There was no rhythm to it, no melody to find, no predictable rise or fall to thundering notes. Instead it was the sound of instruments at war with one another, screeching and bellowing as they strove to be heard. Lara Jansen stumbled under the cacophony, battered by it from all sides, and wondered what had gone wrong. She had traveled between worlds twice before–once under her own power, which should have been impossible. Even then, though, the pathway between her home and the elfin world called the Barrow-lands hadn’t been fraught with agonizing, aggressive music.
Then again, her power had been significantly less well developed then, and she knew already that the worldwalking spell distorted the very weft of the universe. It was a magic not meant to be: her world and the Barrow-lands were barely meant to touch, much less to be traversed regularly. That was a truth she knew in her bones, in the same way she’d always known whether she was being lied to. Falsehood had rung sour notes in her mind as far back as she could remember, and that gift now said the magic that thrust her between worlds was dangerously wrong.
More, there was the staff she carried: taller than she was and carved of ivory, it contained power that could break worlds. Its presence could well distort the spell further. It seemed unlikely that a thing with such destructive capability would be welcomed in any world, and entirely possible that a land of magic might struggle to keep it away.
The music surrounding her surged, stringed instruments breaking with groaning snaps, keyboards playing flat and sharp with desperation. A vocalist joined the music in Lara’s mind, searching for a harmony until her voice turned to an unholy shriek. Lara clapped her hands to her ears, falling face-first as she was pitched into the Barrow-lands. She hit the ground with a grunt, the staff’s intricate carvings cutting into her palms as she clutched it, determined not to let go.
Music turned to the sounds of battle: to cries of pain and anger, to the metallic bash of blades, and to the incessant rumble of hooves against packed earth. A singular, voluble curse shot out above the rest of the uproar. Lara cowered as hooves flashed over her head, a horse’s belly looking broad and endless above her. There was almost no time for panic, just a single terrified lurch of her heart that twisted into unexpected awe. She’d seen animals leap cameras in film, but the effect paled beside actually having a thousand pounds of horseflesh sail overhead.
No one, she thought, no one in her right mind would take time out from being nearly trampled to think how poorly cinema compared to reality in such situations. And because truth was her gift, and lies came hard to her, it seemed likely that in that moment, she was very probably not in her right mind.
Nothing else would explain why she scrambled to her feet, using the staff as leverage, and whipped to face an oncoming army. A rear vanguard, perhaps, given the sounds of fighting that came from behind her, but still enough to be called an army. What had once been meadow lands were flattened into green-streaked dirt beneath the horses’ hooves, fresh earth ripped free and offering a loamy scent to counteract the tang of blood in the air.
The riders wore armor of moonlight silver, sculpted and patterned so delicately it looked like it couldn’t possibly withstand a single blow, much less the height of war. Lara knew better: she had worn a suit of the armor once, and for all its lightweight beauty, it was improbably strong as well. There was magic in its forging, as there seemed to be magic in every aspect of the Barrow-lands.
Cries of surprise rose up as the battle host swept to either side of her, leaving her a fixed point in a thundering wave of riders. Pale color shot by: white, golden, strawberry blonde hair streaming from beneath silver helmets, and blue and green and yellow gazes glancing her way as the riders rushed past. They were Seelie, these riders, obvious even if their moonlit armor hadn’t told her so; the Seelie as a race were stripped of vivid colors, as if too many eons of living under moonlight had drained their vitality.
It made it all the more unlikely that the man she had come to save, Dafydd ap Caerwyn, prince of the Seelie court, had caught her heart with his vivacious nature and love for life. That, and his recognition of Lara’s truthsensing ability. In the first astonishing hours they’d known each other, he had named her a truthseeker, and asked for her help in finding a murderer.
And he had, in the end, found himself dying in her world because her talent was immature. The man who had returned him to the Barrow-lands and to a hope of survival was by all reasonable account the enemy: Ioan ap Annwn, who led the Unseelie army behind her.
He was Dafydd’s brother, and his presence complicated the already-astounding elfin world Lara had been thrust into.
But then, her presence complicated things, too, and unlike the first time she’d come to the Barrow-lands, she was much more competent and confident in her magic. More, she was armed now with a staff that fought eagerly to release its power, as if it had a life and personality of its own. It had sent tremors through her own world. She was certain that in this one, where it had come from, it was a force to be reckoned with.
Without fully considering her actions, Lara lifted the staff in both hands and slammed it end-down into the torn ground.
It groaned, waves rippling away from the epicenter she’d made. Discordant music erupted around her again, though this time she heard a thin true note buried in the sour tune. There was no time to follow it: keeping her feet took all her concentration, and the riders surging around her had no less trouble with their mounts. The sky boiled over with a spiral of clouds, the staff’s magic reaching as high as it did low. It urged destruction, eager to lash out with pain and–it seemed to Lara–vengeance. She tightened her hands around it, feeling the carvings press into her palms, and whispered against the cool ivory, reminding it. Reminding herself. “A truthseeker of legend, at the height of her power, could say a thing, make a prediction, and by force of will make it come true.
“This is true, then: you will not destroy the Barrow-lands while I wield you. I will temper your magic and guide it, and you will bend to my will. This thing I say is true!”
The words built to a crescendo in her mind, then released with a flood of pure song that roared across the staff’s more static will. Strength surged out of Lara so quickly that only her grip on the rod kept her on her feet–but the earth’s rumbling ceased, and the skies, if not suddenly clear, at least stopped their boiling. She put her forehead against the stave, feeling its objection to the limits she’d enforced, but certain her desire to do no harm had mitigated the staff’s passion for destruction.
A fleeting thought crossed her mind: that the weapon was humoring her, and would only behave so long as doing so suited it. For anyone else, it would be a fanciful idea, but there was no inherent dissonance, suggesting there was truth to it.
That was a problem to be considered later. A voice broke through the other sounds of battle, and Lara lifted her gaze to find the man who bellowed, “Truthseeker!” with such fury.
Emyr, king of the Seelie court, bore down on Lara with his sword bared and hatred raging in his cold blue gaze.
The part of her that had become bold in the past few weeks felt the impulse to stand her ground, to see if the Seelie king would swerve at the last moment. Pragmaticism prevailed, though, and she ducked to the side, trusting Emyr’s guards not to trample her more than she trusted the king himself. Emyr wheeled his horse, dirt flying from beneath its hooves, and charged at her a second time. This time his honor guard scattered to avoid him, and Lara found herself abruptly alone on broken earth, awaiting a fate she had no way to avoid.
Then another rider was between her and the king, so sudden, so close, that a collision between them should be impossible to avoid. Lara caught a glimpse of fresh anger twisting Emyr’s face before his horse gathered itself and leapt effortlessly over the intrusive rider and Lara alike. Not effortlessly: it couldn’t be effortlessly, not with the scant feet the beast had to prepare itself, not with the height it had to clear, even with the interfering rider ducking low against the saddle. But to Lara’s eye it looked as though Emyr and his mount had suddenly, carelessly, decided to ignore the law of gravity, and by so choosing had ceased being in its thrall.
The crash with which they came down on her far side belied their weightlessness. Soft earth gave way, the horse sinking to its ankles as the ground shook with its impact. Lara gasped, fear for the animal’s well-being surging up, but it barely stumbled as it continued forward, then came around again under Emyr’s guidance.
“He’ll ride you down.” A gauntleted hand thrust itself into Lara’s vision, fingers grasping in invitation. Lara heard the truth in the words and seized the offered hand, then shouted with surprise as the rider hauled her bodily upward. She caught a glimpse of white hair, of green eyes, and then she was seated behind the rider and gasping with astonishment. Her savior, Aerin, owed her nothing, much less a life-saving gesture–especially since the last time they’d seen one another, Lara had broken the Seelie woman’s elegant nose.
“What audacity is this!” Emyr did ride them down, broadsiding Aerin’s horse with his own, though the quick-footed Seelie mount did no more than dance a few steps to the side. Lara shrieked and slammed one arm around Aerin’s waist, holding on desperately while trying not to drop the staff. She had been horseback a countable number of times in her life. A second impact would dislodge her.
And Emyr knew it. He pulled his horse around, leveling his blade at Lara, though his words were for Aerin. “The mortal is mine!”
“The mortal,” Aerin said with remarkable calm, though she had to bellow to be heard over the battle, “is our only chance at learning what’s happened to your son and heir, my lord.”
Dismay turned to a cold weight in Lara’s stomach, beating back the heat of the day. “Dafydd didn’t make it back?”
Aerin half-turned in the saddle, managing to give Lara a cool look for all that she was visible as little more than a helmeted profile. “Dafydd ap Caerwyn disappeared on the battlefield this half-year ago, moments before you joined forces with the Unseelie heir.”
“Joi–” Lara thunked her head forward, not caring that it met Aerin’s cold silver armor. “You mean before he seized me. Or kidnapped me, more accurately. Not that it was actually Ioan…” She trailed off as the difficulty of explaining her adventures washed over her and left her voiceless. “Half a year,” she said much more quietly. She had been torn from her own timeline when she’d traveled from the Barrow-lands back to Earth without an elfin guide, but had hoped this journey might not have thrown time so badly askew. “Aerin, I have a lot–”
She broke off again, realizing it wasn’t the Seelie warrior with whom she needed to speak. She straightened her spine and called for an unfamiliar form of address, putting as much deference into it as she could: “Your majesty, the last I knew, your son was alive.” Not well: she couldn’t go so far as to intimate that, not with her talent and reputation for truth-telling. But alive, and she hoped that would at least offer some reassurance. “I understand I have a lot of explaining to do. This obviously isn’t the place to do it.” She gestured at the battlefield, feeling a thrum of eagerness from the ivory staff she carried. It saw the potential for destruction in the on-going war, and was willing to help express that potential to its fullest. Fingers tightening, she quelled it and turned her attention back to Emyr. “If I might beg clemency until the day’s fighting is through, your majesty, so I can tell you what’s happened under quieter circumstances…”
It wasn’t cold. Six months may have passed, but the weather was as it had been when Lara left: clear, hot, beautiful. She’d passed from winter to late summer when she’d traveled to Earth under her own power, but what little she knew of the Barrow-lands made it seem possible that there was no winter season, only endless summer. Summer or not, though, a cold front rolled over her as Emyr’s expression grew ever-more frigid. The king’s element, Dafydd had told Lara, was ice. It imbued him even when he was at rest, his skin so pale its shadows were cool blue, and his hair silvered with its seeming. She’d seen how it grew around his throne and up the walls of his chambers when he was angry. It now crept across muddy grass, turning stalks to crystalline streaks in the muck. Aerin’s horse lifted an impatient foot and smacked it down amidst crackling earth, and blew a frosty breath into the summer afternoon.
“Call my guard back,” Emyr said after long moments. “Sound the retreat. Hafgan’s army will not press the advantage; they are as weary as we, and it will cause worry that we fall back. I will hear what the truthseeker has to say.”
Lara lowered her gaze and murmured “Thank you,” an instant too early. Emyr spat his final words as though they were knives: “And if her answers are unsatisfactory, I will see her executed before dawn.”
Out September 2011
(x-posted from the essential kit)