
"Shylah's right, let's empty our plates first," spoke up Grandfather Caedmon, "my daughter makes mighty fine buffalo." He was as old as Papa Sean but taller and his hair and beard were still chestnut brown with only a few flickers of silver. Papa Sean shrugged and sipped at his coffee. Nana Tara began to talk about the costumes they had brought with them and Grandmother Tully chimed in about new robes and gowns they'd had made up. So the meal passed but with the air thickening and thickening as the minutes ticked by and Papa Sean ate the rest of his food in a silence that was anything but. He's bristling as if he is Charlemagne, thought Morgandy, and all his hair up on end.
Finally they sat in the living room next to the wood stove with Morningstar and Charlemagne at their feet on the cool brown tiles. More coffee and tea, Morgandy and Bram with cranberry juice and fizzy water, Ian and Douglas and Keelin and some others shouting and running and playing tag outside and their cries and laughter pouring through the screen windows along with the warm summer evening air. Papa Sean sat restless in the brown oak Morris chair while the others talked about who would show up first at the house tomorrow. Finally Grandfather Caedmon looked over at him and nodded. "All right, Sean, why don't you get on with it, then?"
"Are you sure?"
"Perhaps there are sugar cookie recipes you'd like to talk about now."
"Sean," said his wife Tara, but she said it softly.
"I'm sorry. It was a long drive."
"It can wait till morning," said Bram and Morgandy's mother and father together.
"No. I'll be fine. Do we have the trunk here, mother?"
"In the corner, dear," said Nana Tara.
Papa Sean got up, still a lot of flesh and bone to him and his hands strong, and tugged the trunk past Charlemagne, who sat up and sniffed the big object, and set it in the middle of the room. It had brass corners and leather straps and was a shiny navy blue. There was a curious design painted over the lock that Bram could not make out. Excitement crawled and hopped over him and he saw the same thrill on his sister's face. Papa Sean took a large black skeleton key from his pocket and unlocked the trunk and swung up the rounded blue lid. Bram and Morgandy jumped up and went over and looked in but all they saw was a red point blanket. Bram frowned and the corners of his mouth drooped. "Is that it, Papa?"
Suddenly Papa Sean laughed. "The two of you lift the blanket out. See what's underneath."
Bram and Morgandy bent and ripped the blanket back as if it were wrapping paper. Underneath were two swords that gleamed like mirrors. Morgandy's mouth rounded with an "oh" and Bram said, "Wow, cool."
"Go ahead, pick them up," smiled Papa Sean.
"Can we?" asked Morgandy.
"Go on. They're yours."
"Ours?" Bram looked over at his mother and father, expecting a protest. They sat looking on, holding cups of coffee, and his father nodded, but his parents said nothing and they did not smile. Bram reached automatically for the longer of the two swords that had a sapphire built into its hilt. Morgandy did not argue for she had already pulled out the other sword, a foot shorter, an emerald glinting from the top of the grip. She made a swing with it and Papa caught her arm. "Be careful, my darling, these are sharp as the north wind."
"Is this to going to be part of our costume for the party?" asked Morgandy, her eyes shining.
"Yes, you're right, it is, and there's your scabbard with the green and black on it."
"But how did you know my colours?"
"I only picked out my costume today."
"Oh, grandfathers know these things. Have you tried your outfits on?"
"Mom was working on them when you got here."
"You'll find they sit on you large and loose," said Pap Sean.
"We've heard that."
"Why is mom making our costumes so baggy?"
"This needs to go underneath."
Grandfather Caedmon pulled a battered black trunk into the open and lifted the lid. A suit of chain mail glittered and clinked. "This is yours," he said to Morgandy, "the other is your brother's. Chainmaille if we want to use the French. The body piece is called a haubergeon, the head piece a coif. Now underneath we put this, a gambeson, so when you're hit on the chainmaille, bang, the metal won't bruise your skin, or more to the point, the heavy quilting will reduce the force of the blow, save your bones, save your heart and lungs and intestines. A good idea, don't you think?"
"Oh, Grandfather," laughed Morgandy, delighted with the chain mail, "you make it sound like I'm going into a real fight or something."
Ian and Keelin and Douglas stopped shouting outside for they were in hiding. No one in the room spoke. Bram had been testing the balance of the sword in one hand and decided he was better off if he held it with both. For a moment there was the hush of a silent forest, a hush that could be heard and that was strong although there was no noise at all. Bram looked over at Morgandy and they both looked at their parents. Their father was stoic, not a muscle moved on his face, but their mother had been crying and kleenex was balled up in one of her fists. Papa Sean sat down and said nothing. "Caught you, Ian!" Keelin yelled out on the street.
Grandfather Caedmon cleared his throat. "Look, you two, have you ever wondered why all of us have Celtic names?"
Bram glanced at Morgandy and shrugged. "I've never thought about it. Are our names Celtic?"
"They are. And mine and Tully's, and Sean's and Tara's and Shylah's and Conner's, and all those that will be coming in tomorrow."
"So it didn't happen by accident. And full moons don't happen by accident. They are a law of nature. So are we." He picked a rubber ball off the floor the dogs played with and bounced it. Morningstar opened one eye. "The ball comes down again because of gravity. That's one of the laws of nature of our planet. If we were in outer space I could bounce it and it would never come back. A different law of nature. It all depends where you are. But there are always laws."
Bram and Morgandy stood listening to him, their swords hanging down from their hands.
"We are Guardians. It's as simple as that. It has to do with our bloodline. It has to do with our faith. It has to do with a lot of things. But our family can no more escape it than the rubber ball can escape gravity. We are not the only world that is Earth. They carry different names but there are eight more of them. They impact each other. Something that happens here, good or bad, has a ripple effect on the others, like a stone dropped in a pond. Good generates more good, evil generates more evil. We do not have encyclopedic knowledge about the other worlds. We know more about the ones closest to us, of course, just like we know more about the planets closest to us in our solar system. The terrain on the other worlds is virtually the same as the terrain on our own. But each world is in a different state of development. The mountains will look much the same here and there. But another world might have a castle built where this house is, another might be barren of any human habitation, another might be prehistoric, another might have a million people thriving in a great city."
"I don't get it," said Bram.
"Give it time. You're going to have a rough weekend. All kinds of stuff is going to get thrown at you. You have to trust us, your father and mother, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles and cousins, all of us with the weird Celtic names, you'll have to trust us with your lives. Because there will be sword blows. People will whack at your chain mail. It will hurt. But you have to trust your family."
"Why are we going to hit one another?" asked Morgandy in a weak voice. "I thought it was just a costume party."
"Come and sit with us."
Morgandy went to her mother and Bram to his father. A strong arm went around Bram. "It'll be okay," his father whispered.
"What your mother made for you are not costumes," Grandfather Caedmon went on. "These swords are not props. In a few days there will be a full moon. It is the third full moon this summer. And there will be another before the summer is through, four full moons, and in that case the third full moon is always the blue moon."
"I thought two full moons in a month made the second moon a blue moon," said Morgandy.
'That's a misconception that started in the 1940's. It's not the way the blue moon has been measured in past centuries. We follow the old formula, we follow the law of nature. If there are four full moons in a season the third is the blue moon."
"What does it matter?" asked Bram for the talk had put ice in his stomach.
"I'm getting to that. This winter there were also four full moons. That means the third was a blue moon. Just like the one that is coming this weekend."
"Two blue moons in one year," said Morgandy. "Does that happen very often?"
"No. Once or twice in a hundred years."
"No. Not cool. It means a world close to ours does not just impact us like a pebble in a pond. It means that world can actually break into ours, or we into theirs, for good or ill. Their people, their soldiers, their war machines, can pour into our planet and burn and slaughter and destroy everything in their path. Our bullets and bombs, even our nuclear weapons, would not even scratch them. They come with weapons like these swords here and they must be met with weapons like these swords here. Even if their civilization is far more technologically advanced than ours. Their lasers or rays would do nothing. They must wield sword and shield."
"Why?" asked Bram. He was clutching his sword so tightly his fingers were beginning to ache.
"It is simply the law of nature. Like gravity. Like humans breathing oxygen. Like the seasons. It just is."
"But don't good people ever come over?"
"They do, Morgandy. They certainly do. And we have been blessed by those men and women and children throughout the history of the human race. But evil always comes too. Always."
"And we don't send people over there?"
"We can, Bram, and we do, but that is not our vocation. Our family, we are the Guardians, it is our task to stop evil from penetrating our civilization. Others go over and do good. We have nothing to do with that."
"And do some of us," asked Bram, who felt light headed and almost dizzy, " do some of our humans go over to other worlds and do evil?"
"Who stops them?"
"The Guardians in those worlds."
"No. We do too."
Grandfather Caedmon and Grandmother Tully bent down and between them unrolled a massive chart on the floor. Grandmother Tully tapped various parts of the chart with a metal pointer she pulled from her purse and telescoped out so that it was three feet long. There were circles within circles and mathematical equations and small writing in a lanuguage Bram or Morgandy did not know.
"You see how it works?" asked Grandmother Tully. "You see how worlds overlap worlds like concentric circles, like rings, like ripples? So in the years of the two blue moons the overlap is so great between some of the worlds they literally crash into one another and break open holes. At the point of impact is the gap that has been torn open and it serves as a conduit between one reality and the next, do you see? It's straighforward. Like gravity. Like E equals MC squared. Like snowflakes - they look the same but each one is different and the same is true of the nine worlds. The same but different. Do you see? I will not get into the algebra and the calculus or the trig. Someday but not today. Just follow along and it will become clear as glass to you. The moment the second blue moon begins the tear is opened. The more the moon waxes the larger the gap becomes. Then as it wanes towards dawn the opening gradually grows smaller until it is sealed. Yes, some people are trapped in another world until they die for they did not get back. Sometimes whole armies. Good, bad, they are trapped until another double blue moon. Now, Morgandy, you will ask me, but what about time zones? And I will tell you, they are immaterial, for what matters is where the point of impact will occur, and that is why the family is gathering at this house, my dear, we purchased it years ago because we knew from our calculations where the collision would take place, and it will be here, on the creek, at this house."
Morgandy was pale. She drew in closer to her mother. "But if we can make these calculations, Grandmother, can't others?"
"Some. Some who are in the know. Good and evil both. They find charts in old libraries or old tombs. They are granted dreams and visions. They are selected. By what is infernal. Or what is blessed. There is a law to this. We do not understand all the ins and outs of it. But there is a law to this and I am working on the equation. Well, I have been working at it most of my life. I will nail it down one of these days."
Nana Tara sat up and smiled brightly at Bram and Morgandy. "You are frightened. I am sorry you must hear these things. But I was even younger than you, Morgandy, when the family came from all over the world for a reunion, oh, I was not eight years old when I heard about this for the first time. They put me in armour, taught me how to use a small sword, and an uncle and an aunt and my mother and father stayed close to me in the fighting, I didn't get a scratch, why it was over before I knew it. No one got past us and at dawn the lips of the cut came together and that was that. Hardly anyone was hurt. You must understand we are not simply fighting in our own strength. We are empowered. Like angels. We are given the ability to do what we normally could never do. Our swords move like lightning, we strike as if we had been trained our entire lives to fight. Some are better than others, it is true, because they have worked more diligently on their skills, but everyone is able to do something, even the youngest, and it is right that this should be so, because none can be exempt, not even an infant, the entire family must be present, it is a law of nature, and if anyone of us is missing the rest will certainly fail and Earth be engulfed. So you see why we must tell you all of this, and I know it is so much for you two to take in, but you will always have family beside you when the moment comes, you will never be abandoned, and you will help us keep our world free of greater evil than our planet has ever experienced, yes, despite all the wars and atrocities that have littered our centuries, greater evil than you can imagine, the stuff of impossible nightmares that suddenly take on flesh and bone, you will help us guard the human race, and that is why we must tell you about these matters tonight. For once the others arrive there will be so little time to talk. Only barely enough time to do."
"It all happens in one night?"
"Yes, Bram," said Nana Tara. "Between moonrise and moonset."
"And people will come through the tear in our world?"
"With swords and spears."
"They will try to hurt us."
"And we need to fight back."
"So Morgandy and I. Are we going to have to kill people?"
Papa Sean spoke up again. "Bear in mind, my children, that if these people can they will slay us and your parents and all your cousins and uncles and aunts, your friends that are running across our lawn right now, they will put this town to the sword and everyone that bars their path. Their goal is to destroy and enslave."
"Why, Papa?" Bram could feel the burning in his eyes and the thickening in his throat.
"The old reasons. For power. For control. For wealth. It never changes, my boy. There is always someone who wants to be a god."
There was a loud banging on the front door. Bram's father excused himself and went to answer it. They all heard Douglas' voice, "Can Morgandy and Bram come out to play?" And Bram's father responded, "Y'know, Douglas, they could do with a bit of fresh air. They'll be right out."
Neither Bram nor his sister felt like playing but their father urged them and soon they were hiding together in a culvert in the campground one door over from their house. Keelin was it. Despite his reluctance to join his friends Bram had to admit the running and hiding had taken away some of his bad feelings. Now his sister and him were stuck together while Keelin stalked them and he said to her, "How are you doing?"
"Better, I guess."
"Did all that talk scare you?"
"Me too. You don't think it's part of some big hoax do you? Like a joke on us?"
"It didn't sound like it. Mom was crying too much."
"Yeah. I don't know. It's like we're suddenly in some kind of cult or something. Do you believe the stuff they told us?"
"I'm not sure. It won't take long to find out. When's the full moon?"
"A couple of days."
"If they're kidding us we'll find out then."
"What kind of thing is that to kid anybody about?"
"I don't know. But we'll find out then. We don't have long to wait."
"Bram! Morgandy! I caught you! I could hear your voices a mile away!"
When it was dark and the house was quiet Bram lay staring up at the dark ceiling. He did not have a sleepy feeling. He did not want to close his eyes. Silver covered the courtyard outside his window and gleamed off the leaves of the tall elm. The moon was almost full. He would stand in chain mail and a cloak holding a two handed sword and do what? Behead people? He began to shake.
His father came in and lay down beside him on the bed.
"Are you having trouble sleeping, son?"
"So is your sister. Your mother's with her. You know, I found out when I was ten. A lot younger than you. I had nightmares for weeks. But no double blue moon ever happened and pretty soon the whole thing just faded away. We did have a place in the attic where we kept everything and now and then I went up and took a look."
"What colour is your outfit?"
"Then? A kind of bright green. Now it's a deep, deep red."
"Why didn't you tell us?"
"Your mother and I were both told so early on and all it did was frighten us. So we decided to hold off as long as we could. Maybe you'll have some nightmares but at least you'll only have them for a couple of nights. The chances of you seeing another double blue moon in your lifetime are pretty slim."
"Your parents are going to see two."
"But they were really young when the first one happened."
"There were swords in the crawl space weren't there?"
"Yes. I'm sorry you got cut, son. You weren't supposed to be down there. How is your left hand?"
"The thick gloves will help deaden the shock of the blows your sword makes."
"Are you going to stick with me?"
"You bet I am. No one is going to hurt you."
"You can't control what's going to happen, dad. It's not a lecture."
"No one is going to hurt you. I'm in the fencing club at the college. Sabres. I'm ready."
"I wish you were making all this up."
"It's really going to happen?"
"Yes. Like Thermopylae. Like the Knights of St. John at Malta."
"What was that?"
"Malta? A siege. In the 1500's. An old Crusader Order, the Hospitallers, they were holding out against the Turks who wanted to invade Europe."
"Did they win?"
"They did win, yes, but it was a hard go."
"What are you lecturing about tomorrow?"
"The First Crusade actually."
"People don't like the Crusaders."
"Bram, there is no discipline in the university more manipulated than history. The Crusaders have been the target of a lot of bad press, some of it deserved, some not. You must understand that both sides committed atrocities, the Crusaders didn't have a monopoly on cruelty and bloodshed."
"But why did they attack the Muslims to begin with?"
"There were politics involved. Every religion gets tangled up in bad politics at one time or another. But the Crusades began long before any European knight set foot in the Holy Land. They began when the Muslims invaded the Middle East six hundred years after Christ. They began when the Muslims invaded Europe. You need to bear in mind that the Europeans weren't starting anything. The Christian Crusades took place in response to the Muslim Crusades. Think of it that way."
"But the Crusades were brutal."
"Yes, they were, war is brutal, always brutal, war is what war is, and this war was no different than any other in that respect. Some Crusaders did brave and good things. But some also committed atrocities. I don't condone those atrocities. The Muslims fought bravely. But some of them committed atrocities too. Bear in mind that Islam is not indigenous to the Middle East. It came by conquest. Muslim warriors wanted to capture Europe as well as the Holy Land. So the Europeans fought back. The sons of Charlemagne fought back. Do you think that's wrong?"
"I guess not. But the Muslims had been in the Middle East four hundred years by then."
"And the Europeans in Spain and France and Germany a thousand."
"I don't like the fighting or killing."
"Neither do I."
"I'd rather have Muslims for friends."
"So would I."
"And Germans. Buddhists. Atheists. The Blackfoot."
"I'm with you."
"But I know I also want the right to defend myself and the lives of others."
"Then make up your mind to be the kind of warrior you believe you ought to be."
"You mean on the night of the blue moon?"
"I mean on any night, but yes, especially that night. This is not the Crusades anymore. This is not about Asian or African against European, or Muslim against Christian or Christian against Jew. And thank God for that. But if we fail Earth will be ravaged. It will be conquered and put to the torch. And Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Communist, Socialist, Environmentalist, Feminist, you name it, they will cease to exist. Civilization on Earth will be extinguished. Others will rule here with no pity and no justice. There will be no freedom to choose left or right. It is our planet that is on the line. Our global civilization. Butterflies, bees, warts and all, for better or for worse, it is still our civilization, Bram. We have a right to defend our civilization, don't you think?"
"I do, dad."
"We fight for all of them, Bram. Every race. Every tribe. Every religion. All the things we agree with and all the things we don't agree with. We fight for the right to be here and to make our own choices without coercion and without fear. We fight for humanity. And not just in our world. The night of the blue moon will impact all the worlds, for better or for worse. Think of this, my son. You were chosen to make this fight. Before the beginnings of the worlds, you were hand picked to be here and make this fight. You were chosen. I know you're scared. I know tonight has been far too much to take in. But hold onto this when you close your eyes. More than six billion souls. And you are one of only a handful that have been given the sacred trust to stand between heaven and earth and make everything right."
Once he had gone Bram watched the moon swing white over the mountains. Its light was so strong there were hardly any stars to count. He thought for a moment about the boy leading the dapple grey horse through the waters of the creek. Then he clutched the hilt of his sword tightly and whispered a prayer his mother had taught him when he was four or five, over and over he said it in the quiet of his room, until he was no longer there but had vanished into his dreams. Come, my silver, come, my gold, come, my God, come to my eye, let me see you, come to my hand, let me hold you, come to my heart, let me love you, let me be your son.
Morgandy's day did not have an easy start. She was asleep in warm pastel colours of yellow and blue and pink when a hand shook her shoulder roughly.
"Get up, Morgandy! We must use every minute we have!"
It was her cousin Fallon with the beautiful long black hair and dark tan, the broad shoulders and slim hips and blazing green eyes and the smell on her skin that was like plums.
"Fallon!" She threw her arms around her favourite cousin who laughed and hugged her back.
"You have strength in your arms, Morgandy, and I see you are over five foot already."
"I'm not as strong as you."
"You are not eighteen either. Wonderful it is to see you, sweet Morgandy with the gentle hair, just like a deer, so soft and autumn leaf brown. But we must use our time well. What do we have, a couple of days? Get up and get dressed, jeans and a T shirt like me, and where is your sword placed? In bed with you? Glad I am you did not cut yourself. Do you like it? So. A hand and a half. Three foot blade, one foot hilt, two inches wide, Papa Sean forged this true, gave you a long ricasso, this dull part below the guard and hilt, see, you can grip it on the blade without cutting your fingers and another hand on the hilt makes the sword like a spear if you want to jab at something, have you given it a name?"
"Every sword should be named."
"Nothing has come to me."
"I suppose it will at the right time. Beautiful scabbard. Here. Let's get your hair up and back. Shall I give it a quick braid? Over and under and under and over. How are you feeling about everything?"
"I will not leave your side, cousin. I well remember how frightened I was when my mother told me about the blue moon and the great cut in the world. You're eleven? I was nine. Not even nine. I cried myself to sleep for weeks. They didn't know what to do with me. Your parents tried to spare you. They waited until you were older. The trouble is we really have a two blue moon night and it is upon us and you are not ready for it. You have not practiced with a sword or dagger. You have not bent a bow. Now you must learn all I can teach you in two days."
"I don't think I will be any good at it."
"Don't speak ill of yourself. You may be surprised at what you can do with a blade."
"I don't want to kill."
"You will not have to kill. The adults will do that kind of fighting. You just need to defend yourself. There. The braid will hold while you learn to dance with steel. Let's get out into the backyard. Here."
She fastened a locket round like a moon about Morgandy's throat.
"This is my gift to you. I wore it when I was eleven."
"Oh, Fallon, it's beautiful, I don't have anything made of silver."
"And you still don't. This is white gold. Do you like it?"
"I'll never take it off."
She kissed Morgandy on the cheek. "Bless you. May the day come when you pass it on to your daughter."
"Or friend. Now. We must get out there."
"The sun is barely up."
"You will be fighting at night."
"But a full moon."
"And we will be practicing under the moon later on, no fear. Come."
They went down the hall and out through the kitchen.
"Bram? Pity your brother. His uncles hauled him out an hour ago, Torin, Flynn and Briac, and he has been at it in the creek with wooden swords a'whacking before the moon set. I have a pair made of red oak for us to start with. Here. You stand under that poplar. Now bend your legs. Bend. You have to move about like a ballet dancer. As if you have springs in your knees. You have to be fast. Morgandy, I cannot teach you everything in two days and expect you to remember all of it when the time comes. So let us learn four good moves. Only four. But let us learn them well. Now. A big man comes and takes a swipe at you. You duck. Drop to one knee. As his sword is swinging through the empty air you stretch out and stab or slice across his hip. Then somersault past him and you are at his back. Your cut will take away his leg. Try it. I swing. You drop. Put your sword into my leg. Now roll. What's the matter?"
"It feels like make believe."
Fallon struck Morgandy on the arm with her wooden sword. Morgandy yelped. "Hey, that hurt!" Fallon raised a dark eyebrow. "Think of how steel will bite, cousin. Now drop, strike, and roll."
A terrific yell came from the creek followed by a murderous shriek and the crash of steel on steel and a great splash. Morgandy whirled around. "What is that? What's happening?"
"Briac just attacked Flynn. Probably by surprise. For your brother's edification. Soon enough they will be after him. You hear the chiming of the bells? They have graduated from wood to forged blades."
"Bram's sword is quite large."
"Describe it to me. Duck!"
"You have to drop and strike like a snake. Describe the sword."
"The handles slant downwards. He needs both hands to hold the thing. I don't know. It looked to me to be about five feet long."
"Ha. They think he can handle a Claidheamh mor, a Great Sword, the blade of the highlanders. Well, maybe he can. Duck. Strike. Good. Now roll. The handles are called quillions. They end in small metal circles like four leaf clovers, you saw that? We call those quatrefoils. It is big but it is light, a skilled swordsman can make the Claidheamh mor move like the wind. Your brother's a big boy. We will see what his three mad uncles make of him, mad as the wind and rain those three. Strike. Slice. Roll. If your opponent has armour try and jab between the plates. Use the ricasso. That will drive the point deep. His leg will buckle."
"You make it sound like we'll only be fighting men."
"Do I? No, there will be women enough. So I have read in one of the Books of Crossing. Have you seen any of those?"
"I have only opened the Book of Garments."
"Not the Book of Nine?"
"We must rectify that before you put your head on your pillow tonight. Enough of this. You need to learn the X. The cutting pattern is upper left, lower right, upper right, lower left, you see, an X, and then the top cut, hold the sword right in front of you and strike for the head. Your blocking will follow the same pattern but you must meet the attack at a perpendicular angle or the entire shock of the blow will go into your arm and your blade. Your sword will eventually break and that is not something we want happening with drug crazed maniacs pouring through the gap at you."
"I don't know what drugs. Papa Sean told us about it. He said the attackers are more hell than human, liquored up, drugged up, they'd behead their own mothers. So you must block their blade at the perpendicular. I will call out the positions and you meet my blow there. Upper left. I said left. Lower right. Right. You know your left from your right, don't you? Lower left. Upper right. On the perpendicular, cousin. Upper left. Lower left. Lower right. If I go for your head lift your sword up and over your head at the horizontal like this. Now don't be surprised if Papa Sean or Grandmother Tully wants to have a go at you before the day's out. Yes, Grandmother Tully, she's not all charts and graphs and algebra, she's a wicked sweet warrior and you've not seen her biceps or calves yet. The two of them will call out stuff like prime or tierce or sixte. So remember this. Prime is the same as blocking lower left. Seconde is blocking lower right. Always on the perpendicular. Tierce is upper right, quarte upper left. Got it? One, two, three, four. Quinte is the horizontal block that protects your head. Sixte is the same but you're pulling your arm across the front of your body like this. Septime is another block lower left but you turn your body and change your grip. Octave blocks a sudden blow to your back when you don't have time to turn around. Do you have it? Pretend I'm Grandmother Tully. Prime. Seconde. Tierce. Octave. Got you. Sixte. Over your head. Quarte. Upper left. Prime. Tierce. Quinte. Septime. Turn your body. Octave. Octave. Good."
"What is Grandfather Caedmon doing? Ow!"
"Never mind what he is doing. Worry about what I'm doing. Quinte. Quarte. Seconde, lower right, that is. Sixte. Over your head. Prime. It looks like he is pounding pells into the ground. Posts to practice your cutting blows on. Quinte. Quinte. Seconde. Do you need a drink? Some food? Tierce. Quarte. All right. Let's pause for breakfast."
The sun was well up and Nana Tara and Grandmother Tully had placed out bowls of fruit and pitchers of juice on the two picnic tables in the backyard. Morgandy gulped down three glasses of orange juice before tackling an apple, a banana, three plums, and a cantelope half. Bram and her uncles did not join them. They already had Bram hacking away at one of the pells. "Upper left, upper right," Uncle Torin was shouting, "lower left, upper right, upper left, lower right, up, up, down, up, up, down, smoothly, smoothly, it's not a pipe wrench, right on the edge, Bram, cleanly on the edge, keep your back foot on the ground, up, up, down, smoothly, I said, come on, boy, put something into it, use both your arms, bring your wrists along while you're at, up, up, down, how can you miss the post when it's right there in front of your face?"
Morgandy looked at Fallon and her dark cousin smiled, her green eyes dancing. "I think your brother has a fifty fifty chance of surviving his uncles and living to fight the enemy two nights from now."
The Scarlet Mage
The snow was roaring down from the mountains and the wind beginning to whistle in the chimney when Brimm finished his first dagger and turned it over and over in his hand in the light of the forge. His father had an arm around his son's shoulders and was smiling and gulping from a tankard of hot cider.
"Never mind. The balance and the line of the piece will come when you have your next go at it. Your first helmet the other day was no wonder of the world. But your third, now that was something you could wear into battle and have a reasonable expectation of coming away with your head intact. The important thing is you've made good steel, this is a solid blade and it can cut through bone and muscle in a trice, all you need to do is sharpen it well, and let's give it a decent hardwood handle and leather wrap while we're at it."
Brimm was not too thrilled with the lumpish feeling the dagger had in his hand but his father's enthusiasm meant all was not lost and he walked to the wheel where his father sat and pedaled and began to hone both edges. Sparks snapped onto the dirt under their feet. When he was done with that to his satisfaction, Brimm's father fitted an oak handle onto the tang and fastened it securely with three steel pins, then he took a strip of black leather and began to wind it around the wood as tightly as he could.
"Look, boy, now this will serve you better than that one you bought from the pedlar last year. Don't be ashamed of it. It's got strength to save your life the other will never have. Here. Tuck it into your belt. It goes well with Grandfather Barran's Great Sword."
The dogs began to bark. Brimm's father opened the door of his smithy and looked out into the thick tumble of snowflakes. A man on a horse saw him and came over, swinging himself to the ground.
"Lade Ferringurl. What brings you out in this mess?"
"I have news, Core, and the quicker I share it the better."
"Come inside. We've been at the forge all day and it's warm as summer. You know my boy Brimm?"
"I do. You've fished with my son Aron, haven't you?"
"I have. And we caught something too."
The man laughed. "Did you? That must have been a first for Aron. He's always on about how fishing is good for the soul. But no one's had a full belly from it yet." The man's face was tight and the laughter did not last. No sooner was he inside and a cup of hot cider in his hand than his words came out in a rush.
"Now, Core, did you know that the Yellow Castle has sent out the Four Warrior Maidens? And their father with them?"
"To do what?"
"You know the talk about their House being the guards of the spirit world?"
"The old man's at picking a fight with the Ro. He swears they mean to do harm here and on the other side."
"What? Has he started anything?"
"I have it his girls slew a patrol by the creek this afternoon."
Brimm's father whistled. "Who told you?"
"Berrick. And I heard it from Satur also."
"The old man's not crazy. He'd never start something like this without good reason."
"So it was Jak Horits who took a load of fodder up last night for Ro's horses. And the snow was just starting then and no one noticed him at first so he waited there for an officer to pay him what was due. There was talk going on. Ro mean to break through to the other side but in order for that to be successful the priests of Merek say there has to be a sacrifice of fire and blood, a lot of it. Core, they mean to fire the village and put everyone to the sword."
"By thunder, he didn't hear that."
"He swears. And Horits has already fled to the hills with his family. The Yellow Castle is mustering troops for the word is that Ro will use the snowstorm to encircle us. At the tavern they say it has already begun."
"But they sit and drink?"
"No. Bottle has closed it down and gone into hiding himself. But I say all of that to get to this. The House of Ro is looking for Brimm."
Cold came into Brimm's stomach.
"Why are they looking for my son?"
"They say he saw something."
"He only saw the camp. What does that matter? Anyone with supplies has been back and forth from there a dozen times by now."
"No. He saw the other side. The High Priest of Merek wants him. The one they call the Scarlet Mage. They're coming, Core. I have this from the Yellow Castle itself, from one of the commanders, Tere, you know him."
"Why didn't he tell me himself?"
"His division is already in position north of here."
Brimm met his father's eyes. "I did see something a few days ago. I wasn't sure. A boy sitting on the creekbank. It was summer where he was and hot. He had on strange clothes and was eating an apple. That's all. It was over in a moment."
"And you didn't tell me or your mother?"
"I thought I'd imagined it. I didn't want to alarm you."
"Well, I'm plenty alarmed right now. Is there anything else you want to say?"
"The boy saw me. Our eyes met."
"Ro will want to know if there are soldiers waiting for them and if those soldiers have strong magic. They believe you can see to the other side so they will want to use you as their eyes. Enslave you. Make you do their bidding. You will be priceless to them."
"All of that is true. I hope wisdom has passed from father to son in your bloodline."
A tall man in a blood red robe stood in the middle of the room. The flames of the forge leaped higher as if they would shoot through the roof. Brimm felt like he was dropping into a pit. He put his hand to his dagger.
"That won't hurt me, boy. Very little will."
Brimm's father stared at the man. "My dogs did not bark."
"Why, I'm magic, Core Sterras, I though you knew that. Your dogs don't even know I'm here."
A howling began. The man's narrow face, a face like a thin sharp blade, slit apart like leather along a seam. "Of course, my soldiers are mere flesh and blood. Your dogs know they are here."
Lade lunged at the Mage with one of the spears Brimm's father had made for the Ro. The spear shattered and blood poured out of Lade's eyes and ears and nose. He fell to the ground choking and spitting and twisting and went rigid. The Mage shrugged. Brimm's father took a large axe up in his fists.
"You are not taking my boy, you killing swine."
"Oh, we are taking your boy. It's you and his mother we are not taking. You need to remain behind for the bonfire. You are essential. You're the fuel."
He swept a hand across Core's face and Brimm's father crashed to the ground. Brimm cried out and yanked his dagger from his belt. The door to the smithy banged open and a huge man stood there with a sword that had a blade like a black flame.
"Have you killed the dogs?" asked the Mage.
"Deal with the boy first. Then kill them. Dogs disagree with my spirit. Fetch the cage from the wagon and put the boy it. Watch out for his little dagger."
The man laughed. Brimm struck at him but the soldier knocked the dagger to the floor with his sword. Then he put the point to Brimm's throat and grinned. His mouth was black with rot and there were three ugly fangs among his upper teeth, one on either side and a third in the centre. He smelled like a bucket of urine. The sword pricked Brimm and drew blood. Brimm flinched but refused to cry out.
"Do you remember me, boy?"
It was Danakk.
The cage was scarcely large enough for Brimm and Danakk laughed and poked at him with his sword through the bars.
"There you are, all balled up like a runt pig for the slaughter. How does it feel, my friend with his dogs and Great Sword, eh, how brave do you feel tonight?"
Brimm said nothing, his arms around his knees and his head bent down so that he could fit. The snow was pouring over them, somewhere unseen the sun had set, and the soldiers walked about with torches. The dogs lay bound and muzzled, whining and squirming on the ground. His father was tied to a fence and they were still searching the buildings for his mother. The Mage had vanished to assist the troops battling the knights from the Yellow Castle. He had ordered Danakk to deliver Brimm to the camp unharmed.
"Or I will pull the skull out of your head with a meat hook," the Mage had growled.
"He will be there," Danakk had answered.
Yes, but alive or dead, wondered Brimm. Maybe Danakk does not fear the Mage. Maybe he has friends that have stronger magic. Maybe he will go ahead and kill me along with my family and my animals.
"What are you staring at? Have you not seen the fangs before?"
"Only those who have passed the seventeenth rite of Merek may bear them. A mage and surgeon in Zan does the job. Five hours. It's painful. But worth it to have the power of the god of blood and fire."
Danakk snorted. "Who has the boy's horse?" he suddenly shouted.
"Shurl," someone answered.
"Where is he?"
"In the barn."
"Tell him to get out here." Danakk leaned in close to the cage. "Here is my plan. I deliver you alive but blind. What do you think? You don't need the eyes in your head to see the spirit world. Then I can slay your father and horse and dogs and put out your eyes. The last thing you'll ever see is them vomiting blood and screaming. I like it." He yelled again into the darkness that flickered with the white sparks of snow. "Where is the boy's mother? I want that woman!"
"She's not in any of the buildings!"
"Did you check the hayloft?"
"Check it again!"
Brimm was only in a thin tunic and leggings. He began to shiver and could not control it.
"Why, what is the matter, piglet? A cold wind? A little hot blood will soon warm you." He shouted into the night. "Let's slay the horse and dogs while the others are looking for the woman. I hear she is beautiful so maybe we don't want to kill her anyway. At least not for awhile. But the animals. I'm growing bored. I need some entertainment. Shurl?"
"Cut the horse's throat."
"It's a powerful beast, Danakk. We could use it in battle."
"In battle? Kill it immediately! Do you hear me?"
"I hear you. The mountains hear you. The One hears you."
Brimm lifted his head the little bit that he could. It was his mother's voice. But he could see nothing in the storm and darkness. Danakk whirled his head back and forth. "It's the woman! Grab her!"
"You will have to find me first to do that, won't you?" she taunted.
Danakk made frantic hand signals to his men, sending them to the left and right.
"Mom!" shouted Brimm. "They're trying to circle around you!"
"Shut up, pig!" snapped Danakk and rammed the pommel of his sword through the bars and into Brimm's mouth. There was a sudden whistle that cut through the blowing wind. Danakk cursed and fell to the ground clutching a leg. Another whistle. Shurl staggered and choked and put his hands to his throat and went down. Three men with torches cried out and collapsed. The others dropped their torches in the snow. But whistles sounded again and found them regardless. One man rushed at Brimm with his sword. A long feathered arrow appeared in his face and another. Then it was just the snowfall and the wind. Brimm's mother suddenly put her hand through the bars of the cage and grasped her son's arm.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm just cold."
"Who has the key?"
"Danakk. The big one who stood beside me here."
"Where is he?"
"You hit him in the leg."
"Then he's crawled off somewhere."
Brimm saw the crossbow in his mother's hands with another bolt fitted and ready to fire. But the bolts were short and fat and unfeathered.
"Someone helped you."
"It was they who hid me until it was dark enough to strike. The five of them were tracking the Mage and his party."
An old but sturdy man with his hood up and a long bow came out of the night. Four young women were behind him, long bows poised and arrowed. Their shaved heads were mantled with snow. Brimm knew them. They had played together with him when they were younger. Then they had vanished within the Yellow Castle when their years of training had begun. Their beauty staggered him despite the cold in his bones and the danger he had just passed through.
"Merin," he said.
She put her eyes on him. "You still get in predicaments, Brimm."
"None that you can't make more interesting."
She laughed and a shimmer of delight went through Brimm's chest. Her sisters smiled with her.
"Thank you, my friends."
They bowed their heads.
"What happened to your mouth?" asked his mother.
"The snow has covered his tracks," said the girls' father, the patriarch of the House of Stronn, the one they called The Eye. He tugged at his short white beard. "We will have to smash the lock."
"Stand back then." It was his father. He hefted an enormous iron mallet and swung it, once, twice, the cage shaking under the blows, and the door sprang loose. Brimm tried to climb out but his arms and legs would not work and he tumbled noisily and ingloriously to the ground at Merin's booted feet. He looked up at her, blinking against the snowflakes.
"You've grown quite tall," he said.
"A boy with wit," grunted The Eye and helped him to his feet. "My daughters have not had the pleasure of your company for many years, Master Brimm. Glad I am we can make the reacquaintance, troubled times though they are."
"The Mage may return at any time though we are some proof against him. But it does not do to court danger needlessly. You must rouse the village, Core, Ara, get them armed and into the hills. Ro means to put it to the torch, animals, children, the lot. I need your son at my side. Will you spare him?"
"Of course," said his mother, but Brimm saw that it was hard for her to say the words. "But what can he give you that your daughters do not already possess?"
"He can see into the other world."
In ten minutes Brimm had donned his warmest clothing and furs and swung himself up onto Mirror's back. Underneath he wore a coat of mail of his father's, loose at the shoulders and too long at the bottom, but better than nothing. The Eye and his daughters were mounted on blacks but Brimm was happy to see Mirror was two hands taller than them all. Grandfather Barran's sword was sheathed on his back, the dagger he had forged so clumsily that afternoon back in his belt. The dogs stood poised to run and snow lay lightly upon his dark hair as it did upon the girls' heads. Merin looked him up and down, her bow slung over her back and a short sword at her hip. One corner of her mouth came up in a smile.
"A man are you now?"
"I guess I am."
"Well, we'll find out, won't we?"
The Eye leaned down to clasp Ara's shoulder. "I will watch him like he were my own son. Do not fear."
"Thank you for that. Stay true, my son."
His father took his hand in a strong grip. "Put your back into it. Both hands. Both wrists. Up to the left. Up to the right. Down."
"Grow your hair out. Put a braid in it like your Grandfather Barran fancied."
"I'd like that."
"I'm sure Stronn has a plan. We will see you very soon."
"You will," said The Eye. "In a day or two a messenger will bring you out of the hills and down to the enemy camp. We will smite them as they go into the other world. They mean to do great harm there. If they succeed it will affect us all. It will destroy us all."
"They won't succeed."
The Eye nodded. He looked ahead. "I will go to my knights first and put Ro to flight. The Scarlet Mage and I will trade blows. The One against his magic. I trust he will come out the worst for it. They may retreat through the village and cause what havoc they can. The people must be in the hills."
"They will be."
"You must look to your backs while you prepare to leave. That man Ara wounded is still skulking about here somewhere."
"We shall take precautions."
"The One guard you."
"The One watch over you."
The six of them rode out of the yard, Night and Dusk and Twilight following silently at the run. The hooves of the horses thudded over the dirt and snow. Merin glanced at Brimm.
"Where did you get that thing?"
"Under your belt."
"I made it."
"That? What does it do?"
"It's a dagger."
Merin made an oh with her mouth and looked straight ahead once again.
The Book of Nine
Bram hurt so much he could hardly sleep. Everytime he turned over something in his body stung or pinched or twisted or cramped and he woke up. Even his eyeballs felt raw and it took a major effort just to get up and limp down the hall to the bathroom at four in the morning. Climbing back into bed he heard his sister talking and opened the door to her room. She was sitting straight up and staring at her closet doors and saying, "The hilt consists of the pommel, the grip or handle, and the crossguard. The forte or strong comprises the fuller or blood groove, the upper part of the blade, and the middle strong. The foible or weak is made up of the middle weak and the point or tip. There is also the tang of the blade that fits into the hilt, the shoulder where the blade narrows to become the tang, and the ricasso which extends below the crossguard and is not sharpened, this is so the sword can be gripped by the ricasso as well as by the hilt and become a short spear. The sword's scabbard consists of the scabbard proper, the metal locket at the top and the metal chape at the bottom."
"Are you awake?"
Morgandy burrowed under her blankets and closed her eyes and began to snore. Bram left the room and got into his bed. A few minutes later she was in his room in her purple pajamas.
"What is it?" he grumbled.
"I can't sleep."
"You were just snoring."
"Horses woke me up."
"What are you talking about? You don't make any sense."
"I heard horses snorting. And their hooves on the pavement."
"Look, you've been sleep talking and now you're probably sleep walking. Go back to bed. If I don't get a few more hours of sleep I swear I'll drop dead by noon. And Uncle Briac will say I'm faking it."
Clop clop clop clop clop clop clop.
Bram shot up and looked out his window at the courtyard and driveway. A man was walking a horse back and forth and talking softly to it. It was an uncle he recognized from a group photo his mother had put up on the fridge with a magnet.
"That's Uncle Ahearn," whispered Morgandy.
"Yeah, I know."
"There's a big horse trailer parked on the street."
They rushed to Morgandy's room where they could get a better look at the trailer. The streetlamp shone onto the backs of eight horses, all of them being led about by their halters. There was Grandmother Tully and Nana Tara, Papa Sean and Grandfather Caedmon, Uncle Briac and Uncle Torin, even their mother and father.
"Doesn't anyone ever sleep anymore?" asked Morgandy.
"They weren't up doing sword drills by the light of the moon. You don't see Flynn or Fallon anywhere. They're still in bed having a good long snooze."
They whipped their heads around. It was Cousin Fallon in a long black morning robe, her hair perfectly braided and coiled around the top of her head, and her green eyes lit with life and strength. She held a huge book with a scuffed purple cover under one arm.
"Good morning, cousins," she smiled.
"There are horses outside," announced Morgandy.
"There are. By the end of the day we will have fifteen of them."
"What are we going to do with them?"
"Ride them into battle, I think."
"But we've only ridden horses on trail rides."
Bram groaned. "That's the only part of me that wasn't sore."
Fallon laughed. "Cheer up. Your long snoozing Uncle Flynn is cooking up scrambled eggs and beef bacon along with steaming cups of hot chocolate and cool tall glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice. You'll be ready for anything."
"What is that book?" asked Morgandy.
"I did not get a chance to keep my promise yesterday. This is the Book of Nine. And it's high time you two had a look at it."
She sat on Morgandy's bed and the three of them opened the massive volume with a gemstone set in the middle of its thick front cover, an amethyst, Fallon explained, which symbolized purity and the life of the spirit, intelligence, and the vanquishment of evil. There were paintings of vibrant colours, script in what Fallon said was Latin and Gaelic, landscapes, portraits, pen and ink sketches of swords and daggers and crossbows and other weapons.
"We know there are nine worlds," said Fallon as they carefully turned the large pages, "but we know most about those on either side of us. There are two that are closer to the centre than we are, and then five others that reach out to infinity. Think of the centre as the beginning of beginnings, the place where the stone was first dropped in the pond, the point from which the ripples first spread outward. We are the third ring, just as we are the third planet from the sun in our solar system. This ring here on the chart, the second from the centre, and one of our neighbours, we know it is called Fayyne, and the Books of Crossing tell about our collisions with it on other double blue moons in the past, and about the battles too, when armies crossed from one world to the other. Just like all the worlds it has the same terrain and beauty as Earth. The last time we came together was four hundred years ago and at that point they were similar to the way our world was at the time of the Pharaohs, particularly the age of Seti I and Rameses II. Who knows what sorts of civilizations have developed since then? This one on the far side of us, fourth from the centre, this world is Sora, and we last collided with her in the 1800's. It was similar to the way Earth was around 800 or so. Different civilizations are dotted all over its map at various stages of progress. We do not usually engage all the various civilizations when a cut is opened. Just one or maybe two. Here is a painting of one of its castles by your great great Grandmother Cordelia. This is the House of Stronn. They are the Guardians in their world just as our family has been the Guardians in ours. Sora is the world we will be engaging during Two Blue Moon. What's the matter, Morgandy?"
"I drew this castle. On the driveway. A few days ago. A green hill. A lake. A pine forest. A great castle of yellow stones. Dad got angry with me. He thought I had come into their bedroom and looked at the Book of Nine. I guess they keep one there. But I didn't sneak into their room. The picture just came into my head. I can close my eyes and still see it perfectly just as Grandmother Cordelia painted it. The grass. The water. The mountains blue and purple behind the castle. Except I can see banners flying and clouds moving in the blue sky and people going back and forth over the drawbridge and the road that leads east."
Fallon looked keenly into her eyes. "You see all that?"
"You are meant to be here. Be confident. A rose is unfolding." Then she looked at Bram, her green eyes piercing his brown ones. "What are you not telling me?"
"You are going to trust me with your life, Bram, you can trust me with your dreams and visions."
"I don't know what it was. A boy with black hair was leading a grey horse along the creekbed. I saw snow and ice. The boy was dressed, well, like someone in a medieval movie, and there was a dagger in his belt. He looked up at me and he was as surprised as I was. Then, in an instant, it was all gone and it was summer again, the creek green, the trout rising, and there was no one around but me."
"When did this happen?"
"A few days ago."
"Look at the drawings for Sora. Does anything seem familiar?"
Bram turned the pages. There were sketches of men and women in various kinds of clothing. He pointed at a few and said, "He wore a shirt like that, he had a leather vest like this," then he stopped at a page that showed a riverbank or creekbank. "But this is ours," he said, looking up at Fallon, "this is the bank at the back of our house."
She looked at it intently. So did his sister. "Bram's right," nodded Morgandy. "I've played on this creek since I was three. We could go out the back door right now and stand in this drawing."
"What does the writing say?" asked Bram.
Fallon read it with her lips. She hesitated.
"What?" demanded Bram.
She closed the book. "They call it a berm, like a dike, to hold back a flood. They say there is a prophecy that there will be an opening here and a flood pour through that no berm can stop, no human hand stay. The prophecy was related by a Guardian of Sora the last time our worlds came together. And now, I think, it is time for breakfast, and then a session at the pells, followed up by archery and horseback riding and a lesson on tactics."
"Do you believe that prophecy, Fallon?"
"I believe there is a prophecy, Bram. I also believe we can shape fate to fit our purposes if we have enough tenacity and faith. Are you hungry?"
"Then let us leave Sora behind for a few hours. Flynn will be ready. Get dressed quickly."
Bram and Morgandy came down the hall in shorts and T shirts for the sun was up and it was already almost thirty Celsius. Flynn gave both a big hug that almost killed them off and set down plates of bacon, sausages, ham, and scrambled eggs with toast, as well as bowls of strawberries and grapes. Morgandy thought she could not possibly eat everything her uncle put before her but in ten minutes her plate and bowl were empty and she had astonished herself. Flynn sat across from them with a mug of coffee and grinned when Morgandy burped.
Bram scowled. "Say excuse me, Morgandy."
"No worries, no worries," said Flynn. "Your Cousin Fallon tells me you were looking into the Book of Nine this morning."
"Yes," said Bram.
"What did you think?"
"It's a beautiful book."
"It seems like a fairy tale."
"Aren't you just doing all this for the family reunion, Uncle Flynn?" demanded Morgandy. "Aren't you just making up a kind of Medieval Fair for Bram and I because we're the youngest and you want us to have a good weekend and not get bored?"
"Are you bored?"
"Just tired," grumbled Bram.
"Then it's working?"
"I guess. There's no time to be bored."
"And less time today. But all's well that end's well. This is the night of the Grand Feast - a fire, roast meat, stories, plays, music, pies and ice cream. And tomorrow. Tomorrow's breakfast will make this fare I put before you today seem paltry, a sham, an illusion, I hang my head. The Breaking of the Fast of Two Blue Moon. Then you can relax under the trees and play fetch with your dogs. For there is no training on the Eve of Two Blue Moon. Absolutely none. The afternoon is a nap. Then at eight we sup simply and don our gear and wait for the show to begin."
"When does the show begin?" asked Bram.
"Saturday night. At moonrise."
"So you'll take this game all the way."
There was a rapping at the back door. Bram looked through the glass at the smiling faces of Uncle Torin and Uncle Briac. They had their long swords in their fists and were decked out completely in chain mail.
"I'm dead," said Bram.
First they dropped his coat of chain mail on him and that weighed a ton - Briac kept insisting it was chainmaille, pronouncing it in the French - then a coif, the headpiece, on top of that, and that weighed another ton, then they put gloves or gauntlets on him, and the backs of those were chain mail, so that was another half ton on each hand, then they told him to pick up his Claidheamh mor, his Great Sword, which was no feather, and charge the pells swinging it up, up, and down and shrieking at the top of his lungs with the hot sun banging down on his head. When they saw he was getting warm, by the rivers of sweat streaking down his crimson face, they threw him in the creek and attacked him there, Flynn from the front, Torin from either side, and Briac from behind, all of them hollering oaths in Gaelic. When it was time to dry him out they threw him on the back of a horse and told him to get it to trot up the far creekbank and run around and around in a meadow while four stray dogs snapped at the horse's heels and made it buck and kick and the three uncles fired arrows over his head. As soon as they heard him complain about the arrows they hauled him off the horse and dragged him to their makeshift archery lane to bend a seventy pound longbow at bails of hay with bullseyes on them. When he showed signs of wear they peeled his chain mail off and threw him naked in the creek to freshen him up. Then they chased him downstream screaming they would have his head and swinging their swords to see how fast he could go barefoot. The creek made a turn past the campground where the last bunch of cousins, a number of them female, were just setting up their tents and trailers, and they wolf whistled and clapped and cheered as Bram splashed past. This was more than he could bear and he climbed out of the creekbed and darted into the trees. Where an anry badger chased him up the slope to the meadow again where the four stray dogs were waiting.
Morgandy was slashing at a pell with her sword while all this unfolded in front of her eyes and she laughed so hard she could not get her breath. Until Fallon came after her swinging a rubber morning star that stung like needles and pins and she took to the creek to escape. Where four other female cousins, just arrived, were waiting for her with bloodcurdling shrieks and rubber morning stars of their own. She bolted out of the creek and up the slope where Bram was running for his life from his uncles who were mounted and trying to catch him in a net. But when they spotted Morgandy they ran her down and threw it on her instead. Which is how Fallon found her. And told her it was time to stop fooling around and learn how to use a crossbow, a longbow, and a spear, and how to fight with a sword from the back of a galloping horse. So the morning passed.
People filled the backyard for lunch, piling paper plates with egg salad sandwiches and pickles and potato chips. Bram crept around to the front of the house, using a cottonwood branch thick with leaves to cover himself, and got inside without anyone noticing. He put on another pair of shorts and a T and went outside for a plate of food. But his two sixteen year old cousins, girls, twins, with red hair flaming down their backs, began to giggle when they spotted him, so he went to a far corner of the yard and sat by a bush, furious, and ate. Morgandy came with her plate and sat down beside him on the grass.
"I'm not doing it anymore, Morgandy. You can keep whacking away at pells if you want to and get smacked by Rubbermaid morning stars. But I'm going to spend the aftenoon at the pool."
"Well, but won't you miss everybody?"
"I never see anybody except Torin and Briac and Flynn. And they're usually foaming at the mouth."
"What about Two Blue Moon?"
"What about it? I'll do a sleepover at Ian's. We'll watch DVDs like Braveheart and Gladiator. Eat chips. Drink pop. Sleep late."
"But they said everyone has to be at Two Blue Moon or they'll fail."
"Forget it, Morgandy, it's all just a joke, don't you get it? It's a dress up family reunion, that's all it is, and they're trying to put one over on us. I'm tired of playing along."
"Here comes Fallon."
"Wow. I'm scared."
"Hey, you two, what are you doing off here by yourselves? Hatching secret battle plans for the afternoon joust and melee? Bram, you look less than impressed with life."
"I'm not doing it anymore, Fallon. Running naked down a creek. Wearing chain mail when it's one hundred above. Getting poked and punched and kicked and cracked. You guys have had your fun. Now that's it."
"I'm out of here."
"We need you with us, cousin."
"What you need, cousin, is a punching bag and you can buy one of those at Wal Mart. I'm serious. Johnny doesn't want to play anymore."
"Where are you going?"
"To the town pool. I'll be back for the barbeque and play the nice boy. Talk to my cousins and aunts. But no more uncles."
"Your uncles think a lot of you."
"Come on, Fallon, I'm a laugh to them, that's all."
"If they didn't care they wouldn't be spending all their time with you. They're trying as best they can to simulate the shock and fear and disorientation of battle conditions so you'll at least have half a chance of living through Two Blue Moon."
"Have they ever been in combat? Have you?"
"Then how would any of you know?"
"Who do you think trained us? Papa's fought. Tully. Tara. Caedmon. We're passing on to you what they passed on to us. Yes, they really fought, Bram. It was a Crossing of the Fifth World into ours."
"In the 40's."
"You don't believe."
"Believe in what?"
"Any of this."
"It's a family reunion disguised as a medieval tournament and you're having a lot of fun and that's great. So was I when Papa opened the trunk and gave me a sword. It's been downhill since."
"I've had ten years of training, haven't I? You've had two days. When other girls were on the basketball team I was in the fencing club. When others went to the movies I went to Tae Kwon Do. They goofed off on Saturdays and I was part of a medieval reenactment that took up the whole day and part of the night. On Sunday afternoons I was at the riding academy jumping my horse over stone fences and ditches full of cold water. My friends hung out at Seven Eleven and I was at the archery lanes bending a fifty pound longbow. They stuffed their faces with Hallowe'en candy and I mixed whey powder with skim milk and pumped iron at the gym. And you can't hack it because your uncles are trying to cram my ten years into your forty eight hours and save your life tomorrow night?"
"Fallon. Enough." It was Papa Sean. "We have all had our doubts. You. I. At the beginning of this week it was a normal world to them. In two or three days we have turned it upside down and inside out. Everything you have taken years to work through we have asked them to process in a few hours. It is not surprising that young Bram has hit a stone wall."
He sat down beside Bram. "It's a hot day."
"But here I am in my long sleeves mopping the sweat off my forehead. Think about it. When have you ever seen my arms, grandson?"
A stream of memories came through Bram's head, Christmas, Easter, camping, fishing. He shrugged. "I don't know."
Papa rolled up his sleeves. Morgandy bit her lip and Bram stared. Scars ran up and down both of Papa's arms. Red, white, purple, wide, narrow, jagged. Fallon looked at Bram.
Bram felt the heat in his eyes and throat. "What is it, Papa?"
"Do you know what the English general, Wellington, said about his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815? A near run thing. The Crossing of the Fifth World was a near run thing, Bram. A man who would have been your uncle died there. And three cousins."
"I thought they died in the war."
"They did. Just not the war you imagined."
The tears came and Bram could not stop them. "I'm sorry, Papa."
"These days have been terrible for you and Morgandy. What we have told you seems too fantastic to be real. But we need you, grandson. We need you, granddaughter. Without you two at our sides we will fall."
"I won't leave you, Papa," Bram managed to get out.
"I know you will not."
Papa took Bram and hugged him. Morgandy went to Fallon who kissed her tears and kept her close. When Bram sat back he looked at the arms that had been holding him.
"You have a blue tattoo."
"That is from another time. Not so far away from the Crossing. Ravensbruck. A war camp. There is a great deal you do not know about our family, young Bram."
The three uncles stood before Bram. He climbed to his feet, his face still wet. The flame haired cousins were watching from a picnic bench but they were not laughing now. The uncles were in chain mail. Briac held out Bram's sword in its long leather scabbard.
"Will you take the sword, nephew?"
Briac passed it to Flynn who asked, "Will you take the sword, Bram son of Conner?"
Lastly they gave the sword and scabbard to Torin who touched Bram's fingertips with the hilt. "Draw it," he commanded.
Bram pulled the long sword free and the sun made a fire of its shining.
"Will you fight, Bram son of Shyla?"
Bram held Torin's dark eyes. "I will," he said.
The Two Hundred Questions
Balloons with lights inside them drifted along the ground or floated through the air. Uncle Bevin, round and cheerful as a beach ball, was sitting under the largest cottonwood in the yard and telling stories to anyone who stopped to listen. Cousin Fiona was juggling daggers and oranges and full cups of tea. Aunt Aislinn was doing tricks with her pet magpie, a deck of cards, and a silver cape. Uncle Ahearn talked with Aunt Devnet about medieval medicines and herbs while he cooked hot dogs and bratwurst and buffalo burgers on the gas barbeque. Cousin Fallon sat playing a long wooden flute by the creek while beside her Uncle Flynn plucked a twelve string. White Christmas lights were strung in the trees and orange flames roared four or five feet out of the firepit. People ringed the pit but well back, for the heat was fierce, and ate and chatted. Uncle Brian, in a jester's costume, complete with a belled cap, cracked jokes at a picnic table, something about a pedlar with a two headed donkey that had three legs, and had a group convulsed. Bram was squirting ketchup onto his cheeseburger while the red headed cousins hovered around him, talking nonstop. Charlemagne and Morningstar trotted about looking for handouts or dropped bratwurst. Morgandy went back and forth through the yard, watching everyone, sipping on a root beer float. It was a carnival, a fair, a party, with clowns and ice cream and sword swallowers (Cousin Cyric). Everything said family reunion. Nothing said the Battle of Agincourt from Henry V. I will go to bed in peace and wake up in joy and Saturday will spread before me like a long bolt of blue silk and tomorrow night we will feast again and be glad. There is nothing to fear in the whole wide world.
The moon rose huge and silver, just the slimmest cut off full. As people noticed its rise they stopped talking and watched. The yard became silent but for the popping of the firewood. And back of that Morgandy could hear the creek running over its stones.
"Everyone come around!" called Papa Sean. "It's time for the Naming."
He was in a lawn chair next to Tara, his wife, and Grandmother Tully and Grandfather Caedmon. By two's and three's Morgandy watched her aunts and uncles and cousins gather to stand or sit by the tall flames.
"A night like this happens once in a lifetime," said Papa Sean, hunching forward, "for it is certain that all of us here will not be together at the next double blue moon. So it does my heart good to see how our family is getting to know one another, enjoying each other's company, packing away a few pounds of grilled chicken and smokies. But there are three things that need to happen on the Eve of Two Blue Moon. The Naming, the Two Hundred Questions, and the Oath. We start by calling out our Celtic names, for our family has carried Celtic names for five hundred years. All you need to do is tell us your name and what it means. Nothing difficult in that. It's a kind of roll call. The four of us here will begin. So I am Sean and my name means God's grace."
"And you all know I am Tara and that stands for a rocky hill or tower, a defender's place, you see, or a fortress."
"I am Tully, all right, and that means peaceful one, which is what I am, am I not?"
"Caedmon. My name means wise warrior."
"I am Conner. It means many things, including wise help and wolf lover."
"I am Shyla. My name means loyal to God and strong."
"Ahearn. Lord of the horses."
"Fallon. It means in charge. You did not expect another meaning, did you?"
"Flynn. Son of the red haired man. Whoever he is."
"Brian. Noble. Strong. You see?"
"Bevin. Son of Evan."
"Aislinn. A dream. A vision. Inspiration."
"Fiona. White. Fair."
"Derry. Oh, great lover, I am, and ancient hero."
So he grinned at Morgandy. Her cheeks flamed and she ducked her head in shyness.
"Ferris. Rock. Iron."
"Morgandy. Little one from the edge of the sea."
"Cyric. There is no meaning for my name anyone is aware of."
Papa Sean gazed at him. "So you will make a name for yourself tomorrow night."
The Naming continued. When it was done Papa Sean turned in his seat as if he were shifting weight on a throne. "So. But there are four others standing on the berm and they've been watching and listening all week. Why don't you come down here and join us? That's right. Come into the circle. What are your names?"
"I'm Douglas, sir."
"My name is Keelin."
"Ian. Standing Alone."
"Do any of you know what your name means?"
"I'm not sure," said Douglas.
Ian shrugged. "Standing Alone is a Blackfoot name."
"But Ian is a Celtic name. It means God is gracious. Very close to the sense of my own name. Douglas means from the dark water. Keelin is slender and fair. Keary? Father's dark child. Now. Why do you four think you are here tonight?"
No one answered him.
"What do you think is going to happen tomorrow night?"
Keelin slowly raised her hand. "I had a dream I was standing with all of Morgandy's family. There was fire over us. And smoke. Horses came and we made them stop. Soldiers came in black furs and we made them stop too."
"How did you go about doing that?"
Keelin looked down into the firepit. "There was a sword in my hand."
The other three children stared at her.
"Did you all have a dream like that?" asked Papa Sean.
"I did." Ian.
"But I didn't see any horses." Douglas.
"I kept ducking behind a huge shield." Keary.
"I cannot keep you back if you are called," said Papa Sean. "But I want you to know it will be nothing like you have seen here tonight or these past few days. There will be no wooden swords. No plastic knives. Every weapon will be real. The enemy will not be a wooden post. This is something you should tell your mother and father. They may believe you. In any case, you will not be able to enter the yard once the blue moon has risen unless it is permitted."
Keelin raised her hand. "Whose permission do we need? Yours?"
"Oh no. I cannot grant permission of that sort. No one here can. It comes from on high."
He looked at Douglas. "Your great grandparents were slaves."
To Ian he said, "Your great grandparents lost a whole way of life when the Europeans came. Before that you lost lives to the Crow and the Cree."
To Keelin, "You have been called many names at school because you have a Chinese father and a Japanese mother."
To Keary, "You are very short for your age."
"I have a joke about that."
"Hey, I haven't told you the joke yet."
"There are things that have happened. You cover them with your humour. All of us bring our past and our present to Two Blue Moon. Some of it is good. Some of it is not so good. But at Two Blue Moon we create what is to come. For everyone. We give them another day of freedom to choose right over wrong, kindness over cruelty, honour over dishonour. This is probably a good time to speak the Oath. Some of you do not know it. Follow my words."
Papa Sean stood and Tara and Tully and Caedmon with him. Every person in the yard got to their feet. Morgandy put her fist over her heart as she saw her mother and father doing. New fuel had been added to the firepit. All the faces that ringed the pit burned with light. The trees and the lawn gleamed with the moon's silver.
"I swear I will defend the Earth. All its peoples, all its creatures, whether of ocean or air or land. I swear to defend them with my life. No evil shall pass me, no wickedness large or small, no cruelty or tyranny or hate. My own heart I will keep pure. My own sword I will not dishonour. I shall not slay the innocent. I shall not join hands with the darkness. I shall not flee. This is for the children I know and the children I do not. This is for the days to come. I bind to myself the God of light in rough places and plain, daylight and moonlight, storm and quiet. I shall fall before I turn my back on our world's freedom."
In the snapping of the flames Caedmon sat down and then those that wished also sat. "We end the night with the Two Hundred Questions," he smiled, "and no question is too big or small for the four of us here. We are the only ones who have seen Two Blue Moon. It is the tradition. So ask away."
Where do the books come from?
They are hand copied just as the monastics made books long ago.
What are the Books of Crossing?
They recount every Two Blue Moon that has occurred and the battles that were fought as well as the persons who fought them.
Where are the Books of Crossing?
Every family has one or two copies. But many are missing. They could be buried in caves. Locked away in safety deposit boxes. Stored in attics. The earliest we have seen is the twelfth volume and it is from 800 Anno Domini. We are living the twenty sixth. Who writes them? Scribes. What scribes? We cannot point them out to you. They are with us but they are not part of us. Nor do we think they are part of the human race.
What happens if the enemy gets past us?
Some become spirit and wreak havoc on Earth that way. Others look like ordinary people and take on the careers of lawyers and doctors and clergy and politicians and professors and truck drivers and CEOs and do their damage that way. Or become murderers and arsonists and stalkers. What we must guard against more than anything else is a breakthrough of dozens or hundreds. This is always catastrophic for Earth. They form secret organizations or dangerous cults and religions or corrupt business corporations or extremist political parties. We cannot let such numbers pass.
Do the other worlds have Two Blue Moon?
They may well call it something else. Although our geographies are similar our seasons may not be the same. Just as Australia is now having its winter. Whatever happens in the other worlds that open to us it corresponds with our double blue moon and allows passage between our world and theirs.
Why must we wear medieval garb and wield medieval weapons?
It is a law of nature that applies to Two Blue Moon. As far as we can ascertain it is universal. Light has a certain speed. So does sound. Humans breathe oxygen and not nitrogen. In the same way, medieval weapons and clothing and medicine must be used at Two Blue Moon. By us and those who oppose us. We may use sewing machines to make our cloaks or modern forges to form our swords but the blend of fabrics and the mix of metals must be precisely as it was in the Middle Ages on Earth. I don't know what that corresponds to as far as the histories of the other eight worlds.
The period of the Middle Ages covers many centuries. What time period do you try to conform to regarding fabrics and weapons and medical practice?
A good question. We don't have that completely nailed down. Sometimes weapons have failed at Two Blue Moon because of that imprecision. However we believe we need to work within the time frame of 900 to 1100 Anno Domini. Give or take.
Why is this so?
Well, well, we have told you, haven't we? It is a law of nature for Two Blue Moon for all worlds. Just as we reckon with the law of gravity on Earth and cannot ignore it. There are mathematical equations which make this very clear.
What about Two Blue Moon before the Middle Ages?
We don't know. None of our generation have ever seen a Book of Crossing before the twelfth one and that begins in the ninth century. Perhaps they used the weapons we do but considered the metallurgy far in advance of their own.
Won't people see the fighting from the street or from the houses next door?
Two Blue Moon cannot be seen by those who are not involved in it, my dears.
What if someone rings the doorbell?
No one will come to the house. It is a law of nature.
Why do Two Blue Moons happen?
You can view them either as flaws in the universe or part of the plan. Many Guardians have been on one side or the other of the issue.
What happens after Two Blue Moon?
We stay together a further three days to debrief. If people are wounded we see that they are taken care of. During the fighting we use the medicines and herbs and medical understanding available at the turn of the first millenium. Modern medicines or treatment have no effect. They do not take during the blue moon. Just as modern guns or optics do not work. After the three days we return to our normal lives.
How long has our family been involved?
Another family failed during the previous Two Blue Moon, my dears, and we were selected to replace them.
How did we know?
Dreams. Visions. Revelations. Times of prayer and fasting. The usual.
What is considered a failure?
The entire living family is not present at Two Blue Moon. This means the family cannot fight effectively and the breakthrough is enormous. It becomes a catastrophe not only for Earth but for all Nine Worlds.
It went on for an hour and a half. The four took turns answering the questions. Finally Papa Sean clapped his hands twice and got up from his lawn chair.
"That was number two hundred. No more questions, please. If you look at your watches you will see it's getting on. The Day of Two Blue Moon begins at the stroke of midnight. You may wish to make preparations. The Breaking of the Fast of Two Blue Moon is here at eight. The Resting is from noon to seven. I have enjoyed this evening immensely. Much more than I did my first Eve of Two Blue Moon. We have been blessed with a wonderful family. It seems to me to be getting better with each generation. You will all bear up very well tomorrow night. I am certain of it. I wish you all God speed and a very good night."
Some left, some crawled into their tents staked out under poplars and elms and cottonwoods and pines, others stayed by the fire and talked in subdued voices. Morgandy followed her brother and her friends to the creekbank. The moon was like a coin in the water. She thought they would talk about all the things that had been said that night. But the six of them only picked up stones and threw them in the water. Now and then Keary made a joke. The moon broke into a thousand pieces.
The smoke brought them to the flame and the flame was the village. They walked their horses between walls of fire. In time the storm would put the blaze out. Snow continued to tumble from a sky as white and thick as milk. Under their horses' hooves it was black and churned by many boots. But the wide flakes would cover the streets soon enough and it would be as if no one had ever put foot there.
The Eye was slumped over his saddle. His daughters kept anxious eyes on him. The Scarlet Mage had been carried from the field by the Ro. At least The Eye had walked. What invisible death they had hurled at one another Brimm could only guess. The old man had asked Brimm to stay beside him during the contest. His four daughters had fought beside the Knights of the Yellow Castle, the Knights of Stronn.
It had lasted an hour. The Mage was always standing and yelling in a language Brimm did not know. The Eye merely stood looking at him with a face set like granite. Or he bent his head and closed his eyes and mumbled things. Once Brimm had formed the thought, Whose magic is stronger? The old man lifted his head and glared like a hawk at Brimm. "I am no magician, boy. I call upon the One. I have no clever spells or crafts to coax and twist power from what I believe. I do not seek to master the One. Indeed, I could not. My fight is to let the One be the Master here, to let the One through and not hinder the good that flies against the devilry of the Mage. I do not conjure, boy. It is my ability to relinquish that drains me. It must be the One against the spellbook. I have to diminish. That is my struggle."
In the middle of the fight, with swords cracking into each other and arrows cutting air and skin and armour, the Mage suddenly dropped. When he did The Eye sagged in his saddle and would have fallen but for Brimm's arm. Ro had sent about two hundred to destroy the village and left at least half their number on the red and black snow. Stronn carried the bodies of twenty five knights off the field. Ro fled through the village and put it to the torch in their retreat. But the large scale human sacrifice they had craved eluded them. The people and animals were gone. Except for one old man, something of a hermit, who lived at the edge of the homes and cottages in a small hut and probably had refused to follow Core or Ara's lead. He had been nailed to a burning post and hung black and charred like the wood beneath him.
Once the smoke and ash and heat was behind them The Eye mumbled to Brimm that he needed to rest. "Put me under my robes and in my tent."
His daughters unpacked a white tent and its wooden poles from their horses and had it up in ten minutes, iron stakes cutting through the snow into the frozen earth. Brimm and Merin scooped out the snow from the inside of the tent with their hands and laid several skins against the hard ground. Once they had placed furs on top of the skins, Lassis helped her father down from his horse and onto his bed. She piled more furs on top of him and put his sword to his hand. It had a bloodred gem set into its pommel.
"Do not look so worried, my children," he smiled. "My spirit and body are worn, not broken. My strength will come back to me. Pray to the One that the Mage's rejuvenation is not swifter than my own."
"Perhaps he is dead, father," said Lassis.
"No. He is not dead. Do we have a skin of that goat's milk?"
After he drank he kept the skin. "I think he has nothing so fine to drink as this. His scarlet magic has no power to make such goodness."
"Sleep, father, and we will watch over you."
"I'll sleep but you will not watch over me. In a day Ro will be taking a thousand soldiers through the Gap. I do not know what wickedness may come into our world from the Third Ring. But I am pretty certain their Guardians will not be able to stay a thousand crazed beasts from our side without some help from our bows. The weather is perfect for raiding. Ro will be licking its wounds from the beating we gave them. Chewing that cursed drakak root or smoking red thriggen. The priests of Merek will be pounding their drums and slamming their gongs and wailing. And dispensing cups of hot rar. That is how they will get them through the Gap in a fever of battle lust. Their cursed bloodsucking god. The soldiers know the stories of how some are turned into wraiths on the other side. Only the stupor and insanity of drakak and thriggen and rar could induce them to enter the Opening. If one or two remain in the Third Ring as scarlet spirits that is easily dealt with. If a hundred or two hundred or three hundred remain to terrorize it will be disastrous. Not only for that world they call Earth. But for our beloved Sora. What impacts one impacts all. I said the weather is perfect for raiding. So is the condition of the camp with the Mage down and the wounded crying out and thriggen clouding the sentries' eyes. Slay the officers that you can. Cut loose as many horses as possible. Set fire to their food supplies. Cripple them in any way that you can. Now. We have been up all night. You will need your strength for tomorrow's work. Do not stay out long. Do what you can and then come back and rest beside me. Take the boy. Teach him to fight. Bring him back. Swear to me."
"We swear," said Lassis. "But we will not leave you alone."
"I have talked myself out and I do not have the energy to carry on a typical drawn out argument with the four of you. The youngest will stay with me. The rest of you go. Remember we are a mile east of the village and just off the high road. You see the cluster of tall evergreens to our front. Do not lose your way."
"When have we ever lost our way?" snapped Lassis.
But the old man had closed his eyes. Brimm sensed that Lassis was irritable at being saddled with a liability like a thirteen year old boy but all he could do was set his face and bear up with whatever came his way and try not to disgrace the family name. He leaned down from the saddle and spoke to his dogs who stood by Mirror expectantly, tails going.
"Night. Twilight. Dusk. You stay. Stay with Merin. Protect her. I will be back soon. In just a bit."
Merin smiled. "And just like that they will stay with me and save my life."
Lassis kicked in her heels and her horse shot over the snow. Her sisters and Brimm followed. The dogs sat at Merin's feet. She stood outside the tent and watched them go, the snow settling once more on her shoulders and the smooth bare skin of her head.
As the horses thundered through the white, the girls ignoring him, Brimm had time to think, and the more he thought the more alarmed he grew that his nerves would get the better of him by the time they reached the enemy camp. What if he forgot to pull his sword? Missed his opponent with a jab? Fell off his horse and got speared? But it turned out that he had no time to get worked up about going into combat for they came upon six stragglers after only five minutes of riding. Lassis drew her sword and rode them down, beheading two, while her sisters dispatched the others with arrows. They kept going as if nothing had happened. But they left a half dozen corpses behind in the snow and, Ro or not, they were still men. Brimm wondered at their hard faces which still semmed so lovely even when they had killing eyes.
Lassis thought she had solved the problem of Brimm by leaving him to guard the horses once they reached the edge of the Ro camp. The sisters would vanish into the snowfall and return in five or ten minutes, mount up, ride to another spot, put the reins in Brimm's hand, and disappear again. This went on for an hour or two. Until things broke free of Lassis' strong grip.
The daughters of Stronn came running back through the snow pursued by a dozen snarling men, fangs bared, who reeked of alcohol so strongly Brimm could smell it from where he sat his horse. Lassis reached her mount only to be clubbed down from behind by a giant with a thick staff. The other two sisters, Karell and Denivina, turned and locked swords with the others. But they were badly outnumbered and about to take serious blows to their backs. All this took place in the blink of an eye. Brimm was lost in his thoughts one moment and the next his three old playmates had burst from the white and were about to be cut down.
The giant pulled a dagger and was yanking back Lassis' head in order to slit her throat but he kept losing his grip on her slippery head. Brimm felt the roaring surge through his body as if he were facing Danakk again. Mirror pounded over the giant and crushed him into the snow. Then he blasted through the other eleven soldiers and Brimm was swinging a two handed sword he never remembered unsheathing. One man he took across the throat and cutting back took off another's head. Mirror wheeled as if Brimm had commanded him and rode over three more men, cracking their backs in two, and while they were screaming, Brimm put his sword into the chest of another.
The remaining five had no intention of running. They were all well filled with rar. Three went after Karell to use her as a shield while the others pinned Denivina to their chests. Mirror slipped in behind these two and Brimm slashed the backs of their necks open with one long awkward swing. Karell had kicked one of her tormentors in the groin and clawed at another's eyes so that he shrieked and bled. But the third locked his arm around Karell's throat. Mirror charged and Brimm yelled at Karell to fall forward. As she did Mirror swept past and Brimm opened up the man's back that presented itself.
Denivina picked up her sword and ran through the man Karell had blinded while the man who had been kicked Karell took out with two quick arrows from her longbow. Lassis staggered to her feet with her sisters' help, blood at the back of her head, and the three looked up at Brimm, who sat astride a motionless Mirror, clutching a sword spattered with skin and blood. They could see how wide his eyes were and how his arms and legs trembled, but they said nothing. Karell and Denivina got Lassis onto her horse, asked if she was strong enough to ride, and called it a day, putting their horses into an easy trot as they headed back to the white tent and their father.
No one spoke. Mirror moved smoothly without Brimm's commands and Brimm let the stallion take him. When the four found the tent the snow was beginning to let up and the cloud cover was lifting. They could see the mountains to the west, a thin slit of blue sky, bronze peaks. Merin stepped out of the tent.
"How did it go?" she asked.
Denivina swung down from her horse and jerked her thumb back at Brimm. "If you don't want him, I'll take him."
Bram opened his eyes. He looked and his father was no longer lying down beside him for the afternoon nap, the Resting. He parted the blinds and looked into the driveway. Nothing. The sun had gone down. There was a copper gleam over the sky and the street. He glanced at his watch. Seven oh five. What had woken him?
"It was I, boy."
The small stout man with the messy hair and blue eyes stood in his doorway.
"What is it?"
"You recall the spot on the berm where you saw the boy from Sora. It is important that you position yourself there and your sister beside you. They will try and place the two of you back with your friends and keep you away from the worst of the battle. But you and your sister must stand at the berm. You must stand firm there and not yield."
But he was gone. Bram felt ice in his stomach and put his head back on the pillow. He had gone to bed after the Eve of Two Blue Moon and slept like a stone. His dreams had been full of strong colours. There had been the enormous Breaking of the Fast of Two Blue Moon when he woke, every sort of food imaginable, steak, eggs, sausage, ham, cold cereal, hot cereal, elk roast, buffalo ribs, chicken pot pie, and everyone was soon joking and upbeat, just as they had been the night before. His mother and father and sister had gone on a long walk with him and the dogs, Charlemagne and Morningstar, taking the creek path for several miles and heading into the foothills that rolled up into the mountains. At noon his mom had gone into Morgandy's bedroom and his dad had come into his. They had talked about all sorts of things, his birthday coming up, school, swimming, the books he was reading, but nothing about Two Blue Moon. At some point his father and him had fallen asleep, the blinds closed, the room dark, robins singing in the tree by his window, the clock in his room ticking softly and pleasantly. This time there had been no colours. There hadn't been anything. He could not remember one dream. He felt like he did before a swimming test. Nervous. Cold. Tight. Clop clop clop clop clop. He opened the blinds. Men and women were leading horses from the campground into the back yard, walking over the driveway and past the hundred foot spruce trees he had called The Three Kings since he was five. They were carrying massive hockey bags full of their medieval equipment. No one was talking. He saw the flame haired twins.
The evening meal was simple. Cups of beef soup and half loaves of pumpernickel bread with thick wedges of gouda or oka cheese. The uncles and aunts and cousins ate at various spots throughout the yard. Then everyone began to dress. Colourful tents had been set up for this purpose marked for men and women. Bram and Morgandy went to their bedrooms where their parents helped them put on their gear. In the hall Bram told his sister he had seen the man again.
Morgandy stopped walking. "What did he want?"
" He said you and I must stand together at the berm where I saw the boy from Sora. That's all. Just that you and I must stand together and not yield."
"Okay," she said.
Bram's father was still in a denim shirt and jeans. Bram pulled on his tights or hose and high boots and his father next placed the black gambeson on him, a quilted shirt to protect his body from blows against his chain mail, then he helped settle the mail itself over his son's shoulders, including the coif or headpiece. Then he brought out of a box the outfit Bram's mother had sewn for him. Bram's eyes widened at the vividness of the blue and of the red and gold flames on the sleeves and cloak. His father smiled as he helped Bram put it on.
"I remember how your mother and I once said that you didn't need any toys. Just give you costumes and props. Now you're wearing the real thing. How does it feel?"
"Let's get your back scabbard on. I just touched up your sword. Cousin Derry's handy at that and he has a wheel set up in the garage. Here's your dagger. Don't forget you have it. Here's your gloves with the chain mail backs. Tuck them in your belt for now. All right. You're looking good. I'd better see to myself. You should head into the backyard."
"Okay. Have you seen Ian or Keary?"
"Not yet. They may not come, you know. I'll see you in a few minutes. Bram?"
"I love you, son."
"I love you too, dad."
They hugged each other tightly, then his father kissed his cheek and patted him on the back and was gone. Bram walked down the hall, the mail making him feel big and heavy, through the kitchen and out the back door. The yard was full of colour, people dressed in blues and reds and greens and golds and purples and all sorts of mixtures of the colours, including stripes and checks. Now there was more talk, the sort of anxious chatter of a classroom before a big exam. He stood by the firepit that brimmed over with ashes and looked for a familar face. Papa Sean and Nana Tara came towards him from a cluster of uncles in full armour. They were robed in black and gold and seemed like royalty to Bram.
"You look like a king and queen," he said.
They laughed. Papa clapped him on the shoulder and Nana gave him a huge hug and kiss. "If we look like the king and queen," said Papa, "you look like the prince. That's quite an outfit your mother put together for you."
"How do you feel?"
"And here's the princess. Why, two princesses."
Morgandy came carefully down the steps of the deck, in forest green and black fur with the silver moons and swords on her chest, her cloak tossing about her slim shoulders in a breeze that came and went, the chain mail glittering in the white lights that had been turned on. Behind her came Fallon in black and silver. Both of them had hair braided in the same fashion, four thick strands plaited together at the back of their necks. Papa and Nana hugged and kissed them both.
"How lovely the pair of you look," gushed Nana Tara. "Absolutely bewitching. I can't understand why you don't have a man yet, Fallon."
"I have no time or energy for an appendage."
"Perhaps an equal?"
"If such a one there is then God can place him before me in the broad light of day."
"If he can then I'm sure he will. Now, let us get our ducks in a row. Dear Morgandy, Fallon will be at your side in this fight, she will be your bodyguard. Please obey her as you would me or your own mother."
"Bram, we will have Affrica at your right hand. She is just seventeen but she is already an accomplished swordswoman and keen with a bow or fighting staff."
"A woman?" gasped Bram.
Fallon's eyes shot green fire. "I will not take that insult personally, Bram born of the woman Shyla."
"Nor I." Affrica had appeared at the firepit.
"I'm sorry," said Bram to the ground.
"Look at me, boy."
He lifted his eyes. Affrica was smiling quietly at him. Her eyes were a warm blue set like gems in a face deeply tanned, her hair pulled back and fastened with a clasp of white gold, long and streaked dark brown, light brown, gold, and silver. Her cloak was full moon white and her tunic a brilliant sapphire scattered with small bits of diamond that made her flash blue fire everytime she moved her arms or head or legs. Her chain mail and hose were deep black. Stars were the coat of arms on her chest. The white hilt of a great sword appeared over the back of her shoulder. She was at least six feet tall and Bram, who was used to looking down on others, even at thirteen, felt like a dwarf. She put out her right hand and touched his cheek. It smelt like oranges and limes.
"No one will slay you. No one will harm you. You have a life to live that we shall every one of us benefit from."
Bram remembered her standing in the firelight and taking the Oath with her fist on her heart. For some reason he had not taken in how tall she was. But her hair had been down and she had looked very young. And beautiful as sunset, mountains, and the summer stars. His face flamed and she withdrew her hand. A ring of white gold was around the middle finger.
"Here are your friends," announced Papa Sean.
Ian and Douglas and Keary and Keelin stood on the creekbank that was the berm. Papa Sean gestured to them and smiled and they slowly came down into the yard, bewildered by all the armour and brightly coloured cloaks and shining swords. "Welcome," said Papa Sean. "There is no time for training but we have spare clothing for each of you, and mail, and swords as well. Tara, if you would see to Keelin, I will do what I can for the boys. Come with me to the orange and purple tent."
"I have a new joke," said Keary.
"Later," smiled Bram.
"Look at mom and dad," whispered Morgandy.
Their parents came out of the house in gleaming mail and matching outfits of red and gold and black, lions rampant their coat of arms. The swords from the crawl space were at their waists. Their cloaks streamed like fire out behind them in another warm gust. Bram thought they had walked out of his picture book of the year 1066. His dad looked ten feet tall and his mom shone like an empress.
"Are these your father and your mother?" asked Affrica.
"Yes," answered Bram.
"I see the man of him in the eyes of you."
"Look at my baby girl," said the father taking Morgandy into his arms and kissing her on the forehead. "Your hair the light and dark of the fine grain of the richest oak. Plaited like a woman's. The August sun has struck gold in parts of your hair and ripened your skin. I feel as if I've hardly had a chance to see you the past two days. Have you grown another foot and aged another year? Fair brown hair like the leaf of the fall forest, fair brown skin like the fawn, why, my nut brown maiden you are, my Morgandy of the tall trees, and your eyes hazel as light falling through green leaves to the forest floor and the long winding path, what sweet grace is this?"
Everone was staring at Morgandy and her father. "Well, um, dad, Fallon calls this a Battle Braid."
"You have fashioned her hair fetchingly, Fallon."
"Thank you, Uncle Conner."
"Do you like your cloak and tunic, son?" asked Bram's mother.
"They're great," grinned Bram and she held him and kissed him.
"I love you," she said, " my strong handsome young man."
"I love you too, mom."
"You're beautiful," smiled Morgandy.
"Thank you, sweetheart. And you shine like a candle in the deep woods."
"And who is this?"
"This is Affrica, dad. My bodyguard."
"Why, I am very pleased to meet you, young lady. I swear they couldn't have done better in a hundred blue moons. I saw your work with the sword yesterday."
"Thank you, Uncle Conner."
"What do you think, Bram?"
He looked down. "It's good."
Affrica took the hand of Bram's mother. Her eyes matched the blue of Shyla's. "I swear he will live. He will give you sons and daughters to grace your years. He will not fall. I will be a wing over him. So help me God."
Shyla gripped Affrica's hand tightly. "Thank you, daughter."
"It is a half hour to moonrise," announced Grandfather Caedmon. "We will need to take our positions. Everyone should have ahold of a large shield. There are extras there by the lilac. If you must use the washroom, please see to that now. Those who will begin on horseback, will you mount up?"
Men and women swung into the saddle. Bram saw the flame haired twins, Brites and Brietta, astride two powerful blacks. They blew kisses to him.
"Girlfriends?" asked Affrica.
"Girls that are friends."
"Good. We do not need your mind cluttered tonight."
"Archers into the trees, if you will. I don't care which ones you choose. Just get comfortable. Crossbows in the bushes."
More movement and rustling. Cousin Derry slipped past with a crossbow in each hand and gave Morgandy a wink. She smiled and bent her head. Her and Bram's friends approached in the dusk with Papa Sean and Nana Tara. Their capes and tunics were russet, except for Keelin's, which was more of a rose.
"You look splendid," smiled Morgandy to Keelin.
Keelin brightened. "Do I? Our clothes seem so dull compared to yours and Bram's."
"You look very cool. Like Robin Hood. Perfectly camouflaged. I wouldn't mind some of the reddish brown stuff myself."
"Hey guys," said Bram, "you're looking good."
"Yeah?" Douglas looked at him.
"Now," said Papa Sean rubbing his hands together, "we'll get the four of you back here and covered by the diamond. Four men we'll put at the points of the diamond and you in the middle. I think we'll stick Morgandy and Bram in there too and add Affrica and Fallon to the points and make a star."
"I must stand on the berm, Papa."
"I must stand where I saw the boy of Sora. And Morgandy with me."
"I don't feel comfortable placing you right out in front, grandson, I'd prefer you stood back here."
Papa Sean looked at him a long moment. Then he nodded. "You will see to their backs, Affrica, Fallon?"
The young women nodded.
"Go then and stand firm and the great God be with you."
Bram began to walk towards the berm.
"Hey! Keep your head on top of your neck."
It was Keary. Bram stopped and looked back. "What?" he asked.
"Hey." It was Douglas.
"I'm first up for it the next game of tag."
Bram smiled. "Okay." Nothing much will bug me after tonight.
"The house and firepit and tire swing and tool shed will vanish at moonrise," announced Caedmon. "Use the trees to judge where you are. There will be several points at which you will find supplies of arrows and bolts, buckets of water, bandages, spares swords and daggers and bows, bread and cheese and fruit, don't be afraid to make use of these stores, all right? Strike the tents."
"How many of us are there?" whispered Morgandy to Fallon.
"With your friends? Fifty four."
"That is not much."
"No. The Guardians are always few. But enough."
Bram looked at the creek water swirling below his feet.
"What are you thinking of?" asked Affrica.
"A boy like me with a dapple grey horse. Do you think I will see him tonight?"
"What did you sense of his heart?"
"That it was good."
"He may be one of the Guardians of Sora. From what I have read we generally meet up with our friends on the other side. For a brief time."
The east grew white and several stars that had appeared over the yard vanished. Two men came walking around the side of the house in medieval garb. The snick of swords being drawn filled the air. "Hold!" cried Bram's father. "They are with us. They are crossing over to do good."
He and Shyla went to greet them. Caedmon, Tully, Tara, and Papa Sean joined them. The eight came towards Bram and Morgandy.
"We have here Professor Mussaf, who teaches Jewish studies and law at my college," announced Conner, "and Professor Rizvi, who heads the Department of Islamic Studies as well as working with the surgical unit of the medical school. They are good friends and have long debated my ideas about the Crusades. Now they are going on a better Crusade. They will spend the night in Sora and try to link up with men and women they can exchange expertise with. May God bless them. They will cross over as soon as the opportunity presents itself."
Professor Rizvi stood beside Bram. He was an inch taller than Affrica. He bowed his head. She bent hers. Bram suddenly put out his hand. Rizvi took it, smiling through his beard.
"Good luck," said Bram.
"I thank you, young man. I expect you are his son."
"He was right to speak so well of you. Peace to you."
"The moon rises!"
Bram glanced back to the east. The moon's gleaming head came over the edge of the darkness, round and yellow. The house was gone. A wind dashed through the leaves and made them crash like waves.
"Unfurl the standards!" commanded Caedmon.
Nine flags sprang up on the berm. Several had the image of two silver moons and a longsword beneath them. A few more had a design of flame through whcih a lion leaped roaring. Another was dark blue with a circlet of gold. Another held stars. And there was yet another that held the pattern of the Celtic Cross of Colum Cille.
"Be brave. Stand true. Do not abandon your family and friends. Master fear. Remember the children of our world. The One God give you heart and soul. You are wonderful. All of you." It was Papa Sean.
And Caedmon sang in a rich baritone that filled the night, and Papa Sean joined him with his deep bass voice, "The minstrel boy to the war is gone, in the ranks of death you'll find him, his father's sword he hath girded on, and his wild harp slung behind him, Land of Song! cried the warrior bard, Tho' all the world betrays thee, one sword, at least, thy right shall guard, one faithful harp shall praise thee."
Bram thought for a moment there was a person on the other side of the creek holding a candle. But the flame grew and grew and suddenly burst over them all in red and yellow and white. There was a roaring and the feeling on his face of a hot wind. A person shrieked. Then the fire was gone. Smoke streamed up from the creek thick and black.
"My lucky T shirt is gone!" shouted someone.
"And my underwear!"
"I think my underarm deodorant got zapped. Now what?"
"Aunt Brina's hair is grey!"
"Shut up, Cyric, or I'll give you the flat of my sword!"
"The fire has cleansed us," called Papa Sean from the berm. "If your sword or bow has not passed the test get another quickly from one of the stockpiles. Here is the Opening."
Bram watched the air peel back in front of him as if someone were taking the skin off an orange with their fingers. The black smoke blew aside. A bridge of stone straddled the creek. The other bank was a silver mist. Papa Sean shook the professors' hands. "Godspeed," he said. The two men walked together to the other side. Bram heard their leather boots strike the stone. Then they were inside the silver and gone.
"Awesome!" exclaimed Morgandy.
"This is beauty," said Fallon. "The books did not do it justice."
"No," whispered Affrica.
"Now what?" asked Bram.
"Now we wait," said his father.
"Horsemen!" someone shouted. "Horsemen at our backs!"
Bram spun with the others. Two dozen enormous horses raged through the yard toward the berm.
"Slay them!" shouted Papa Sean. "Archers!"
Men and women rode the horses, their armour red and silver in the moonlight. They poured over the grass and scattered the four children and their guards and anyone else that got in their way. One leaned down and took a swipe at Douglas with a flame shaped blade but missed. Whistling struck Morgandy's ears. Five, six, seven riders toppled to the grass. The others came on.
Cousin Derry jumped out from behind the trunk of a tall cottonwood. He had both crossbows braced into his shoulders and he fired. Two riders yelled and fell backwards. Morgandy saw a bolt in one's skull. But the other horsemen reached the bank and Morgandy had to leap aside. More whistling. Arrows and feathers were in the faces and necks of the red and silver riders. Four clattered onto the bridge. Flynn, Briac, and Torin crashed into them from the left. Swords swung. Sparks sprayed the stone. Flynn was unhorsed but quickly got to his feet and blocked a blow from a massive axe. Morgandy was stunned to see a woman's handsome face snarling at Uncle Flynn. Then an arrow went through her left eye.
It was done. Briac had cut down one, Torin another, the other two were full of bolts and shafts. Flynn put his hands on his knees and panted, wide eyed. Then he leaned over the side of the bridge and threw up.
"Gather up the horses that you can!" shouted Papa Sean. "Put the dead to one side! Make sure none are playing false! No one fancies a dagger in the back! Quickly!"
Most of the horses had run back through the yard. They caught five. Morgandy looked and saw only trees where the front of the house had been and more trees where the campground and neighbourhood were supposed to be. It seemed as if the land were a thousand years younger and untouched by human hands of any kind, white or native.
One, two, three, ten, twenty, thirty horsemen pounded out of the mist on the far bank. They wore black armour and black furs and the visors of their helmets were down. The front rank fired arrows from short bows. One smacked into the tree behind Morgandy's head.
"Your sword!" shouted Fallon. "Draw your sword!"
Morgandy pulled her sword free as if it were still part of the game. Uncles and aunts and cousins galloped out of the yard to meet the fresh threat. Horses slammed into one another and went down. Steel clanged on steel. A man screamed for help.
"Follow me, cousin!" cried Fallon and ran at the bridge, sword in one hand, dagger in the other. Morgandy came clumsily after her, the chain mail thudding against her chest. Suddenly there was a blast of hot breath. A horse was trying to bite her head off. Instinctively she slashed. The horse shrieked. A mace banged into her shoulder. The pain took her breath. She saw the mace coming for a second shot and put up her sword and blocked. A shiver went up her arm.
"Perpendicular, cousin!" shouted Fallon.
The mace was a blur. Morgandy caught it on the perpendicular and the mace fell out of the other's hand. Arrows appeared in the black visor, one, two, three. The horse galloped past. Another took its place, hooves thrashing at Morgandy's head. Fallon leaped up behind the rider and put a dagger in the side of their neck. Then she kicked the body out of the saddle and turned the horse into the riders in the middle of the bridge, cutting and chopping and jabbing and yelling.
"Morgandy! Are you all right?"
It was her mother, scarlet across her cheek.
"Your face is cut!" cried Morgandy.
"It's not my blood."
A horse leaped over them and a rider tore into the defenders in the yard. Again a sword came at Douglas' head. Again he ducked in time. Arrows filled the rider's horse and they both cracked into the ground. The rider's helmet came off and burning orange hair tumbled out. "Why, she looks like Brites," said Morgandy. Uncle Brian squared off with her. She knocked the sword out of his hand with one blow and with a back cut took his arm off. He fell. She aimed a strike at his neck. Grandmother Tully blocked it with her shield, took another from the woman on the shield, then did a backspin and dropped and took the young woman's legs off at the knee, her blade going through the thin armour as if she were slicing cheese. The woman yelped and fell and Tully put the sword into her head. She was in leather shorts and a shortsleeved tunic and leather jerkin and Fallon had been right. The muscles in her legs and arms bulged. And she is fifty nine. Tully shouted for Ahearn and Devnet and ripped off Brian's cloak to stem the blood. Morgandy looked and everything was quickly very far away and she blacked out.
It was only for a moment. She opened her eyes and was lying on her side and Brietta and Brites were charging the bridge, silver and crimson in the shine of the full moon and their horses black and white. They banged back and forth with two riders. A whistling. The closed visors were punctured by shafts. Torin swung and took off a rider's head. Morgandy heard it splash into the creek. She got up and felt dizzy again. I can't do this. Cold water hit her full in the face. It was Fallon.
"What did you do that for?" she sputtered.
"We can't spare anymore time for fainting. Here." She tossed Morgandy a large shield. "Remember when we practiced with these? Get under it. Most of the scouts are dead but a few got back to their side. It's usually a flurry of arrows next."
Morgandy crouched under the shield as she saw Fallon and her mother doing. A woman was crying in the dark. She saw Ahearn bent over Uncle Brian. Tully propped up shields to protect both of them. Morgandy heard the creek running over its stones. She thought she heard Keary talking. The crying kept on. It was actually getting worse. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Her shield shook. An arrowhead protruded right through and scraped her chain mail. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. She tried to squeeze herself into the earth on top of the berm. Thud. Thud. Arrows hit the dirt full force. One quivered a half foot from her eyes. The feathers were red and black. Six, seven, eight, nine. More than a dozen flew into a tree trunk back of her head.
It was quiet a moment. Then she heard the bite of hooves on stone.
"Let them come!"
She could not see the riders. She imagined their blacks and sorrels at the gallop four abreast, the width of the bridge. Cousin Derry crawled past. She heard the bolts hum from his crossbows. A zipping through the leaves as others fired.
"Gather the horses! Quick!"
"If you're low on arrows climb down and replenish your quivers!"
For long minutes nothing else happened. Arrows fell randomly. People came out from under their shields. Others were already plucking shafts from the earth and the trees to use against the horsemen. Caedmon was pitching a red tent for the wounded with two other men. Morgandy's mother came and held her.
"I saw Uncle Bri lose his arm."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"It's too much, mom. I want out." The tears came.
"Oh, baby, it seems so unfair that the children have to be present as well as the adults. I don't know why that is. It's cruel. But if you weren't here, or Bram, our efforts would be useless. All those riders would have swept over us and be ravaging Earth right now. As spirits. As terrorist cells. If no one fought back all good would collapse. It's hard, so hard. But we need you here."
"I'm not a fighter."
"Very few of us are. We're just citizen soldiers defending our homes because there's no one else to do it."
"Maybe I could work in the tent."
"Do you think you could handle the blood and the pain?"
"I don't know. I like Uncle Ahearn and Aunt Devnet."
"Sit against this tree. I'll go and ask them."
Morgandy put her head back against the trunk. Someone began wiping her face with a wet cloth. She smiled despite the crying in her eyes and throat.
"It's you, Fallon."
"So savage in war. So gentle in peace."
"Shh. You did fine."
"I didn't know what I was doing."
"But you did it. You blocked the blows. You fought back."
"I'm no good at this."
"We haven't been here two hours. You're eleven years old. There's no reason to be hard on yourself. Flynn lost his supper. Brites couldn't stop shaking."
"I saw her charge."
"She would not let her sister go alone."
"I didn't save one person."
"You saved the child they did not break through and kill on the other side of this yard."
"I saw a body. She was lovely. But she had fangs on either side of her mouth. And a third and larger one in the centre, pushing right down below her lips."
"There are many like that. Women and men."
"I don't know."
"Are they finished now? Are they gone for good?"
"To your positions! Everyone! To your positions!"
"What is it?" asked Morgandy.
Fallon put a finger to Morgandy's lips. She heard people scrabbling up trees. Running for their horses and mounting up. Drawing swords. Running along the berm. Then back of it all she heard the tramping of hundreds of feet.
Bram had not yet pulled the sword off his back. The first horsemen had not come near him or Affrica and when the arrows started to fly they never seemed to stop. He had been under his shield most of the time. Until it became so pierced with shafts Affrica ordered him under hers. Where they both crouched as the iron rain continued to fall. He watched Morgandy fight. He watched Fallon fight. He watched his mother and father fight. But the arrows never let up on Bram and Affrica. They could not get out from under the shield and help fend off the riders.
"Stop squirming, boy!" Affrica had snapped.
"There's no room under here."
"Are you saying I'm fat?"
"I'm saying you're tall."
"But you're short, is that it?"
"I don't make the target you do."
"I see. So I'm the reason we're drawing fire."
"I don't see anyone else taking the arrows we are."
"Perhaps they dislike the colour blue."
"Perhaps they dislike women a hundred feet high."
"No. I like them. I couldn't live without them."
Bram was standing with Affrica and gulping from a skin of water when he saw the first soldiers march out of the silver in black armour and helmets with single horns thrusting from their visors like rhinos. They came six across, red cloaks flapping over their backs. Some had snow melting on their shoulders. All had swords, spears, halberds, axes, or morning stars. There was no end to them.
"Now," said Affrica softly, "we will have our work cut out for us."
"The archers will take them."
"We do not have enough arrows. And their armour is thicker than those on horseback wore. Smell the reek? They are higher than the moon itself. These will not die so easily."
"What are they planning to do? Just march right over us?"
"Right over us and through the yard and into Earth."
Torin and Briac and Flynn reined in their horses by Bram's side. They watched the army come over the stone bridge. Drums began beating among the soldiers, strong and dark, and horns began to bray, and the men and women began to chant. A point of cold steel pricked Bram's spine. He wished Keary would jump into the middle of the bridge and crack a joke and break the whole war up with good bright laughter.
Torin said, "And nearer fast and nearer doth the red whirlwind come, and louder still and still more loud, from underneath that rolling cloud, is heard the trumpet's war note proud, the trampling, and the hum, and plainly and more plainly now through the gloom appears, far to left and far to right, in broken gleams of dark blue light, the long array of helmets bright, the long array of spears."
Briac shouted so that everyone on the bridge and in the treetops and the red tent heard him, "Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate, To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late, and how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods, and for the tender mother who dandled him to rest, and for the wife who nurses his baby at her breast, and for the holy maidens who feed the eternal flame, to save them from false Sextus that wrought the deed of shame? Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may, I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play, in yon straight path a thousand may well be stopped by three, now who will stand on either hand, and keep the bridge with me?"
Flynn stood up in his stirrups and flung back his head and thick mane of crimson hair, "Then out spake Spurius Lartius, a Ramnian proud was he, Lo, I will stand at thy right hand, and keep the bridge with thee."
Torin drew his sword, "And out spake strong Herminius, of Titian blood was he, I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee."
Briac sang, "Horatius, quoth the Consul, as thou sayest, so let it be, and straight against that great array forth went the dauntless Three, for Romans in Rome's quarrel spared neither land nor gold, nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life, in the brave days of old, then none was for a party, then all were for the state, then the great man helped the poor, and the poor man loved the great, then lands were fairly portioned, then spoils were fairly sold, the Romans were like brothers, in the brave days of old."
Then Affrica took up the cry, "The Three stood calm and silent, and looked upon the foes, and a great shout of laughter from all the vanguard rose, and forth three chiefs came spurring before that deep array, to earth they sprang, their swords they drew, and lifted high their shields, and flew to win the narrow way."
Briac bowed his head and said, "My lady, if your beauty became an arrow we could slay them all with one bend of the bow and be done this business by midnight."
Affrica bowed her head in return and a smile flickered at the corners of her lips. Then she straightened, loosening her hair of brown and silver and gold so that it fell about her shoulders and drew the great sword with the white hilt from her back and held it in her two strong dark hands. "You are gallant, my lord, but I am afraid I cannot grant your wish. I am betrothed to another and an arrow to his heart I am. We will have to do things the old fashioned way this night."
Briac laughed. "So be it. Will you and the boy be at our backs?"
"Then what have we to fear?" He pointed his sword at the army that was almost to the end of the bridge. "Come, my brothers, it is the night of destiny and we may never stand together again!"
The three spurred their horses and flew into the ranks of armoured soldiers, slashing right and left, while the archers in the treetops fired over their heads and for the briefest moment darkened the light of the moon.
The sky had been clear one moment. The silver moon riding high among a handful of stars. Then a squall had blown in from the northeast and blinded Brimm. In ten minutes it had lifted. By then half the soldiers had disappeared into the silver mist at the creekbank. But the high torches they had thrust into the snow to mark their route were still burning.
"What is it?" asked The Eye.
"They've marched into that fogbank on the creek," said Brimm. "And now there's another hundred horsemen lining up at the end of the column."
"Hardly original thinking. The Mage is like an unrolled map. But I suppose it will serve his purpose. He hopes to break them down by sheer weight of numbers. Then the horsemen can gallop through. How many horses did you say came back out from that first group?"
"Ten or twelve."
"So the Guardians on the other side are putting up a fight."
"There's three or four hundred left to go. But they're not moving. They're hung up. Marching in place."
"The bridge is narrow. Our friends on the other side have blocked it with their swords and arrows. There is probably a pile of black armoured bodies by now. A logjam. It is always a bridge, you see, Master Brimm, the only means Ro has to get from this world to the next. Three or four men, perhaps one or two more, could stand shoulder to shoulder and prevent an army from crossing over. Until they were cut down. It depends on how many our friends have to throw into the breach. No matter. When my daughters are back with the villagers we will set upon them from this end. If the Mage shows himself I will handle him and his scarlet magic."
"Do you think you're up to it? Your eyes are still swollen shut."
"Of course I am up to it, boy. I do not need my eyes to take him by the throat. Do you see the girls yet?"
"There is time. The dogs would reach us first anyways. They will give us fair warning. Is the boy still alive on the other side?"
"Yes. He is there."
"Do you wonder at the hard edge to my daughters, boy?"
Brimm did not answer.
"Lassis is not a day over seventeen. Merin will not be fourteen for six months. Yet they fight like tigers. In battle they can be utterly ruthless. That should not blind you to their essential tenderness. There is a reason they go to war with such ferocity. Do you remember their mother?"
"I do. She was always very kind to me. The best cookies. I always got more than the girls. Merin protested. Her face used to get crimson."
Brimm and the old man both smiled. The Lord of Stronn put his arm about Brimm's shoulders. "I am sorry they had to leave you. But they have a calling to uphold that has been with our House a thousand years. Their training was rigorous. Not just with the weapons that come to a warrior's hand. Their minds became steel traps. Their spirits flame. Yet it was their mother's death that put the iron in their souls. What do you recall about her passing?"
"I was at the funeral with my parents. I was told there had been a terrible accident. She had fallen from a mountain path into a deep chasm."
"In fact she was murdered by the priests of Merek. Crucified. The wood they nailed her to was in the shape of an X. It took her four days to die. We found her just before the end."
"Why did they do such a thing?"
"The High Priest, the Scarlet Mage, wanted her to become a priestess. The High Priestess. She would not turn her back on her marriage to me, on our calling as guardians of the spirit world, on her faith in the One. How he tried to win her over to the foul Merek of the Three Fangs. When he could not turn her he sent assassins. She was walking between the castle and the forest. They slew her bodyguard and abducted her."
"And the King did nothing?"
"Oh, the High Priest said a renegade order had done it without any official sanction from him and the King took him at his word. I tried to intervene with the truth. Lanas had told me before she died that the Mage had been at the X mocking her. But the King's advisers argued that she had been delirious with pain and dehydration and didn't know what she was saying to my daughters and I."
"They saw her crucified."
"We were searching together. I had no inkling we would find their mother in such a state. So you see, Master Brimm, there is no love lost between the House of Stronn and the priests of Merek. The girls will slay them or their allies without pity if there is a conflict between us."
"Why do you not kill the Mage outright?"
"He is not easily slain. But I pray judgment will come for him at the proper season. Oh, yes, boy, I do pray that, cold blooded as such a prayer may sound to you. But enough. I know better than to unearth the past. What is to come is in the hands of the One. Is there any of that goat cheese left?"
"Perhaps the girls will catch the Mage off his guard. It may be he is still in a weakened state."
"The Mage is not close. He may have gone to consult with the Lord of Ro. They will not find him today. In any case, his strength is returning. They would be hard put to deal with him if they did cross paths."
"Lord Stronn, do you think those two men from the other world are all right? The ones we lent the horses to? You don't think the Mage would abduct them, do you?""
"The teachers? If they can stay in their saddles they will make their way to Kamar of the Rivers all right. The main square is not hard to find. They will meet some other thinkers there. Even at this hour. They will just have to keep an eye on the clock. Moonset is two hours after dawn. The opening between our worlds will vanish. No, don't worry, boy, the Mage has no time for them. He has enough on his hands. His assault on the Third Ring is obviously running into a wall of resistance."
They were hidden in a grove of thick trunked trees called Summersnows that were on the slope of a hill. In the hot season the trees dropped white seeds that drifted like snowflakes. Now they were empty of leaves but you could hide one or two persons behind each trunk. The army of Ro was a hundred yards distant. Brimm turned to look at The Eye lying on his furs in the snow. The moon was on his face and the shadows of branches.
"Are you feeling cold, sir?"
"A bit. Is there something else you could put on top of me?"
"Of course." Brimm unfastened his own fur cloak and laid it carefully over the old man.
"Provided you do not undress yourself."
"I am fine, sir. How is that?"
"I wonder that the Lord of Ro does not march with his army."
"Do you? He will come when the bridge is clear. Not to stay. He will look for treasure. Prisoners he can take back to his castle and train to serve him. Anything of value he can get across the creek."
"And the King will just let this happen?"
"They are not invading his world."
"But you told me any evil they do on that side will have repercussions on our side."
"And on all the other worlds. But the King is not a believer. To him such tales are superstitious nonsense. He will leave Ro alone. Unless the Master of Ro tries to seize power here."
"The King does not see that?"
"The King does not want to see that. But Ro will gain enormous power if they are successful this night. The Mage will swell with blood spirit. The priests of Merek will have the ability to sway the people from the King to Ro. No matter what those of the One do. You'll see. The argument will be convincing that there should be a new line of kings. A new family on the throne. The other countries will not care who sits in Kamar as long as trade is uninterrupted and the new King sticks to our old alliances. Or forges better new ones. Worlds are not run on honour. We simply like to imagine they are and talk as if they are. Oh, yes, we must use the language of honour, all our kings and rulers must talk the talk, Master Brimm, everyone expects it, and it is enough for us to hear the correct vocabulary and the proper phrases and we go about our business content. But those who rule speak of honour and rule by guile. It is always so. From what I have learned as Master of Stronn and Guardian of the Deeps it is the same in all the Nine Worlds."
"More troops are coming across the snow from the west."
"More troops? Horsemen?"
"Some are mounted. Most are on foot."
"What weapons do they bear?"
A long column of dark figures staggered through the snowdrifts. Horsemen moved around them with swords drawn. Six figures in red robes and hoods led the way bearing torches and the symbol of Merek, a three fanged beast, one fang in the middle, one on either side of the mouth. The persons immediately behind the priests were carrying large bundles of wood, collapsing under the weight, the horsemen yelling and threatening and forcing them to their feet again. When the army saw the column approaching they let out a roar and shook their spears and axes under the great moon.
"What is it, boy? Why do they shout?"
"It is a column of prisoners."
"It is the village."
"Tell me which people you see."
They were closer now. The full moon and the torches made it easy for Brimm to recognize faces. "There is Bottle. Jak Horits. The wife and children of Lade Ferringurl. Berrick and his family. Satur."
"I'm sorry, sir. I see my mother and father."
"My boy. My boy. Forgive me. We will not leave them in that state. They will be freed. I promise. What about your dogs? Are they by your parents' side?"
"I am sorry. Oh, my One, my One, where are You? Why have You deserted us? Master Brimm. You have young eyes. You can see all there is to see. Do not spare me. What about my daughters? Can you see my daughters?"
Those carrying the wood were ordered to put it down. Now the priests took the wood bearers and placed them in the middle of the piles of sticks and logs. There was a struggle. Men and women jumped down from their mounts and helped the priests, forcing the woodbearers to remain still while they were tied and more wood stacked around their legs and bodies. The priests began to chant and swept their torches back and forth. There were four victims. None of them had hair to their heads.
"That is the Merek Song of Sacrifice, boy."
"Who is it they sacrifice to their foul god?"
"I can't tell from here."
"You can tell. You have the eyes. Who is it they sacrifice? Which people from the village? Berrick and his children? Your mother? Your father? Tell me, boy. Which ones? You must tell me which ones!"
Danakk stood with his arms folded across his chest. The priests had put torches to Lassis and Karell and Denivina. The flames were at their feet, the snow melting in a circle around each pile of wood. The sisters made no sound. They stared straight ahead. Danakk smiled.
"The heat has not made it through to your skin and bone yet. Let me know when it does."
Merin was directly across from him. There were cuts on both her cheeks. The priest waited for Danakk's command, the torch hissing. Danakk looked up at the moon.
"A beautiful night, daughter of Stronn. You could be spending it with your boyfriend. By the way, where is that little boyfriend of yours?"
"He is not my boyfriend."
"And your father. The two of them wouldn't happen to be together somewhere, would they?"
"It doesn't matter. The blood of the four of you will be enough. We will ransack Earth. Rule Sora. In a few years all of the worlds will be in our pocket. Thank you for your help."
"My, you're ambitious for a little toad of Ro. Try not to miss your beheading on the way to the throne, will you?"
Danakk flared and spat in her face. She spat back. He struck her with his fist. She spat the blood at him. He grabbed the torch from the priest and thrust it into the wood at her neck. "Why wait," he snarled, his three fangs bared as if to bite, "when you can go up all at once?" Immediately her face was framed by fire. She could not stop the cry that came from her throat.
"Good," Danakk said, "I like a person who is sensitive enough to really feel something. A scream is even better."
"So what's stopping you?"
Danakk laughed. "Unlike you, I have nothing to scream about."
The Eye swore he had the strength to call for the one thing Brimm needed. When Mirror tore through the column of troops, Brimm on the horse's back shrieking like a wolf pack, the pair scattering men and women and knocking aside spears and axes, the snowstorm hit just as Danakk turned to look behind him. He had time to see Brimm and the grey horse and the sword the boy gripped in two hands. Then everything vanished in a howling wall of white.
He rode through to the spot where he had seen Merin burning. He jumped from Mirror's back but could not see a thing in the wind and snow. "Such wishes," The Eye had warned him, "are double-edged daggers."
He began to shout. "Merin! Merin!" But the wind took his voice. He ran and spun and swept the air with his hands, hoping to touch something, anything. He jabbed through the waves of snowflakes. "Merin! Merin!" He hit something and ran towards it. The tip of his blade was at Merin's throat.
She looked steadily at him. "I suppose this means you really are serious about me."
"I'm sorry!" He dropped the sword.
"Please pick that up before you lose it. I would be very grateful if I could have these ropes cut. The storm has put out the fire but I do not relish spending the rest of the night trussed up like a goose for the slaughter."
He scooped up the sword that was quickly being covered by snow. But he put it in the sheath on his back. "It'll be safe there," he said.
She raised an eyebrow. "Do you intend to chew me loose with your teeth?"
Brimm smiled and pulled the dagger from his belt. "I have this."
She looked at the lumpy blade. "I was hoping it was just for show."
He pried the rope away from her body and swiped at it once, twice. It fell severed onto the smouldering wood. She looked at him and the dagger.
"May I have it?"
He put it in her hand. She took it and ran into the storm.
He followed, almost losing her in the white. She found Denivina and cut her free and then went looking for Karell and Lassis. Devinine stood rubbing her arms and eying Brimm. "Is it my imagination or do you get taller and stronger every time I see you?"
The four sisters embraced each other and bowed their heads to Brimm. He bowed in return.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Danakk tracked down the villagers," explained Lassis. "When we came to get them the Ro were waiting for us."
"What about my dogs?"
Lassis did not answer. Merin came up and put a hand on his arm. "We do not know where they are, Brimm. But Danakk did not capture them."
The five went looking for the villagers. A few moments of shouting brought them together. His mother's arms were so tight he could not get his breath. His father's hug cracked his back, pop pop pop. The people of the village came around Brimm, gripping his arm and thumping him on the back. A child was crying.
"We had better find shelter," said Bottle.
"The storm will only last a few more minutes," promised Brimm. "But we need to get out of sight of Ro. Mirror will take us back to The Eye. It's scarcely more than a hundred yards."
He whistled three notes. Mirror came out of the white wall, his head crusted with ice. Brimm took the stallion's reins. Then he gave them to Merin. "Would you do us the honour of leading our village to your father? Mirror needs a rider."
Merin looked at Brimm and then swung up into the saddle. He noticed she had his dagger in her belt. Mirror began to walk back the way he and Brimm had come. The people followed Merin and Mirror through the white wind. Brimm pulled his sword free but they did not run into the column of soldiers and they did not hear any voices.
"Where is father?" asked Denivina, trudging at Brimm's side.
"We were hiding in a grove of Summersnows."
"Was he warm enough?"
"I gave him all the furs we had."
"Including the one off your own back."
Brimm said nothing. Denivina leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you," she said.
They came among the trees. The daughters began to call. There was no response. The wind shrieked. Merin explored the area on Mirror. She found nothing. They continued to shout. The wind shrieked back at them. Merin's face was covered in snow. Brimm watched her dark eyes moving back and forth within the mask of ice.
Suddenly the wind dropped. The snowfall ended. The clouds over their heads rolled up in a ball and vanished. The moon shone in a sky as bright as a gemstone. One hundred and fifty two people stood together in the snowdrifts and tall trees blinking at one another. Brimm was going to hiss at them to crouch but saw that the field at their backs was empty. There were no horsemen, no soldiers, there was nothing but long miles that sparkled like ice.
Brimm looked at Merin. "I don't know where he is. I have no idea what's happened."
"Who is that?" asked a boy. He pointed back down the creek.
A man stood by the silver mist that rolled in and out of itself. Three black dogs sat at his feet. He raised a hand.
"Did you think I was going to stand there under the trees after I'd called a blizzard down over my head? It's summer in the other world."
"Father!" cried Merin and spurred Mirror to a gallop. The others ran or walked as quickly as they could towards him. He smiled at the villagers when they had all gathered, embracing him, gripping his arm, kissing him on the cheek. His daughters he lifted in the air as if they were still children and his laugh boomed across the night. Finally he turned to Brimm who was flat in the snow with his dogs on top of him.
"Well, Master Brimm, you seem to have a great talent for frustrating Danakk's plans. We will have to put that talent to as much use as possible in the next few hours. Though very little you do next can equal what you have done already. Except perhaps saving a world or two." He gripped Brimm's arm and brought him to his feet and embraced him as vigorously as his own father had. His back popped again. The Eye had obviously been fully rejuvenated. He held Brimm at arm's length and smiled. "Thank you for the lives of my daughters. In the storybooks a man would give you the hand of any one of them in marriage. But you are young and those are stories. You have my gratitude. And if you ever do marry one of the girls, my blessing. And prayers."
The villagers laughed. The daughters laughed. Except for Merin who was holding Mirror's reins, stroking his flank, and staring out over the shining snow. A star streaked down suddenly across the sky and was gone. She looked back at Brimm and let her eyes stay with him.
The Master of Stronn coughed and clapped his hands. "We must help those who are fighting for our world. I do not ask everyone to come. A number of you must stay behind with the children. But if you are willing or able few things you put your hand to in this life will matter as much, or make such a difference to the future of those you love, as walking through that wall of mist. Shed your furs for you will not need them. Weapons? Here are some bows I have collected that were strewn on the ground on the other side. We will get our hands on plenty of other bows and swords once we put our feet on the bridge. Yes, bring Mirror, bring the dogs. We have no more time to lose. I confess I have lost sight of the Scarlet Mage. He may already be ahead of us and wreaking havoc. I am more than ready to deal with him. The One guard you all and bind strength to your hearts and hands. If you can, follow me. The mist will be but a moment." He stepped into the rolling cloud and was gone. Others began to enter, men, women, even a few of the older children.
Merin handed the reins to Brimm. "Ride your horse into battle, friend of my childhood, and the One put might into the Great Sword you wield."
"You are one of the Four Warrior Maidens. Take him and split the enemy in two. I will be right behind you."
"I can't do that, Brimm."
"You are one of the Four Warrior Maidens. You must do it."
He did not hang back to see if she would swing up on the stallion or not. His father and mother went through the wall and he turned and followed and let the silver close over him.
At first Bram had nothing to do but swallow and panic that he would not remember the X pattern of sword blocks and thrusts. His uncles fought furiously and laid low every soldier that crossed the bridge. And if they missed anyone, the archers did not. The arrows came like flocks of dark birds and their sharp beaks brought death. He and Affrica and his parents and many others stood on the berm and watched and waited. His hands grew cramped on the hilt of his Claidheamh mor. Affrica glanced at him.
"Don't be so tense. You're like a block of cement."
"I have a few things to be tense about."
"Being as stiff as a PVC pipe won't help you when the time comes to swing."
"What are you going to do? Bring in someone to massage my shoulders? Have a chiropractor walk on my back?"
"If I thought those were necessary I would do them myself. It's like a game of hockey or football. All you need is the first few blows to the body and the butterflies in your stomach have flown."
"I don't have butterflies in my stomach."
"Whatever you have."
"Okay. The first heat of battle will melt them and you'll be fine."
"Unless someone takes off my head."
"In that case you won't feel a thing."
"Thanks for your gift of motivational speaking. I feel better already."
"I'm glad you could attend my seminar."
"Me too. I'm pumped for head loss."
A soldier necklaced in arrows barged between the legs of Briac's horse and drove his spear at Affrica. She swung down and cut his spear in two, swung up and did the same to him. Blood poured over the earth and stones. Bram stared at it.
"Bram. Look at me."
"Bram. Look at my eyes. Bram!"
He looked at Affrica. Her eyes were a scorching blue. "They will kill your father and mother and sister. They will kill Ian and Douglas and Keelin and Keary. They will kill the Earth. Their armour is weak at the neck, weak under the arms and at the back of the knees, and weak at the groin. Remember that."
Another soldier broke through and shouted something in a lanuguage none of them knew. He went at Bram's mother and father. Who cut him down with vicious swipes of their swords. But he fell forward with his halberd and drove it into his mother's stomach. She dropped and blood gushed from her nostrils.
"Mom!" Bram ran to her side and the crying was burning down his cheeks. "Mom!"
"She'll be all right, son," his father told him, picking Shyla up in his arms, her eyes already glassy from shock. "I swear to God she'll be all right. I'll take her to the tent. You must stay here and hold them back. They cannot reach the medical tent. You cannot let them pass."
Bram heard a howling behind him and turned. Five soldiers had slain Torin's horse and were screaming some sort of war cry and charging over the berm with their three fangs bared. Bram felt nothing, saw nothing, he simply went at them as if he were running for the school bus in the morning. He did not even remember the axe blow that glanced off his shoulder or the sword thrust that cut open his thigh. He swung up and down and across and back and the only thing that clicked in his brain was the burning that kept slicing down his face. Later, when he tried, he remembered kicking a head into the creek. All else was a jumble of black and grey and white streaks.
He ran past the dead horse and into the middle of the red and black army. Affrica shouted at him to stop but he would tell her later he only heard the roars of the foe and, oddly, the sweet running of the creek as it rushed to the east. Up, up, down, up, up, down, prime, seconde, tierce, quinte, septime, octave, head guard, head guard, up, down, down, up, head cut, groin cut, shoulder cut, neck, his sword and chain mail held no more weight for him than if he were dressed in shorts and a T shirt and swinging a hot dog stick. Recognition came when he saw Papa Sean to his left, and Nana Tara, and to his right, Affrica, her white hilted sword flashing under the full moon, and the twins Brites and Brietta, their bright hair blazing out behind them as they shouted and slashed with their blades. In half an hour they had cleared the bridge and the army was stalled in its own world, unable to make anymore progress across the creek or into Earth. Someone cheered and Affrica took Bram's face in her brown hands and kissed him on both cheeks.
"You crazy little fool," she smiled, "don't you know what danger means anymore?"
"A fool he is, a great fool, for now I see him, oh, I see him for what he is, and now, great fool, you have slain my soldiers but how will you slay me, you, boy who sees other worlds and wields the Great Sword, how will you slay me?"
A tall man stood on the bridge, robed in scarlet, rearing up higher and higher as he let his fury build, his face suddenly collapsing inwards and becoming a raging mask of red and black fire.
The Nut Brown Maiden
The din was terrific even in the red tent where Morgandy mopped dried blood off her Aunt Bree's freckled face. Horses, men, and women shrieking, arrows zipping, swords and axes clanging. The cut was long, from her hairline to her chin, and Bree had her eyes closed and was panting faintly.
"Uncle Ahearn. Her wound is clean. She's ready to be sutured."
Ahearn was bent over Uncle Bevin helping Aunt Devnet extract three arrowheads. A stand of twenty candles gave them light. He shook his head. "Morgandy, you have seen Devnet and I do five or six suturing jobs now. Get Fallon to help you. After Bevin we have broken legs and arms to set. You must do the basic suturing for us."
Morgandy looked to Fallon who was sulking in a corner of the tent with her sword across her knees. "Will you not help me?"
Fallon's eyes and face were thunder. "I would rather be out there fighting, cousin."
"Then go!" Morgandy suddenly flared. "I've told you a hundred times. Go. Who's stopping you?"
"I've sworn to protect you."
"I release you from your commitment. Go and fight. No one will hurt me here."
"Do you have that guarantee in writing?"
"All the fighting is on the bridge and the berm."
"I don't have time to argue with you." Morgandy looked about for the book Ahearn and Devnet consulted on medieval surgical techniques. There were dozens stacked in the tent. "Aunt Devnet. What book can I work from?"
"Galen. Or Hippocrates. But if you are going to suture I would prefer you use Al Zahrawi, the great Muslim surgeon. Look for the last volume in his set, number thirty, At Tasrif, On Surgery, there is Arabic, Latin, and Old English on the spine and the Roman numeral for thirty, three X's. The Christians gave him the Latin name Albucasis. Do you see it?"
"This one?" Morgandy lifted a fat volume with a grey calfskin cover. Albucasis and XXX were burned into the front. Devnet looked up from Bevin's chest, sweat dripping from her forehead. She nodded quickly and returned to her search for a third arrowhead.
Quickly Morgandy went through the pages. She found some illustrations on suturing and propped it open by Bree's head. Needle and thread were on a nearby table. She looked at them, took a deep breath, and let it out.
"Give her an anesthetic first," said Devnet over her shoulder. "There is a mandragora mix in that green bottle and a wooden spoon beside it."
"How long should I wait until I start suturing?"
"Ten minutes. Give some to your Uncle Brian as well. We need him to stay sedated until this night is over. And Cousin Cuyler with her arm. And Uncle Ferris, he has the two broken legs where the horse went over him, he should have some mandragora right away."
"Thank you, Morgandy."
She reached for the green bottle when a sword ripped open the side of the tent. The black armoured soldier spat words she could not make out. He was full of arrows and blood bubbled through the slits in his visor. He collapsed over a table of clean bandages. Fallon was up and aimed a blow with her sword. Morgandy scarcely thought but yanked the sword from the scabbard at her hip and blocked Fallon's strike on the perpendicular. Fallon swung a second and third time and Morgandy blocked each blow. Raging, Fallon turned on her and Morgandy faced the murderous cuts one after another, blade to blade, the steel ringing through the tent, dozens of candle flames jumping and making horrific shadows. Ahearn and Devnet watched the cousins fight, stunned. Suddenly Morgandy dropped to one knee and whacked Fallon's leg with the flat of her sword, rolled, and struck again at the back of Fallon's knees as hard as she could. Fallon gasped and fell, dropping her sword. Morgandy stood and put the point of her blade to Fallon's throat. Her hazel eyes were bright and large.
"We do not kill the wounded. I swear to God we do not kill any world's wounded. Whether they are opposed to us or not."
Morgandy's face frightened Fallon. She lay perfectly still, the sword tip pricking her skin. She herself had sharpened the sword.
"Will you rise on point of honour, cousin?" demanded Morgandy.
Fallon hesitated. Then she nodded. "I will."
"Get up, take your sword, and go from the tent. Make your way to the berm. Fight there. Leave me to my business."
Morgandy turned her back on her cousin. Fallon climbed to her feet, her leg stinging. She put her sword in her scabbard. Morgandy laid hers on a table, hilt to hand. She dragged the wounded soldier into the middle of the tent and pried off his visor. His face was smooth and white and young and he did not have any of the fangs. Bit by bit she stripped him of his armour, snapping arrow shafts in half as she did so. There were five arrow wounds. Uncle Ahearn knelt by her.
"Thank you, Morgandy. Let me take a look. Get that mandragora into the others."
Morgandy took the green bottle and spoon and went to Uncle Brian who lay on a bed on the grass. The mattress was stuffed with straw. She knelt, poured the mixture into the spoon, set the bottle down, propped up her uncle's head with one hand, and trickled the liquid slowly into his mouth. Some dribbled down his jaw. She wiped it away with her fingers. Then she stood up and went to Cuyler and Ferris.
Ferris was in a fever. She tried to grip his head firmly and give him the mandrake but no sooner did she have his head under control than he thrashed his arms and knocked the spoon out of her hand, spilling the mixture. She tried again. Once more he shouted, eyes closed, and knocked the spoon away. Fallon came and held his arms down. Morgandy glared at her.
"Why are you still here? I said you were free to go to the fight."
"So you did. And I looked and I saw there was a fight here as well. What if I should save the whole world and there was no one left to live in it?"
Their eyes met like swords. Then Morgandy pushed the light brown and the dark brown and the golden hair from her face and gripped Ferris' head a third time. He thrashed. Fallon kept his arms down. He took the liquid, cool as it was to his mouth, and did not spit it out. Morgandy straightened and went to Aunt Bree's side. She kept her back to Fallon when she asked, "So will you help me with the suturing here as well?"
"Have you ever done it before?"
"I practiced on an orange once."
"Then I graduated to a grapefruit. I'm sure I'll be a valuable asset to your medical clinic."
Morgandy spun around and grinned and the tears were at her eyes. Fallon kissed her on the top of the head. "My nut brown maiden," she said, "who knew such a warrior lived in your heart? Whoever guessed it? You are a lightning storm."
"I was terrible to you."
"You were the best thing that has happened to me in years."
"Will you start the suturing?"
"I will. You can take over halfway through."
"Have you ever read this book by Al Zahrawi?"
"Cover to cover. Another great set is the seventy volumes by Oribasius. A Byzantine physician."
"Are you planning on becoming a surgeon or something?"
"Or something, yes. It's quiet in here. Let's get this done while we can."
Morgandy handed Fallon the needle and thread. A man blundered into the tent carrying a woman's body, his face spattered with blood.
"Father!" exclaimed Morgandy.
He looked at his daughter but his eyes were wild. Her mother was in his arms.
"She's dying," he said.
The scarlet robe was gone, consumed in the blaze that mounted to the stars and spread over the bridge. The bones of the dead cracked and their skin popped and sizzled and black smoke rolled up and blocked the moon. The air began to reek.
"Fool, fool, fool, fool, I will break you, bind you, batter you!"
Bram felt a light in him rising every time the creature spoke. He braced his legs while others around him fled from the waves of heat. Affrica grabbed him by the arm. "Time to leave, boy," she said.
"Fool, fool, fool, fool, I will break you, bind you, batter you!"
"Get on with it then!" shouted Bram. "You talk a lot! Get on with my breaking and binding and battering!"
"What?" exclaimed Affrica.
"Don't you hear him?"
"I hear you. Let's go."
"Stand behind me."
"I am your protector, Bram. You get behind me."
"I'm not going anywhere. If you want to stick around stand behind me and the fire won't touch you."
She stooped to swing him over her shoulder but she could not move his body. She tried a second time, the veins on her neck standing out, but could not budge him. The heat was singeing her hair and eyebrows. She crouched at his back.
"What is going on?" she shouted above the roar.
"I don't know. But I can do this."
"How do you know?"
"I feel it in me. This is where I saw the boy. I must remain at this spot."
"How do you know the flames won't kill you?"
"I don't know. But I must stay here. Run if you can."
"I don't run backwards."
Red and black broke over him. He felt nothing. Except the roar of the blaze which hurt his ears. He stood while around him it became a firestorm. He sensed Affrica at his back. That was all.
Suddenly pain hit him and he staggered. Fought to get his breath. The pain hit him again. His cloak and tunic exploded. His chain mail glowed red hot. He was roasting alive. He tried to cry for help but it hurt too much.
"The battle is quiet," Fallon said in the tent.
Morgandy's father listened. "That's odd. I doubt it's over."
Morgandy was holding her mother's limp hand. "Something's burning. Can't you smell it?"
"How is she?" asked her father.
"Much better," said Ahearn who stood behind them. "She did not lose as much blood as we feared."
"She has more colour."
"Yes. She's rallying. Her breathing is stronger. And her heartbeat."
Conner placed his hand on his wife's chest. Finally he smiled. "You're right. Thank God."
"It sounds like a wind has come up," said Fallon.
Morgandy stroked her mother's cheek. "It goes right over us here because we're in the creekbed. Especially the big west wind. Right through the treetops. It sounds like a sea breaking."
Her father picked up his sword and shield. "I will go and take a look at the berm."
"Go ahead, dad. We're fine here."
Minutes after her father had left the tent people began screaming. Fallon's eyes darkened and her jaw tightened. "The fighting has begun again."
"Cousin, why don't you go?"
"We've been through that."
"We haven't had a casualty in half an hour. I'll be fine. Duck out and slay a dragon for me."
"I swore I wouldn't leave your side."
A wailing filled the yard. It kept on and on. A human voice breaking apart with pain and misery. Morgandy bit her lip. "Fallon, what is it? Who's wailing like that?"
"I can't tell if it's a man or woman."
"The son of Conner has fallen, father and son have fallen, my great God, oh my great God, the son of Conner has fallen!"
"Morgandy," Fallon started to say.
But she was gone at a dead run, her sword in her hand and her brown and gold hair flying behind her like a storm.
Grass was under his feet. Wildflowers in bloom. The creek ran true. The leaves on the trees were thick. The air soft. The moon warm.
But the grass and wildflowers were trampled. The creek full of bodies rolling along the bottom in their armour. The leaves burning. The air rough with smoke and fire. The moon blotted out.
It hit Brimm like an axe. The bridge covered with dead. Flames pouring over the stone to the opposite bank. Five hundred Ro pressing to charge across when it was clear. A hundred horsemen straining on the bank. Trees on Earth blazing. Men and women in bright cloaks cringing back from the conflagration. Horses galloping and screaming and their saddles empty. A boy in the middle of it all.
It is him. He is the one I saw.
Brimm began to run as he had never run. His sword was in his hand. The villagers waved at him to stop. Finally one of them shouted, "We cannot attack into that heat! We cannot run through fire!"
"It is no fire! It is a man!"
A man. With eleven arms. Burning arms that touched the treetops. The living. The dead. The defenders. The boy.
The horsemen turned at the shout and saw the people coming through the silver. They lifted their swords and spurred their mounts. Six or seven villagers knelt and strung the bows the Lord of Stronn had given them. The first arrows went too high. Brimm kept running, the horses' bared teeth coming closer and closer. He heard the whistling go over his head. Six horses shrieked and fell. More whistling. Three men, their visors up, took arrows in the face. More whistling. Seven dropped from their saddles.
Brimm was among them. Horses thrashed, bit, kicked. Riders leaned down to whip off his head with their axes and blades. He blocked, ducked under horses' bellies, rolled, kept running. Arrows cracked into armour and rocks. One took off a piece of his ear. He was at the bridge. But the soldiers had swung about to face the men and women of Sora. He could not pass through them.
"I am for Stronn! I am for Sora!"
Mirror roared upon the bridge and Merin swung her sword from left to right and shouted with all her breath. Brimm sheathed his blade and leaped onto Mirror from the back. They stormed through the ranks. He took the Great Sword in both hands again and screamed and struck off helmets and heads. Mirror took a spear, and then another spear, but he would not slow his charge. Soldiers jumped to the side. Fell into the creek and drowned in their armour. Ran into the flames and died.
He sprang off where the boy stood. A woman whose hair had vanished in fire crouched behind him. The heat was intense. Brimm took the boy's arm but the boy would not move. He was as heavy as a great rock.
"I must get you off this bridge!" Brimm shouted.
Words dropped firmly into his mind.
I cannot leave the bridge. I am the only one stopping the Mage.
"But the fire is killing you!"
So be it. I cannot leave the bridge or our worlds die.
His flesh screaming, Brimm faced the heart of the inferno, the blade of his sword hot and bright as a sun.
"The second fool, twin fools, your blood will boil and your body blacken, the fish will swallow your fingers this dawn."
"You will not cross this bridge."
"Who are you to defy the gods?"
"Not in a million moons will you cross this bridge."
"Fool, fool, great fool, you cannot move heaven and earth."
"Yes. I can."
The flames howled over him red and black and they cut him to the bone like a flail. He staggered but kept his feet next to Bram.
"Fall, fall, fools, fall together and I will spare your lives, make you princes of the kingdom, only fall."
Bram lifted his sword and straightened his back. The two boys stood shoulder to shoulder. The firestorm broke over them again. The pain was black hot nails, it was scourges and spears. Bram sagged but Brimm put an arm about his waist and bore him up.
A man ran onto the bridge with sword and shield.
"I am with you boys!"
"This is not your fight. We are proof against this fire if we but stand. You are not."
"I am the boy's father. This is my fight."
"The fire will slay you."
"Let it slay me. I will not abandon my son."
The fire circled them like a wildcat. And suddenly pounced on their backs and sank in its teeth. The father cried out and went down, his hair a torch, his sword locked in his grip.
"Fall, you fools, fall, and your agony will be over, the waters of death are cool and sweet, fall, fall, and I will bless you, fall, and I promise you will live."
"We do not break!" yelled Brimm, fierce heat stabbing through his stomach and lungs and heart.
"We do not break!"
The fire swept over them again like a burning flood. Brimm felt as if he were taking his father's forge into his mouth. His nostrils and lips cracked. His face blistered. His clothing exploded and was gone, the gambeson underneath as well, leaving only the chain mail that seared his chest and legs. His knees buckled. This time it was Bram who bore him up. And who smiled through the flame and pain.
You have no hair.
"Neither do you."
A pair of beauties we will be.
"I know four girls whose splendour is like the moon and the stars and the sea. And they have no hair at all."
There is hope forus then.
"I'm pretty sure they would have us if no one else would."
What is your name?
"Brimm. Son of Core. Son of Ara."
I am Bram. Son of Conner. Son of Shyla.
"Brimm and Bram."
They laughed. Bram silently.
"How is it we understand each other?"
We are one and the same.
A fireball erupted between them and they lost their grip on one another. Dropped. But their legs held. They straightened and glared into the heart of the blaze.
We have forgotten how.
"I will show you!"
Walls of heat slammed them again. And again. Their eyebrows and eyelashes went. Their fingernails and toenails broke. Blood ran from their nostrils. They could no longer open their eyes or part their lips. They found each other once more and put arms about one another's shoulders. Fire came like darts. Like long spikes driven in by a maul. Like an axe blade chopping their faces in two. Slowly, inch by inch, they both began to sink to their knees.
Morgandy flew across the yard, dodging horses and spent arrows and cousins falling back from the ferocious heat, and raced towards the berm. Uncle Torin got in front of her and grabbed her by the shoulders.
"No, Morgandy, there is nothing you can do. I will not leave your mother without a husband or a child."
"Let go of me. I must get to my brother."
"You are not going onto the berm."
Instantly she had the face of a snarling, spitting panther and kicked her uncle as hard as she could in the knee. When he bent over with a yell she smacked the side of his head with the flat of her sword and drew blood. He crashed to the ground and she vaulted over him.
He said you and I must stand together at the berm where I saw the boy from Sora. You and I must stand together and not yield.
She leaped onto the berm and was at her brother's left shoulder. A blast of flame took her autumn brown hair and forest green cloak. It felt as if someone had pierced her nostrils with lit matches. Her skin ached and her blood burned. But she stood. She saw Bram smile at her from behind a thick curtain of fire.
The sea of fire rolled over them without letup. The pain grew and grew in intensity. Morgandy watched two hands of dark flame fasten tightly around her throat. She began to fight for her breath. Her knees bent.
I am going to black out.
Lean against my shoulder.
Who are you going to lean on?
Our warrior from the other world.
The waves of fire broke and broke in red and black. But the longer she stood there, panting for air, her shoulder against her brother's, the more it seemed to Morgandy that the waves came with less and less force, and that the fingers choking off her breath held less and less strength. A voice wormed its way into her thoughts, sounding faint and far away.
Yield or I will come again in force and break you.
I will not.
I will not.
A great cry cut through her head and a massive wave reared up and came crashing into her face. It shattered into thousands of droplets of black and red and green and blue and purple and gold and white. It felt like cold seawater on her skin. And she came out of the surge gulping in lungfuls of fresh air, the fingers gone from her throat. She opened her eyes and there were small tongues of flame on the bridge, on the surface of the creek, at her feet. The heat was gone and the moon shone clear as it dropped towards the western mountains.
"Why, it's over!" exclaimed Morgandy. "The fire is finished!"
"Yes, the fire is finished but we are not finished."
Danakk stood before her and bared his fangs slowly. Morgandy stared in shock at his face and black armour and began to lift her sword with an immense effort. He smacked it aside with his flame shaped blade.
"You have no strength left in you, vixen. All your coming did was delay the inevitable. How did it feel to burn and burn and not perish?"
He closed his hand around her charred throat. His rotting breath made her flinch.
"We bring darkness," rasped Danakk, "we bring the end of the worlds."
He looked to the black armoured soldiers behind him. "They are weak! They are finished! There are none to stop us! Take the Earth! Take it and put its people to the sword!"
The soldiers of Ro gave a shout that shook the trees and came forward at the run, spears to the front, swords and axes raised, maces and morning stars swinging. Danakk turned to grin at Morgandy. "It is done. Your trial by fire has won your world nothing. Die a slave." He drew his sword back and struck.
To all three it seemed like the ringing of great iron bells. Brimm thought of the belltowers of Kamar of the Rivers. Bram and Morgandy thought of a trip to Montreal when they were younger. A sword came between Danakk's blade and Morgandy's neck and the sound of the strike rang over the bridge between the two worlds. It was Fallon.
Blow for blow Fallon met him. He roared with rage and hurled himself forward to knock her down. She kicked him in the stomach, which bent him over, then kicked him in the face, which straightened him back up. In time for Charlemagne to hit him high in the chest. As he staggered back Morningstar took out his legs, her white teeth snapping. The dogs ran on and lunged at the soldiers of Ro. Danakk lay stunned on his back. And saw the first hooves smash his face.
Merin charged over his body, Mirror at full gallop, and right behind her came Flynn, Briac and Torin on captured sorrels, and Brites and Brietta on tall blacks. They plunged yelling and cutting into Ro who broke to left and right. Keary was there, standing in front of Bram, slashing the air with his sword, Douglas at Brimm's right, Keelin at Morgandy's left next to Fallon. Ian Standing Alone went ahead of them and planted himself at the foot of the bridge.
A soldier came at Ian whirling a triple headed morning star. Ian did not move. He simply thrust his sword at a flash of skin below the man's helmet. The sword went through the neck and out the other side. More soldiers descended upon him and he struck left and right, felling them in pairs, and Morgandy watched and remembered Nana Tara's words the night they opened the two trunks, You must understand we are not simply fighting in our own strength, we are empowered, like angels, we are given the ability to do what we normally could never do, our swords move like lightning, we strike as if we had been trained our entire lives to fight.
Some of the Ro staggered past Ian. Fallon cut them down. And Keelin. And Douglas. And Keary. Then Papa Sean was there, fighting like ten, and Nana Tara with him, and Grandfather Caedmon and Grandmother Tully. The last of the blue moon ran along the edges of their swirlng swords. Cousins, aunts, uncles, even the walking wounded poured in behind them and made their stand. The black armoured ranks broke and fell upon Earth's axes and blades.
Brimm saw Karell and Denivina and Lassis on the opposite bank, their faces painted yellow and black, shrieking and cutting through Ro to reach their sister in the middle of the bridge, he saw Night and Twilight and Dusk, spiked collars around their necks, ripping and tearing into the black armoured soldiers, he saw The Eye on the grassy slope above the creek firing shafts from his huge bow, felling six with each arrow, he saw the free people of Sora drive into the enemy's rear, wielding limbs they had torn from trees, stones clawed from the earth, daggers and clubs and spears Ro had dropped as they collapsed in death. The crash and grind of battle swept up and down the creek. Every horse, every warrior, every sword and mace was gilded in silver.
Bram knelt by Affrica. He lifted her head, shorn of hair by the fire.
"Are you with me yet?" he whispered through his blistered lips.
Her blue eyes opened and she managed a half smile. He continued to cradle her head as he looked over at his father's body. There was no movement. He tried to call but could only croak a few sounds. Morgandy went to her knees and looked into their father's face. Then she looked at Bram.
"She was behind you. He was not. That is the difference."
An old man with strong hands and a large bow stood before Bram.
"Why do we live?" rasped Bram.
"You felt all the pain. But the fire could not consume you. The Mage could only hope to break you with the agony of a man or woman burned alive. There was a shield over each of you."
"We did not fall."
"No. You did not. Once your sister joined you he had little hope of success. Still, he bent terrible magic upon her. You did well, lady, to hold your ground. And you, young man, to take the fire so long and not to fall. And you, Master Brimm, to make your stand although a thousand hells shrieked in your blood. You three held the bridge."
"The fighting is not over," whispered Brimm.
"It is over."
"Why did you not help us?"
"I could not. None of my skills would have made a difference. It was a trial you three had to bear without any other's help. Such are the laws we live under."
"My father," began Bram.
"There is life in him yet though you cannot see it."
"He is not dead?"
"Will he rise?"
"What will become of him?"
"He will lie in darkness."
"For how many days?"
"Until the end of time."
Bram's chest filled with a pain worse than the fire.
"And my father? My mother?" Brimm.
"They are well, boy. You see them there with Merin. She is wounded. But it is not deep."
Brimm limped towards the bridge, stumbling over the bodies of men and women and horses. Arrows poked out of the ground at every step. The stonework of the bridge was scorched. The water of the creek tumbled with black and red. People tried to catch horses that ran in panic from any touch, any voice. Broken swords he saw, shattered spears and axes and maces, torn belts and cloaks and tunics, battered armour, burnt flags. His father took him to his chest and would not let go.
Merin lay on her back and her face was white in the moon. A sword had opened her side but had only gone in an inch. Brimm's mother was cleaning it and her sisters stood over her. She felt him there and opened her eyes.
"More predicaments, Brimm?"
"None you can't save me from."
"Not this time. It is you and your companions who have saved us."
"You fought like a lion, Merin."
"But it is you who fought like a man."
Bram left Affrica with Aunt Devnet and went with his sister to the red tent. It was crammed with the wounded. Of Earth, of Sora, of Ro, of Merek. They scanned the faces. They could not see their mother. Uncle Ahearn saw them. He grinned through the blood and sweat.
"She is outside. Resting under a tree. She is growing stronger by the hour."
They embraced her where she lay by a cluster of poplars. "Ah, my Bram, my Morgandy, thank God, you have been spared, and may there be no other blue moon in your lifetime to threaten you or our world. But your skin is so red and it peels in long strips. And where is your hair?"
"We will be all right," smiled Morgandy. "A man from the other world said they have excellent herbs for Bram and I. Don't worry about us. The burns aren't life threatening. And our hair will grow back."
"Seeing you two is like watching the sun rise. No, I won't worry any longer. Just tell me what your father is up to."
Bram held his mother's hand. "Look," he said, "dad is not doing so well. He's been hurt badly."
Bram fought the burning at the back of his eyes. "He fell defending me."
Their mother pushed against a poplar trunk with her hands. "Help me up. I must go to him."
"Mom, you're not strong enough," said Bram.
"Don't tell me what I am. Take me to my husband or I'll find him on my own."
As they helped her to the berm the sound of wailing came from the yard and the creek and the bridge, cousin weeping for cousin, husband for wife, mother for child. They saw bodies being laid on the berm, one after another, and Caedmon supervising where each was to be set down. He saw them and came and took their mother gently into his arms.
"My girl, I could not find you in the tent, but I was told you were well."
"I am, dad. My stomach really hurts but I feel stronger than I did."
"Thank God for that."
"She went to help bring in the wounded."
"Conner is down."
"I know that. But his breath is in him. I believe something can be done."
"That would be wonderful, oh, wonderful. I am going to him now. But what are you doing?"
"We are laying out our dead, Shylah, ours and the free people of Sora's."
"It looks to me like there are too many."
"If we lose some of our wounded there will be more."
"What are the numbers?"
"Eighteen from our family. Twenty seven from Sora."
"Eighteen!" Morgandy burst. "But there were only fifty four of us to begin with!"
"I know, granddaughter."
"That's too much, it's too much."
"There is no higher price in the Nine Worlds than what we pay for our freedom."
"Who is lying there?"
"Come and see."
The first were those from Sora. They might have been people from their neighbourhood and although she did not know any of them Morgandy's heart sank. One girl could only have been a year older than her. Then came the people of their own family. Many she knew from a face at the firepit or from a group laughing and eating sandwiches at a picnic table. But the persons kneeling beside them brought the pain into her throat and eyes. Then she recognized Uncle Bevin of the stories, Aunt Aislinn whose magpie was perched beside her, swinging its head back and forth in distress, Cousin Cyric who swallowed swords without hurt, Cousin Fiona who juggled daggers and oranges and cups steaming with tea.
Cousin Derry. She cried out and went to her knees. There was no wound on his face or neck, no blood, but his heart was still, and his breath gone. "Oh no," she moaned. His crossbows were at his left hand and at his right. She picked one of them up.
"Take it," said Grandfather Caedmon.
"If you want to remember how he fought for you, take it. The dead and anything touching them will be consumed when the Opening vanishes."
"Consumed by what?"
"The fire will come once again and seal the hole between the two worlds."
Bram looked at his grandfather. "The copper urns in the tool shed."
"For the ashes of our warriors."
Morgandy held back and shrank into her mother. "I'm afraid to go any further."
"It is important that we show our love and respect," her mother said gently. "Is there someone you are afraid of seeing?"
"I do not see him walking the berm. I do not see him at Grandfather's side."
She looked at Caedmon who was struggling to control his own emotions, his mouth twitching, his eyes blinking, his right hand squeezing the grip of his sword in its scabbard. She placed her hand in his.
"There are only seventeen here."
He nodded and looked towards the creek. "There is the one other death."
He lay in peace at the foot of the bridge where he had fallen. They had laid sword and shield to his side, and his face, strong and true, looked up to the moon in the west and the bright sun that rose in the east. Ara gasped and put a hand to her mouth. She and her children sank to their knees. Bram saw the wounds on his arms and the blue tattoo. Caedmon remained standing and sang in his strong voice, "The minstrel fell, but the foeman's steel could not bring that proud soul under, the harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again, for he tore its chords asunder, and said, No chains shall sully thee, thou soul of love and brav'ry, thy songs were made for the pure and free, they shall never sound in slavery." And then his voice broke.
"Papa," Morgandy whispered.
In time, they stood and left him where he lay, Nana Tara coming with wooden basin and cloth to wipe his hands and face. In time, they came to their father and Ara's husband, lying equally still upon the berm, but yet they could feel the slightest breath from his nostrils on the backs of their hands and feel warmth under his chain mail. In time, the professors returned over the bridge, looking about them in dismay and horror, picking their way through the piles of bodies, coming at last to their colleague on the creekbank. Mussaf had on a robe from Sora he had worn there for warmth. He went to his knees and tore it in two and wailed through tree and leaf and sky. And Rizvi. Rizvi's cries wrenched Bram's spirit. He watched as the man touched his head again and again to his father's chest, tears dropping from his cheeks onto Conner's flesh. In time, the old man of Sora stood there again and there was pity in his eyes.
"There is one thing that can be done," he said.
"What thing?" asked Bram.
"There is a place your father may be healed. But not in this world. Or mine."
"The Sixth Ring. Beyond Sora and Strake."
"How can I get there? Do I have to wait for other blue moons?"
"Those worlds do not respond to blue moons as yours does. But there are other ways to walk between the Nine Worlds. There is Pilgrimage."
"They told us nothing about Pilgrimage here."
"Perhaps because it is so dangerous. I have never done it. There are rituals and oaths. Then you pass through. But if the oaths and rituals are not enough, if your own heart is not enough, the passing through will kill you. It will kill you stone dead. And the one you bear with you for healing. And you must do it not once to reach the Sixth Ring but twice. Your odds of success are poor."
"But they exist."
"As a butterfly may exist in winter. By chance."
"By chance. Or design."
The old man shrugged. "I know of none who have survived. But I mention it to you because I see the pain in you. And in your sister and mother. Only keep this close, boy. A father does not die who dies for his son or daughter."
"Even if he never opens his eyes again? Even if his heart stops? And his breath?"
The old man's eyes were iron. "A father does not die."
Caedmon stood at the bridge. "There is less than an hour to the sealing of the cut between our two worlds. Those who are returning to Sora should prepare to do so. There are wounded you will wish to take back. And prisoners. But first we will say farewell to those who have fallen for Sora and for Earth. Let us assemble here on the berm."
Nana Tara was cradling Conner. "You stand for his father," she said to Shylah. "Let me remain with my son." Morningstar would not leave Conner's side and sat next to Tara.
Bram found himself next to Douglas and Keary and Keelin and his uncles Flynn, Torin, and Briac. Charlemagne stood beside him. Morgandy was with her mother and Fallon and Grandmother Tully. Brites and Brietta were nearby. They had cut their flaming hair off above their ears with their daggers in their grief. Both their parents had been slain. Affrica stood on her own with a wooden crutch Bram had fashioned for her from an elm.
Brimm was with The Eye and his daughters. Merin leaned against the old man who gripped her tightly with his right arm. The three black dogs lay panting gently among them. Mirror rested under a tree close at hand, his wounds dressed, a bucket of water to his mouth. "He will be well," a man of Earth named Ahearn had assured Brimm, "but you must not ride him for three or four months, perhaps longer." From where Brimm stood he could see several of the free people of Sora lying quietly on the creekbank, such weapons as they had fought with on their chests or at their hands. Jak Horits there was, Satur, Lade Ferringurl's wife, Berrick and his three sons. He hung his head. So much death. At least the Scarlet Mage was dead too. And Danakk.
Danakk is shattered bones and skull and brain and lies there for the burning. But the Mage is not dead, boy. Only emptied. He is somewhere in Sora now. Gaining back his power. It will take months. Perhaps a year. He will hunt you when he is strong enough. And the other two. Even if he must cross worlds.
Brimm looked at The Eye. But the Lord of Stronn was staring straight ahead and did not turn to him.
An archer stood near each of the fallen. At Caedmon's signal they fired their arrows in an arc over the bodies and into the sunlight which gathered strength and heat by the minute. Light sparkled off the shafts. They struck the water and vanished beneath the green that ran over the stones to the northern sea. Caedmon read from an old book he held in both hands. About worlds beyond worlds and a greater world back of them all. About wearing the blue rose to remember. About placing the ashes of the fallen in holy ground. And he asked the Lord of Stronn to speak. And Nana Tara. She said, "What we have done we have done in love and friendship for the people of both worlds. Even though many will never know what has happened here. And if they did know many of them would not believe it." The Lord of Stronn said, "I would like to think that one day such battles will not need to be fought because the Nine Worlds and all those beyond them will have changed and the laws of nature will have changed and the nature within our hearts will have changed. Until then, we hold fast for freedom and we honour those who could have said no but instead yes for Sora and Earth." Bouquets of blue roses were laid upon the eighteen and the twenty seven.
And it was done. Such wounded of Sora as could be moved were carried to the far bank of the creek. The others were left in Devnet and Ahearn's care, including those of Ro and Merek, who would have to make a new life in a new world. The Earth dead would be reported as missing and their ashes placed in the copper urns and taken by family members for burial in backyards and flower beds and garden plots. The ashes of Sora's dead would be placed in the same kind of urns and buried quietly in the yard at hand, the yard of the battle, Bram and Morgandy's yard. Much would be burned up in the final fire, anything that touched the dead. The swords and saddles and banners and arrows that remained would have to be collected and stored away in attics and crawl spaces or destroyed. The gravel on the berm that had been churned up by hooves and boots would need to be replaced and raked smooth. The marks of fire on trees and rocks would have to be explained.
The Lord of Stronn prepared to cross over. His daughters were with him, and Brimm, and the three dogs who had been racing back and forth with Morningstar and Charlemagne. Brimm led Mirror gently by a rope halter. He and Bram gripped each other's arms. To Morgandy he bowed. Caedmon and Tully and Tara stood at the bridge and watched the party make their way over between the masses of Ro dead.
"How long?" asked Tully.
"Nine minutes to moonset," said Tara.
Bram looked at his father lying under a cottonwood. A blue butterfly landed on him and lifted. A meadowlark came out with a sunburst of notes. He made up his mind.
"Wait!" he called.
Lord Stronn looked back.
"I will go on Pilgrimage," Bram announced. "I will bear my father to the Sixth Ring."
His mother stared at him. He went to her. "I must try it, mother. Surely God will have mercy. We cannot put father in a bedroom with the blinds closed for the rest of our lives. All his energy? All his wit? I would rather face all the monsters of the Nine Worlds than spend another day on Earth with him lying there without hope. At least on Pilgrimage there is a chance. Perhaps it is small, as the Lord of Stronn says. But sometimes small is big enough."
"I will go with him!" cried Morgandy. "I owe my father this much!"
Their mother looked at them and nodded. "And am I to stay behind with our house and gardens and never look on my husband or daughter or son again? I will cross over with you. Mother. Father. Will you take care of our home? The day will come when we will return and need it again."
"Are you three sure of this?" asked Caedmon. "Aren't you making a rather hasty decision?"
"Look at him, dad," said Shylah. "Look at him and tell me what you would do if it were mom lying there? If it were I?"
Caedmon sighed and nodded. He and Tully embraced and kissed their daughter and they embraced and kissed Morgandy and Bram. Nana Tara stood by the bridge.
"Will you bring my son back to me?" she asked Shylah.
"Will you?" she asked Morgandy.
"Will you?" Her eyes rested on Bram.
He did not flinch from her gaze. "I will."
The Lord of Stronn was there. "We must move swiftly. My daughters will bear him on his great shield that bore the brunt of the arrows. Merin, are you strong enough for this?"
Merin was at his shoulder. "I am."
"What about your wound?" asked Brimm, who had followed her back over the bridge.
She glanced at him and glanced away. "What wound?"
The Four Warrior Daughters placed Conner on his shield and began to carry him to the other side of the creek where the silver mist still rolled in and out of itself. Fallon fell in behind Morgandy and Affrica, moving awkwardly on her crutch, followed Bram along the berm. He looked back at her.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like?"
"You don't need to come with me."
"I swore to protect you."
Morgandy laughed. "That's what Fallon always says."
"And still does," said Fallon.
Morgandy had not noticed her. "What are you doing?"
"I swore to protect you."
"But all your family, your work, med school, everything is here on Earth."
"Who said I was going to med school?"
"Well, you talked like it in the red tent."
"Maybe I want to travel first."
Bram found it irritating that he had to look up to Affrica even when she was wounded and leaning on a crutch. "Stay here and get better. They don't have modern medicines on Sora."
"No. But the older man told me they can restore my skin and my strength given time."
"I can take care of myself."
"I'll be the judge of that. And in order to be the judge of that I need to be where you are and keep a careful eye on what you do."
"That is not necessary."
"You're just annoyed that I'm taller than you."
"Affrica, stay here with your family, really, stay and live out your life."
"Bram." Her eyes burned blue heat. "I owe you my life. I will not stay here. And I will not hear from another how you fell in a dark corner of Strake with no hand lifted in your defence."
Bram shrugged. As he turned to step onto the bridge Brites and Brietta were there to hug him, their hair ragged and short, their eyes swollen. "You are doing the right thing," said Brites, kissing him on the cheek, "if we could do it for our parents we would be crossing over with you." Brietta buried her head in his shoulder. "Will you remember who we are? Will you remember how we fought?" An image of black horses running swept across Bram's mind. "Yes," he said.
She had reached the silver mist with Fallon. Her father had already gone through. She turned and her friends were on the bridge, Douglas, Ian, Keelin, Keary.
"Hey!" called Keelin. "Bring back some good stories!"
"And souvenirs! I like all kinds of souvenirs! Especially different pins!"
"Hey, Bram!" Douglas.
"Yeah?" Bram had reached Morgandy's side.
"This was cool. You were cool. Take it easy, okay?"
"Yeah. I will. Thanks."
"Remember everything I taught you."
Bram laughed. "Who could forget?"
"Stand. Just stand."
"Bram, you're awesome, you the man." Keary.
Bram smiled. "You always had the best ones."
The Lord of Stronn was tugging at his beard. "If the Seal begins while we are standing on this bridge we will be forced to remain on Earth. And you will have three rings to pass through as pilgrims instead of two."
Morgandy and Bram looked one last time at the creek, the yard, their friends, at Brites and Brietta, Flynn and Torin and Briac, Ahearn and Devnet, Grandfather Caedmon and Grandmother Tully. At Nana Tara. She was by herself. The sun was on her face. Then Bram and Morgandy passed into the silver and Fallon and Affrica with them. Charlemagne and Morningstar were the last over, trotting in behind them. There was a sudden roar and a flash of light and the cottonwoods and pines bent in a wind and steam rose from the water and fire leaped up from the bodies on the bridge and the bodies on the berm. Flesh vanished and for a moment there were bones and skulls and then they too were gone. And the black armour that sat on the bodies of Ro. And the swords and shields that lay to the sides of the free people of Sora and the Guardians of Earth. And the blue roses that covered their bodies.
It seemed to Bram that he had no sooner stepped out of the silver and into the snow and sunshine than there was a blast of heat at his back. The mist became a ball of fire. Then with a loud crack it was gone. His dogs yelped. When he looked to the front again he saw that their way was blocked by at least two hundred horsemen in brilliant gold and yellow armour. Their visors were up and their faces looked grim. Oh no, not another fight. He groped for the sword on his back.
Brimm placed his hand on Bram's. "It's all right," he said, "these are the Knights of Stronn. They are with us." But all Bram heard was gibberish. He looked at Brimm in astonishment. "What?" he exclaimed. But all Brimm heard was a grunt and Bram slurring his words so that they were incomprehensible to him. He stared at Bram in shock. The Master of Stronn looked at their faces and roared with laughter.
"The magic of the Gap is done. You can understand me, Master Bram, for I know your language, as do my four daughters. But if you wish to converse with anyone else you will have to learn the tongue of Ur, and the western dialect of Ur at that." Then he spoke to Brimm and his words were nonsense to Bram. Oh great. French and Spanish at home. Now another language here. The Eye smiled at him and his words dropped into Bram's thoughts. Don't worry. We have many excellent teachers in Ur who know both your English and your French. I think you will be a quick study.
He looked to Denivina and spoke in English. "Once the boy's father has been placed in the wagon I would like you to attach yourself to the Guardians of Earth. Translate for them. Help them adjust."
"Yes, father." She bent her head.
A knight came forward and spoke in Ur. "Master Stronn, we brought horses for one hundred and fifty. Did we misunderstand the orders you left with us?"
"No, Tere. We lost twenty seven."
"We will have a proper ceremony for them at the castle later. But you see that we have a man of Earth, a Guardian, that woman's husband, and the father of that boy and girl there, he was burnt badly by unholy fire. A gift from the High Priest of Merek. The wife and the children are going to try and get him to the Sixth Ring."
Tere's eyes widened. "No one has reached Li from this world. They have always perished on Strake."
"I know that. I have warned them that it will be difficult. But their only other choice is to leave him in a state of eternal unconsciousness. They love him enough to take the risk. We will honour that love and courage by doing all we can to help."
Tere bent his head.
"But first we must restore them. You see how the fire of the Mage has scarred their bodies. And our own wounded need care as well. Bring the wagon forward and let my daughters place the man in it. Then make sure everyone here is well mounted. Do you have the furs and skins?"
"See that they are distributed. We fought the battle on a summer night. No one has winter clothing."
Bram watched as his father was placed in a wagon of thick straw by the daughters of the old man. He saw a streak of blood down the side of the youngest one's tunic. She did not show any pain even though the blood looked fresh. The old man, the Lord of Stronn, encouraged his mother to get up into the wagon and ride with her husband. Once she had done so the wagon began to move towards a white and blue mountain range. West, there is the morning sun to our left and they are heading west. Those look like our mountains.
The knights rode among the people giving out fur cloaks and blankets and warm boots and caps, all manner of winter clothing. Bram had just begun to feel the pinch of the cold, having little more than chain mail to cover his body, and he was grateful. Then they came back leading horses. Bram was given a black mare with a silver mane and tail and four silver stockings.
"Wow, she's beautiful!" he gasped, looking up at the knight who handed him the reins. The knight did not understand him but he understood the expression on Bram's face and he smiled and nodded. Bram swung awkwardly into the saddle for his skin burned and itched and the pain seemed to be getting worse. Beside him Morgandy had a horse they would call a palamino on Earth, gold with a white mane and tail. Fallon's mount was jet black. He looked around for Affrica and saw her fighting to get her foot into a stirrup. He jumped down, forgetting about his burnt body, and a red stinging swept through him. He winced, caught his breath, and went to Affrica's side. He helped her lift her leg.
"What are you doing, boy?"
"What does it look like?"
"I don't need your help."
"And I don't need yours. I guess all we'll do on Sora is get on each other's nerves. Here you go."
He pushed and she was in the saddle. She looked down and her blue eyes blazed a hole through him. "I am not accustomed to being manhandled, boy. I am not a sack of grain."
He bent his head as the Sorans did. "And you are welcome, my oh so very tall lady."
She spurred her horse and sprayed him with slush. It hurt his mouth to laugh but he could not help himself.
"Where's the humour in that, young master?" Denivina had ridden up to him on a sorrel. She spoke impeccable English. With just the hint of an extremely pleasant accent that Bram could not identify.
"It seems the two of us are always sparring."
"Do you often win?"
"Fifty fifty, I'd say."
"Do you like her?"
"I haven't thought about it."
Denivina arched an eyebrow. "Are you someone rich and famous?"
"No. It's just that they, well, they think I am too young to take care of myself."
Denivina smiled. "Do they? Yet you held the bridge."
"I had help."
"You did. But each of you still had to make your own stand. My father could not help you. Are you all right?"
Bram had pulled himself back into the saddle. "The pain comes and goes."
"We have excellent physicians at the Castle of Stronn. They will see you healed."
"Is that where we're heading?"
"Yes. The people lost their village. Father will give them rooms inside the walls. What are you looking at?"
"My sister and I, and Affrica, my bodyguard, and your friend that joined us on the bridge, Brimm, we all have the same haircut you have. Which is nothing. Sorry. Just an observation."
"I at least have eyebrows. Now what are you looking at?"
"Your war paint."
"The black and yellow on your face."
"Oh. Does it frighten the boy?"
Bram laughed and hurt his mouth again. "After last night I think it will take more than a painted girl to scare me."
"What if I was screaming and waving a big sharp sword?"
"That might do it."
"A painted girl. No wonder you have sparring matches with your bodyguard. Is that how you talk to her?"
"I'm tempted to take you on myself."
"Be my guest."
"You obviously like it."
"Iron sharpens iron."
"Is that an expression in your world?"
"What other expressions can you teach me?"
"Expressions? How about how now brown cow?"
"What does that mean?"
"It's difficult. It's very deep."
His mother was watching him ride next to Denivina as she rocked gently in the wagon, her hand to her husband's forehead. "I feel as if he has grown up in just one night."
The Lord of Stronn rode a large chestnut stallion next to her. "A battle will do that. Especially a battle in which he played such a key role."
"Do you really think that?"
"It's not a matter of opinion. It's simply a fact. Had your son not stood true until Brimm and your daughter reached him Ro would have poured over the bridge. You could not have stopped them all. I could not have stopped them all. He bought us time. He bears the price of that on his body."
"Will you be able to heal them? Bram. Morgandy. Affrica. Your own boy."
"Oh yes. There will be some scarring. But not much, I hasten to assure you. I would give it a few months."
"When will we be able to cross over to the Sixth Ring with my husband?"
"That depends, dear lady."
"On how long it takes the five of you to prepare yourselves. You must understand. You will get one opportunity, and only one, to take Pilgrimage to Strake. If you are not ready, and you make the attempt, it will kill you. Flat out kill you, as I have heard your people say. There will be no second chance. No mercy."
"Who will do this to us? The enemy we fought last night? Some other power? God?"
The Eye shrugged. "It is simply a law of nature."
Morgandy rode her horse behind Bram's and next to Fallon's. "What will they be doing now back on Earth?"
"Cleaning up," responded Fallon. "That will take the greater part of the day, I understand. They will not eat. Only drink. And just water at that. The ashes must be collected into the urns. The broken swords and spears gathered."
"People will come along the path walking their dogs and see them in their armour and cloaks."
"No. They'll be in jeans and T shirts by now."
"Won't they be exhausted?"
"They're still running on adrenaline. At night they'll have a quiet ceremony. They will bury the urns of the Sorans. Then they will turn in after they have seen to their horses. Sleep till noon. When they wake up they'll eat their first meal together. So it says in the books."
"What about the wounded?"
"Well, the most serious cases will have been hospitalized by now. Like Uncle Brian. He needs blood. And antibiotics."
"What will Ahearn and Devnet say to the hospital staff?"
"Farm accidents. Accidents at the archery range. This man fell off a horse and was dragged. This woman chopped her foot splitting kindling. There are a million ways to explain the injuries."
"What about the enemy wounded?"
"That's tricky. They will certainly try and turn them to the good."
"What if they can't?"
"I only know what I've read. They are often successful."
"But what if they're not?"
"I only know what I've read."
Brimm rode along beside Merin. Night, Twilght, and Dusk trotted ahead of them. He kept glancing at the streak of blood on her tunic. Finally she glared at him.
"Brimm. Stop worrying. I'm a big girl now. I put a fresh bandage on it. That's old blood."
"But how are you feeling?"
"Wonderful. Okay? You're the one who looks like roasted meat."
"I envied you your smooth head."
"Yes, and so now we're a pair."
"A pair of what?"
"A pair of Urans. A pair of Sorans. A pair of friends. Is there something else? Oh yes. A pair of skinheads."
Brimm was silent. She looked over to see if he was sulking because she had not said "a pair in love" and was about to chastise him with, "Brimm, we're only children, I'm fond of you but we're a long way from happily ever after," when she realized he was not beside her but miles away. So she did not speak.
Finally he cleared his throat. "Merin, you know how you can feel someone is looking at you even when your back is turned?"
"Do you think you can feel it when someone is thinking about you?"
"Do you think you can tell what they're thinking?"
"I'm not sure about that. But I believe you know whether their thoughts are good or bad."
"What's this about?"
"Someone is thinking about me."
"So you have a secret love, is that what you're trying to get across?"
"This is no secret love. The person hates me. It's like a dagger slipping into the back of my neck. Merin, have you talked with your father yet about the situation here in Ur? About what's happening in Kamar of the Rivers? About the Mage?"
"No. There hasn't been an opportunity."
"I believe the Mage is gaining back his strength far more quickly than your father thought possible."
"Why do you say that?"
But Brimm did not speak again. He kept staring ahead at the mountains and Merin thought his face looked like a crag chiselled out of rock and ice.
Her father had moved his horse alongside Tere's. "What news of the Mage?" he asked his commander.
"Some say he is in Zan, others in Yar. But he's back all right. A deputation has already approached the King."
"The Master of Ro himself. He claims you ambushed his troops and put them to the sword even though no state of war exists between Stronn and Ro. His argument did not get far. The Court Advocate, Hellet Streen, pointed out that the bulk of the fighting occurred in another world, not Sora, and that you fought in your rightful capacity as a Guardian. She argued that in Ur you raised the sword to defend the village of Drun. Ro said the villagers ambushed his soldiers but even the King did not believe that."
"What is the mind of the King?"
"He does not want any trouble. He won't do anything against us. But he won't do anything against Ro or the Mage either."
"So where is Ro now?"
"Still in Kamar. My last messenger came just before you emerged from the Gap."
"And what of the Mage's health?"
"Some say he is at the point of death. Others that he recovers rapidly. I think it is better for us to act on the latter opinion."
"So do I."
Affrica pulled up her horse beside Denivina. "May I join you two?"
"Of course. I am Denivina."
"The boy's bodyguard."
"Has he been telling stories?"
"Many. I find him a handful. It reminds me of babysitting three holy terrors without any idea of when the parents are coming home."
"Babysitting!" shot Bram. ""And how old are you, Denivina Stronn? You can't be a day over sixteen."
"I can. Three months and two days over."
"You're both still teenagers. No different from me."
"We're both taller," said Affrica.
"We won't be paired up long enough for you to see the day when you can look down on me, boy."
"That depends on how many years it takes to reach the Sixth Ring. You've sworn to protect me, right?"
Affrica looked at Denivina. "Some days he will need a bodyguard to protect him from his bodyguard."
Denivina laughed and spurred her horse to a faster trot. They had been riding over long fields and hills of pure white snow that gleamed like polished armour. Tere had delibertaely steered them away from the burnt village but the smell of it was still on the air and many of the men and women and their children glanced to the north from time to time. Now they crested a short slope and Denivina pointed, standing in her stirrups. A castle stood gold against the blue sky and white mountains.
"My home," she said.
Morgandy recognized it instantly. "I drew that. With chalk. At my house on Earth."
"It is in the Book of Nine," said Affrica.
"But I drew it before I opened the Book of Nine."
"Did you?" The Lord of Stronn was beside her, reining in his chestnut stallion and tugging at his white beard.
"Fallon remembers me telling her about it."
"It's the most beautiful castle I've ever seen. The stones are so bright. It's like a star resting among the mountains."
The Eye smiled. "Have you ever lived in a castle, girl?"
"Never. I've always dreamed about it. I suppose most boys and girls do. Are there tapestries in your castle?"
"And huge fireplaces?"
"Many more. We can place whole trees in some."
"What about a great hall where you feast and roar and bards tell tales?" asked Bram.
"We have that."
"Secret tunnels? Winding stairways? Vaulted ceilings? Ghosts?"
"Why, Master Bram, Lady Morgandy, we waste our time sitting here looking at the Yellow Castle and talking about what is within when we may just as easily ride through its gates and see for ourselves. You have faced the hardest night of your young lives. Ahead of you is a task infinitely harder. Your hearts are grim with the death of family and friends and the dark sleep of your father. It is right that you have some days of laughter to balance out the days of struggle. Castles are good for that. My horse needs a run. If you beat me to the walls I will see you each get a jewelled sword and gold shield from the House of Stronn."
He shouted and his horse leaped across the snow. It took only a moment and Bram and Morgandy were flying after him, their mounts kicking up clumps of ice and dirt. And as they tore across the white landscape towards the mountains and castle their bodyguards came after them, cloaks streaming, horses' hooves thundering, whooping as loudly as the sister and brother who had already passed the Lord of Stronn and now raced neck and neck for the drawbridge and high golden turrets and rooftops the colour of the risen sun.