In this post we present the opening chapter of A Bridge from Balor, a historical fantasy set in Medieval Ireland.
Ireland, 1305. Six are called: warrior, druid, healer, scholar, harper, witch. Summoned in a dream on the Eve of May, they are charged by the Earth itself to thwart an invasion from another realm.
On the Eve of Beltaine, the First of May, the young Lord Farrel dreamed a vivid and peculiar dream.
Transported to a grassy hilltop near the boundary of his lands, he found himself wandering among massive, tumbled stones—the ruins of an ancient ring fort. An old, slender moon glided low in the east. Rolls of mist, glistening in the moonlight, floated about the hill and over the plains below. The countryside, green and lush with Spring, shimmered with a ghostly, emerald glow.
Farrel shuddered at a disturbing sense of the uncanny: he knew he was dreaming, yet the dream felt undeniably real. Ring forts and other such ruins were known to be the haunts of faeries. Sensible folk shunned such places—especially at night.
A murmur of voices reached Farrel from higher up the hill. Just then a bank of mist parted and he saw a man and woman standing together before a crumbled gray wall. The man, dressed in long robes of gold and white, pointed a crooked wand at Farrel.
“Come forward and join us,” he called.
Instinctively, the young chieftain glanced down to see if he was armed. But the broad, studded belt over his linen tunic held neither sword nor dagger. Farrel set his jaw and put a slight swagger in his gait as he marched toward the two strangers.
The man looked mortal enough, and seemed about Farrel’s age of twenty. He was tall, perhaps half a head above Farrel’s considerable height, and well-made, though he lacked the Lord of Tronwall’s deepness of chest and wide, brawny shoulders. The stranger’s beard, the same tawny color as his unshorn hair, curled long and full but retained the softness of youth. It looked like yellow down compared to Farrel’s scruffy black beard.
The girl seemed even younger than the man. Trim and fair, she wore the simple skirt, blouse, and bodice of a country maid. A bright plaid kerchief bound her auburn hair.
“Who are you?” Farrel demanded of them both. “How have I come here? Stolen from my bed by faeries, was I?”
“Not quite.” The man gave a wry smile. He gazed at Farrel’s forehead as though reading an invisible scroll there. “You, so I behold, are the young Lord Farrel, Chieftain of Tronwall on the northern coast.”
Farrel gestured broadly to the countryside at his back. “That is part of my lands, as are these hills. Making you my guests, or foes. Which is it?”
“I am no enemy, I assure you,” the young woman answered. “I only arrived a moment ago, and was about to ask this man if he knew how I came to be here.”
“We are all of us here in a dream,” the other said, “a dream we share together, if you can conceive of such a thing. What I know of it, I know in the manner of dreamers. For instance, this lovely green-eyed girl is Glenna, a maid of Tirawley and apprentice to the healing woman of Nephinwood. As for me, I speak my true name only to trusted friends. Yet such, I feel certain, you both must be—or become. I am Valin, initiate of the Oak Priests.”
“A druid then.” Farrel’s voice took on a calmer tone.
From earliest times the druids had been the magicians, priests, and law-givers of his race. Even in this Christian age, the Old Ways had a following, especially in the wild places of forest and upland. A druid was a man of mystery and power, respected by all save the most arrogant churchmen and lords.
“Why have we been brought here, druid?” Farrel asked.
“No doubt we will learn that in time,” Valin said. “But I sense our circle is not yet complete. Look, another joins us.”
With his short wooden wand he gestured down the hill, to where a maiden was stepping among the fallen stones. She wore a gown of white linen, loose and frayed. A girdle of new flowers circled her waist, and a similar wreath of blooms crowned her abundant, gold-red hair. Gazing up at the three dreamers, she gave a wild, gleeful smile. She came toward them barefoot, treading lightly.
“I have dreamed this dream before,” she said. “But always before I dreamed alone. This time we dream together, do we not? For I feel each of you is truly here with me: Valin, Glenna, Farrel, most brave and true.”
Speaking their names, she touched each on the arm, touching Farrel last and allowing her fingers to trace over his hand. She stared at him with mad, enchanting eyes.
Farrel stared back, utterly captivated. A moment passed before he collected himself and gruffly cleared his throat.
“Young woman, you seem to know more of this than we do. Perhaps you can tell us the reason we are here.”
The girl shrugged, looking about. “My dream never went past our meeting. But is not our meeting enough on such a glorious night?”
“You are Kerrawyn,” Valin intoned, “daughter of a mortal lass and some elf-man she met on Midsummer’s Eve …”
“And never thought to ask his name,” Kerrawyn said, “so beguiled was she by his wild faery charms. Yes, I am Kerrawyn the wood-witch, friend to birds and water-sprites, lover of bright flowers. Is not Spring the sweetest time of year?”
“This Spring is tainted by a threat,” Valin murmured, looking aloft. “Though as yet I cannot discern its shape. Wait, two more arrive—to complete our assembly, I think.”
They followed his gaze to where a young man and woman emerged from the mist, climbing the slope toward them. The man, clean-shaven except for a thin mustache, was of middle stature, slim and angular. The girl was only a bit smaller and very pretty, with black hair cut short above her shoulders. Both wore traveling garb, colorful woolen cloaks and soft leathers.
As he approached, the young man scrutinized each of the dreamers, his dark eyes keen beneath a red cockade hat.
“An unlikely conclave, this. And why my sister and I find ourselves here I confess I cannot fathom. You look as if you may have authority here.”
He had addressed the last remark to Valin, staring at the druid with a mixture of irony, confusion, and belligerence.
“I am merely a dreamer like you,” Valin replied. “I perceive that you are Sontoral and Aidan, children of the Lord and Lady of Caer Wold in Wales, now deceased.”
“Aye, our parents are dead seven years,” Sontoral answered. “Murdered by the local Norman tyrant in order to steal our lands. But how do you know who we are?”
“He sees with the druid’s sight,” Farrel answered.
Valin continued, addressing Sontoral: “Further, I learn you are a harper of the ancient school. And though only a journeyman, already your name carries some fame, owing to certain satires against the English and their king. While your sister, despite her youth, is an accomplished scribe and scholar, a preserver of traditional verse and lore.”
“So you know us,” Aidan said, “while we know nothing of you save that you speak the Irish tongue.”
“That is meet, for we stand on Erinn’s soil,” Valin replied, “though your bodies lie asleep across the sea. I am Valin. Here is Glenna, Farrel, Kerrawyn …”
The druid paused, brow wrinkled, as though he listened to some internal voice. “I sense that we six are sharing this dream at the behest of some unknown power … Three women and three men, all born within the same three-year. Druid, warrior, harper, healer, scholar, witch: each of us is needed.”
“Needed for what?” Farrel demanded. “You bewilder us with a tangle of details while claiming ignorance of this central question: Why are we brought here?”
Valin chuckled and scratched his bearded chin with the tip of his wand. “That is the central question,” he agreed. “Let us sit and listen for the answer.”
He sat down on the ground with legs folded. Kerrawyn nodded and followed his example.
“And to what are you listening?” Sontoral asked.
“Inner voices speak with wisdom to the spirit,” Valin replied, “provided one has the wisdom to listen.”
Glenna glanced around at the others, shrugged and sat down beside the druid. Farrel waited a moment more, then flopped himself down as well.
“A stranger dream than this was never dreamed,” he grumbled.
“Shhh,” Valin held up a hand, eyes shut, a look of keen attention on his face.
Only Aidan and Sontoral remained standing, wearing grim and baffled expressions.
Presently, Valin rose to his feet. “The dream will provide our answer,” he said. “Look there!”
He pointed his wand into the mist, which immediately retreated, rolling back from the hilltop. In moments the whole countryside in that direction lay uncovered, flat marshland stretched beneath the moon and stars.
From the center of the marsh, faintly visible against the sky, rose an arc of blue light, sweeping up in a tremendous curve until lost in the outer firmament.
The sight filled the dreamers with a feeling of awe and foreboding. For several moments, none of them spoke.
“What is it?” Glenna asked finally. “A bridge,” Valin whispered, “a bridge from another world.”
The arc of light grew brighter, till it flashed with dazzling brilliance. Then the vision shifted and the dreamers stood upon the marsh, the bridge of light before them like a huge, gleaming tower.
Gradually, the marshland surrounding the bridge began to change. Reeds and rushes withered and died. The marshwater drifted with oily smears, dead fish and frogs floating on the surface. Trees on the surrounding hillsides rotted and fell. The soil turned ashen, and the very air shimmered with dank, fetid gasses.
Nature spirits, visible to the dreamers’ eyes, rose twisting from their dwelling places in root, stream, and rock, driven out by this foreign power unleashed upon the Earth.
Kerrawyn seemed to share the spirits’ agony. She cried out as if in pain, covered her face and wept. Farrel hesitated, then drew her close and held her against his shoulder. Frail and birdlike, she trembled in his arms. With one hand he caressed her wild hair.
When Farrel looked up again his breath caught in his throat. Creatures were gliding down the bridge and emerging on the marsh. Huge and monstrous they were, with bulky shoulders, sallow hides, and sloping, hairless skulls. Armed with axes and hammers the first group of creatures slogged forward, approaching the dreamers.
Farrel lifted Kerrawyn in his arms, preparing to flee. Sontoral and Glenna recoiled. But the druid held up his arms.
“No need to fear,” he said. “These beings are only images, portents of what might be. They cannot harm us, yet.”
The chieftain of Tronwall was not entirely convinced. But he set the young woman down behind him and stood his ground. Clustered near the druid, the dreamers stared as the fearsome creatures marched to within a few yards of them—and moved on.
As the monsters slouched by Farrel gazed at them with sickening fascination. Though surely no beings of Earth, they yet stirred dim primordial memories that filled him with loathing and hate.
Abruptly the vision altered again. Now the dreamers saw a fleeting succession of images: the creatures stalking through the night, approaching huts and cottages near the marsh, smashing down doors and walls to drag the inhabitants from their beds. Farrel heard the screams of women as they watched their husbands butchered, the wailing of babes lifted from their cribs to be torn apart by fiendish hands. Helpless to stop the appalling vision, he watched many of his clanspeople dragged back to the marsh to be devoured alive.
On that grisly scene the vision mercifully faded. Farrel found himself with the other dreamers, standing on the hilltop once more. Across the lowlands, shrouded in mist, the arc of blue light faintly glowed. Aghast, the dreamers gazed at one another.
“I am ready for this dream to end now,” Sontoral the harper declared.
“What meaning do you read in all this?” Aidan, the harper’s sister, asked the druid.
“A warning of invasion from another realm,” Valin muttered, plainly as shaken as the others. “A prodigious omen, especially outlandish in this age when the Earth is receding from contiguous worlds. Still, if true, it would explain why we are assembled here. Of old, the Earth protected herself by summoning her children to her defense. From this it would follow that we six are called upon to foil the invasion.”
“How can we do so?” Farrel demanded, enraged by what he had seen.
Valin sighed. “That answer I do not have. When I wake I will seclude myself in the forest and try to learn more of this bridge of light. I have many allies who may give me counsel. If I learn that this dream portends a true danger, I will summon each of you, in the waking world.”
“This has been most fascinating,” Sontoral remarked. “But now my sister and I are ready for more ordinary dreams.”
He gripped Aidan’s wrist and started to leave. But she held back, unsure.
“Do you mean you would refuse to help us?” the druid said.
Sontoral frowned and cleared his throat before answering. “I am sorry. But Aidan and I have other schemes to hatch, and flesh-and-blood enemies to fight.”
“What enemies?” Farrel asked.
Sontoral gave a hard smile. “Some things are better not spoken of, even in dreams.”
He tugged Aidan’s arm. But before she could turn away Kerrawyn spoke out in loud and forceful voice.
“Sontoral and Aidan belong to the Society of the Black Glove, a secret band dedicated to driving the English from Wales.”
The Welshman and his sister froze, glowering at the witch. “I suppose an inner voice told you this?” the harper said.
“Friends,” Kerrawyn stared at them earnestly, her eyes still wet with tears. “Your own minds told me this. Sometimes when thoughts are strongly felt—as yours in this are strong as iron—I hear them in my head as clear as voices. You have no enemies here. I spoke only to show you that I understand your duty to your people. Yet I beg you to put that aside for a time, because I feel in my heart how sorely we may need your help.”
Sontoral scowled and looked away. But his sister returned Kerrawyn’s gaze for a long moment, like one enspelled by a glamour. Finally, Aidan shook her head.
“I do not know how to answer. All this is a dream, as we all agree. Yet I cannot escape the feeling that what we have seen portended is real.”
Suddenly the hilltop brightened. The dreamers glanced about, then upward, for it seemed the glaring light shone from above—a blue light like the one that gleamed over the marsh.
“We are discovered,” Valin cried, holding up his wand as if for protection.
With a cringing in his gut, Farrel sensed a presence, a powerful awareness probing his mind. The blue light intensified to a piercing flash that sizzled, then clapped like thunder.
Next moment, the six sleepers in their far-flung bodies awoke.