Silver's Edgeby Anne Kelleher
There is more danger than usual in the Otherworld of the Sidhe and the mortal world of the Shadowlands. An unlikely group of conspiratorsboth mortal and Sidheplot to overthrow both thrones. They have stolen the silver caul that protected the borders between the realmsand set into motion a most/p>/strong>… See more details below
There is more danger than usual in the Otherworld of the Sidhe and the mortal world of the Shadowlands. An unlikely group of conspiratorsboth mortal and Sidheplot to overthrow both thrones. They have stolen the silver caul that protected the borders between the realmsand set into motion a most perilous war .
A Blacksmith's Daughter, A Sidhe Lady, A Mortal Queen
Three women stand against the encroaching evil. All they have is a girl's love for her father, a lady's for her queenand a queen's for her country. Nessa, Delphinea and Cecily are each driven by a personal destiny, yet share a fierce sense of love, justice and determination to protect what is theirs. Will the spirit and strenght of these women be enough to turn back the tide of the goblin hordes waiting to overrun the kingdoms?
Perhaps. But the battle must still be fought .
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Down dusty roads the child fled, heart drumming in her thin chest like the gallop of a thousand horses, chased from sleep by hulking hordes of goblins who grabbed at her with gleaming teeth and outstretched claws. She startled awake, the echoes of her dream screams dying in her ears, crying aloud at the sight of the banked grate, where the coals glowed like red eyes in the dark room. A cold wind was howling in the trees, and the window rattled in its frame. A gusty draft stirred the curtains just as something crashed onto the roof above her head. She cried again, louder now, and yanked her thick woolen blanket higher, the rest of her small body stiffening with dread, the whole house, it seemed, shuddering under the impact.
"Nessie? You all right?" Her father's broad face loomed out of the shadows of the doorway, his white nightshirt luminous in the gray light. He came closer, feet bare, the black hair on his chest curling out of the open collar of his nightshirt. A dark haze of beard shadowed his chin. Disheveled and bleary-eyed as he was, the sight of him relaxed her instantly, even as the sound of something scraping against the windowpane made her eyes widen once more.
"Papa, the goblins," she moaned. "They're chasing me -- there's one outside my window --"
"Hush, now." His voice was a gravelly rumble as compelling as distant thunder. "That's nothing but the branch I should've had the sense to cut down long before this. The wind brought it down, that's all. There're no goblins outside, not now, not ever."
Cautiously the child peered over the homespun sheet, which was soft with many washings. Her father had spoken, her father who was the rock at the center of her world. Her father was Dougal the village blacksmith and the best armorer for leagues around. Even the mighty Duke of Gar came to Dougal when he wanted a new sword or dagger. "But, Papa," she whispered, "Granny Wren, tonight, at the Gathering, she said the goblins come a-hunting little children -- little children is what they like best to eat."
With a stifled hiss of exasperation, the blacksmith crossed the small space to his daughter's bed and knelt on the ragged scrap of rug. "Ah, little one, Granny Wren likes to hear herself talk. It's how she knows she's still alive, I think, for there's no other reason for half the things she says. But come now, didn't you also hear her speak of Bran? Bran Brownbeard, the greatest smith there ever was, in either Brynhyvar or the OtherWorld, the place called TirNa'lugh?" He paused. Her dark eyes were bright in her rosy little face and she shook her head, falling readily into the spell his whisper wove. "Perhaps you'd already gone to sleep by then? Hmm? Such a tired little girl I carried home tonight." He smiled and smoothed the dark, damp curls off her forehead, his thick slab of a hand bigger than her entire face.
"Bran Brownbeard was a mighty mortal man, who with the help of the Queen of the sidhe and her magic, forged the Silver Caul that lies upon the moonstone globe in the great palace in the very heart of the OtherWorld."
"What's a call, Papa?"
"A caul, sweetling. It's like -- like a net, or loosely woven blanket, made of purest silver."
"How'd he do that, Papa?"
"He took silver, for silver hurts the goblin, and the sidhe, too, more than anything else -- it burns them and that's why a mortal man was needed to do it -- and with the sidhe Queen of the OtherWorld, who hates the Goblin King, for he would take her kingdom if he could, together they worked great magic and made a powerful web of finest strands of purest silver. They called it the Silver Caul, and the Queen took it to her palace, and there she placed it over a great green moonstone, and there it lies to this very day, keeping the goblins out of Brynhyvar."
"Why does silver hurt the goblins?"
"I don't know rightly, sweetling. But it's why we wear these --" He fumbled at the neck of his nightshirt and dangled his silver amulet on its leather cord before her.
"That's why we must never take it off?"
"Exactly. The silver protects us."
"But, Papa, if the Silver Caul keeps the goblins out, why must we wear silver, too?"
Because there are worse things than goblins, he nearly replied. It was the race that called themselves the sidhe that were the worst of all, for they seduced mortals with promises of otherworldly delight, leading them to vanish out of sight and time. Your own mother was snared by one of them, he almost said, but he caught himself. They were treading dangerously close to questions for which he must carefully consider the replies. He pushed aside the curtain and peered out into the night. It was coming up to dawn. The low-lying clouds overlay a sky of lighter gray. Time to stir the oats he'd set to cook last night in the great iron kettle nestled in the warm forge, to check for damage left by the now-passing storm, to try to decide what to tell the child if her questions led them to the subject of her mother, and if she were old enough to know even part of the truth.
"Not now, sweetheart. I'll tell you the story later. I promise. But 'tis so late, it's early, and I must be about my work. You go back to sleep for a bit, it's too cold to be running about early today." He kissed each one of her grubby little fingers in turn, noticing how pink they were beneath a thin layer of grime, then rose to go. He resolved to remember to drag the bathtub from the shed beside the kitchen before nightfall. Her eyelids were already beginning to droop.
"But, Papa?" Her voice stopped him at the door. "The Silver Caul? That's what keeps the goblins away? For real?"
"There are no goblins in Brynhyvar, Nessa. I promise. So back to sleep with you, now, like a good girl."
"Yes, Papa." She shut her eyes with a sigh.
He ducked his head beneath the uneven frame of the low doorway and paused to look over his shoulder at the little face lying on the pillow. Dearer to him than all he owned, dearer than life, she was. He had lost her mother to the sidhe, and he was determined such a fate should never befall her daughter. Such a headstrong little thing, she could be, so like her mother, curious and engaging. But if she seemed more interested in the fire and the forge, hammer and tongs, than in the tools of more womanly pursuits, so much the better. Better her mind be full of iron, he thought, than the sort of empty-headed nonsense which had contributed to her mother's disappearance.
The child curled on her side, one round cheek pillowed on her open palm, a scrap of threadbare blanket nestled beneath her chin. A line from an ancient lullaby ran through his head. The might of Bran protects thee, the Faerie Queen shall bless thee, no goblin claw will rend thee. But he took no comfort in it, for he expected no blessing from that quarter. He would see to it that if ever goblin or sidhe touched so much as a hair of his daughter's head, she would be well prepared to defend herself.
The fat spider leapt lightly along the serrated edges of the stone spikes which rose like a lizard's spine along the high back of the throne of the Goblin King. It scampered across the rough stone, anchored from above by a nearly invisible filament, darting just inches from the leathery maw of Xerruw, the Goblin King, who leaned upon one elbow and watched it with detached interest. So easily he could flick it into oblivion with a snap of his tongue. Its legs waved frantically as it manipulated the gossamer strands, as if it sensed a predator. But, though he watched it with a hungry intent, Xerruw's mind was not bent on food. Spin, little spider. You have reminded me of the value of a trap.
A smoky fire burned fitfully in the stone pit in the center of the cavernous hall, and a dull gray light filtered through the arrow slits set within the soaring arches of its central tower. A cold draft whined down from the upper reaches, but Xerruw, if he noticed the chill at all, gave no sign. He sprawled across his massive throne, which had been carved out of a boulder bigger than the huts of men, in that last happy age when the goblins reigned supreme and the sidhe cowered beneath the banks of rivers and glens, hiding in the noon, hunted at night like luminous fish flitting through the dark depths of the primeval forests. Those were the days of glory, he reflected, as he picked his teeth with the fingerbone of a human child.
It was an ancient fingerbone, worn sliver-fine from long years of gnawing -- they'd not been fortunate to find a child roaming in these lands for more time than he'd care to remember -- but he liked to fancy that it retained a hint of the sweet flavor of young man-meat, enough to envision a time still to come when, free of the fetters of sidhe magic, his kind could hunt both the human herd and the sidhe at will. So he watched the spider, sucking on his bone, while in the niches carved into the rock beneath his seat, three hags muttered among themselves as they crouched restlessly on their nests of lumpy eggs, ceaselessly complaining of the lack of meat. His gray eyes were nearly closed, and he appeared lost in thought, his attention wholly focused on the spider, but he knew that three of the six guards dicing opposite the hags were cheating on the others, and that the goblins sharpening their weapons closest by the door mumbled mutiny. Let them, he mused, enjoying the worn smoothness of the bone against his teeth. Long years he'd sat, brooding on his throne, biding his time, plotting his strategy, awaiting the very news he'd received yesterday.
For the sidhe Queen was in whelp -- the sidhe witch who dared to style herself Queen of all Faerie. It was only a matter of time now, and her power would falter, her magic naturally diminish as the birth approached, giving him at last an opening, a foothold, a chance to once again claim all of Faerie for his own. In the past weeks, he had begun to sense it -- a subtle but unmistakable weakening in the complex webs of power which held the border of the Wastelands, where her forces had driven his kind after the last war. And this time, they would attack -- not just with blades and spears, arrows and bolts, the weapons of sheer brute force. No, this time he would try something worthy of a sidhe's own cunning. He would succeed where the others of his kind had failed, catching the complacent sidhe off guard when they were most critically vulnerable. Like the spider, he mused. And like the spider, he would weave his own trap and wait.
A chill draft suddenly blasted through the hall, and the hags screeched and cackled, rocking back and forth on their haunches to protect their eggs. The blast of air was accompanied by a thunderous boom -- the sound of the inner gates closing. The scouting party had returned. But even as he was about to shift positions and settle more comfortably to await their report, Xerruw bolted upright, for he caught, just beneath the acrid smoke of the fire, a scent, at once coppery and sweet, earthy and sour, threading like a strand of yarn through the smooth texture of the air. He snarled in the direction of the hags, and rose to his feet as Iruk, the Captain of his Goblin Guard, strode in, his fellows jogging behind him, a blur of dull gray limbs and black metal in unison. The guards stopped gaming and sharpening, and looked up, sniffing expectantly. Then the hags caught the scent and their keening cries of pleasure erupted in a hungry harmony. A snarl and another hard glare silenced them, but they licked their lips and stared back at him with eager eyes. "What is this you bring?" he asked suspiciously, for the unmistakable aroma of man was in the air, and he knew already what lay within the hide-bound burden Iruk bore across his shoulders.
"Great Xerruw." Iruk circled around the fire pit, stopping at the very base of the throne. He glanced at the hags, who squatted over their nests, crooning softly, as though he half expected them to leap at him. He knelt, staggering a little beneath the weight of his burden, then bent his neck and let it roll to the first step of the throne. He pulled away the hide and the still body of a human male sprawled at the base of Xerruw's throne, fresh blood congealing on his skull and at his throat.
Xerruw stared down at the offering. His nostrils quivered and saliva flooded his mouth. But even as a ravenous hunger swelled from the pit of his belly, making it nearly impossible not to rip off the closest limb, misgiving made him raise his head and scan the faces of the guards who stared back at him with unabashed glee. Saliva ran down their jaws, and their maws quivered, nostrils flaring. The last time they'd tasted human meat was countless ages past. It was a testimony to their allegiance to him that they'd returned the carcass intact. One of them was missing.
He looked down at the dead human. It had been a big male, dark and hairy, with burly arms and massive shoulders. Strong on him, beneath the scent of blood and flesh and sweat and urine, hung the smell of smoke and burning metal. His face and beard were damp and he was nearly naked except for linen breeches and the amulet he wore around his neck. In the unsteady light, it shone with a clear, soft gleam. Xerruw's lip curled and his eyes narrowed at the sight. "Silver," he muttered. "This should not be." Silver was anathema to sidhe and to goblin, humankind's only sure defense against goblin teeth and sidhe magic. "I like this not," he said at last, shaking his heavy head. "Where did you find it?"
"By the lake. Upon the farthest shore. He did not know he'd slid across the border. We took him unawares." Iruk dragged one claw through the gelatinous clot on the human's neck, and held it out to Xerruw. The scent of the fresh kill exploded like fire through Xerruw's veins and he licked his lips without thinking.
"Do you not see the silver?" Xerruw gestured down. Iruk shrugged. "Base metal, most like. We carried him here well-wrapped -- there was no problem." He threw the clot at his lord's feet, and gazed up at him expectantly, awaiting some sign of acceptance of the kill. Xerruw squatted down, coiling his tail beneath his haunches, sniffing suspiciously. Iruk was probably right. The amulet must indeed contain a fair portion of base metal. He examined the clothing the human wore. The linen was coarse, the heavily muscled body bore testimony to a lifetime of hard labor. But the hide they'd used to wrap the human in was slightly singed where the amulet had rested, and above it, he could feel a tingle emanating from it, a shimmer in the air. It had potency, enough, then. The amulet must be cast into the deepest part of the lake, where he instinctively knew the dark waters would neutralize its corrosive effect. He pulled his dagger from his sheath and cut the leather cord around the neck. He held the amulet out to Iruk by the cord. Iruk stepped back with a hiss.
"Throw this in the lake whence it came." He pushed it closer to Iruk's face.
Iruk hissed again as the amulet swung near his jaw, jerking his head well out of reach.
"So maybe this metal is not so base, my Captain?"
"So maybe this is not so much mortal meat, my lord. Shall I throw it in the lake, too?"
"Where is Bukai?"
Their eyes collided in a challenge, as a low growl of impatience rolled through the growing crowd.
"He fell beneath the water. The mortal killed him."
Xerruw snarled, low in his throat, and shook the amulet.
"Take it." With a growl, Iruk grabbed it by the cord and dropped it into a pouch he wore at his waist. It made a slight hiss as the troll-hide closed around it. Xerruw smiled grimly. He bent and ripped a single ear off the mortal with a languid wave of his claw, and, holding it high, shook it, then crammed it into his mouth for all to see. He ripped the other ear off and tossed it to Iruk. "Get that thing out of here now," he spat out through the mouthful of flesh and blood and gristle.
Iruk nodded, satisfied, turned on his heel and stalked from the hall.
A cheer erupted from the doorways, where the inhabitants of his castle were creeping forward from their dens, drawn by the seductive scent. The hags exploded into gleeful shrieks, and the rest of the scouting party raised their arms and leapt over the fire pit, tails whipping high, joining the dance. Ogres and goblins bellowed, and more hags rushed from the cellars below to prepare the feast. He reached down, and dragged one long claw through the gelatinous clot, which oozed a metallic-smelling steam, and licked the blood slowly, thoughtfully, while his court capered and pranced around him. The silver's clear gleam troubled him, the apparent ease with which the human had slipped into Faerie troubled him.
He stared down at the hide, where the silver had left a deep mark. Amid the general rejoicing, he felt wary, suspicious. He unfolded his long frame and settled down into his throne, where the spider rested in the middle of a meticulous web. What could account for the presence of silver in Faerie?
The spider scampered higher, as the cacophony rose. Xerruw put the fragile fingerbone in his mouth once more, and crunched down harder than he intended. At once, it snapped into a shower of shards, dissolving into dust on his tongue. He gazed at the stub remaining between his fingertips. There were more goblins now, soldiers from the barracks, hags from the innermost recesses of the keep, capering around the fire pit, leaping high over the flames. Let his people dance. Perhaps this human was a sign -- a sign that soon all of Faerie would be his. His mind reeled, as instinct overwhelmed reason. The sweet human scent was sweeping him away into an ecstasy of expectation. He looked around the crowded hall, and forgot the puzzle of the silver amulet, forgot the sidhe witch Queen, forgot everything but the ripe rich aroma that thickened around his head like fog. The bloodlust surged through his veins like a burst dam.
We must grow strong. We must all grow strong. And we will grow strong. He rose to his full height and joined in the rising chorus with a roar. "We will all grow strong on human meat!"
"I'm going and you can't stop me." The flicker of the lone lantern caused shadows to quiver across Nessa's face, but the expression in her dark eyes was one of steady purpose. Griffin closed his own against thumb and forefinger, rubbing away the dry grit of exhaustion. The fat candle within the lantern hissed and spat a gob of tallow. It landed with a sizzle on the dead goblin, which lay between them, slackfaced and limp-limbed, on the straw-strewn dirt of the lean to next to Farmer Breslin's barn. The stink of singed hair mingled with the putrid odor already rising from the corpse, and Griffin had to swallow hard against a wave of nausea. "It's madness and I can't let you. Your father would kill me --"
"Not if I kill you first." She gave him one hard look, shot from under full brows which arched in a feminine replica of her father's own, then looked down at the corpse, assessed it as dispassionately as she might a lump of ore, then shifted to a more comfortable squat beside the body.
The villagers' decision to place the body in the sty had less to do with proximity or place than concern for the fact that all animals downwind of it within a certain radius whimpered and pulled on their tethers, or pushed against whatever confined them, and it was hoped that the odor might be masked somewhat by the smell emanating from the sty. But the earthy aroma of the pigs was like perfume compared to the reeking miasma which clogged Griffin's nose. He steeled himself against the stench, and leaned over the body, his voice a husky whisper. "What if you can't find him? What if you can't get back? What if everyone thinks you're mad when you return and won't have anything to do with you? Why can't you just wait for the Duke's men?"
In spite of her obvious resolve, Nessa grimaced as she gingerly touched the clammy flesh which hung slack on the goblin's face, and this time, the look she shot him was one of utter disdain. "What do I care what they think? Those old biddies do nothing but whisper about me, but they were all quick to rush to the house tonight, weren't they? Bothersome hens -- it was just a chance to poke their noses into the pantry and the kitchen and the bedrooms and make nasty comments about you and me. They don't care about Papa, they care about sticking their faces in other people's troubles -- not so they can do anything, but so they can talk about it. And the Duke just raised his standard against the King. How much time do you think he'll spare a missing smith?"
"I should think he'll make time for a dead goblin. If he doesn't come himself, you know he'll send some --"
"Maybe, eventually. But by that time, it may be too late. My father could be dead. Or lost forever, like my mother." Her mouth hardened and she reached into the leather sack for the small ax.
"What are you doing, Nessa?" Griffin stared at her in horrified disbelief. These last few hours were like a long bad dream that refused to end. It had started when Jemmy, the herder's boy, had run up from the lake shouting that a goblin lay floating in the water.
The village had reacted as one body, men and women and children, all running pell-mell to the sandy shore, where the thick, hide-clad corpse bumped up against the traps set just at knee depth. The men had waded in, dragging it away from the traps with branches, teasing it ashore. A general gasp had arisen when they'd turned the body over, and the stuff of nightmare and legend lay revealed. Long rows of serrated, jagged teeth in a wide leathery maw, slitted eyes and ears like bat wings, and a hard, leathery hide that ended at each hand in three-inch claws. A jagged wound, curiously singed around the edges, disgorged the contents of its entrails, purplish and glistening with foul-smelling slime.
It was decided that despite the lateness of the hour -- the last rays of the sun had long since been swallowed up by shadows -- a messenger must be sent to Killcarrick Keep, where it was hoped that the Sheriff, if not the Duke himself, would be in residence. It was during the discussion as to who should go that Nessa had raised her clear voice in one anxious question. "Where's my father?"
Copyright © 2004 Anne Kelleher
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