They moved warily through the night, alert for the first sight of the town’s inhabitants, their ears straining for the deadly swish of arrows on the wind.
But they had misjudged the distance in the darkness, and the town was farther away than they had at first imagined. For some time its lights grew no brighter as they moved toward them. Altering course to keep the lights always dead ahead, they left the creeping tide and climbed up the shifting flanks of dunes and down the far side to find themselves among grasslands heavy with the salt smell of the sea.
It was marshy ground riddled with narrow water-filled ditches, tall brown grasses bending and swaying as the rushing winds eddied through them. Some small animal darted past—a hare perhaps—turning Tania’s thoughts for a moment to her ailing sister, Cordelia.
They had to move slowly, and with every step Tania checked that the ground was solid before bringing her weight down. It would be all too easy to twist an ankle or slither into a ditch.
“Ah!” breathed Rathina, standing at the brink of a long black slot. “The River Styr, I believe.”
Tania stood next to her on the grassy brink. The river was low but clearly on the rise, flowing swift and dark between reeking mudflats.The lights of the village were clearer now, set high atop a humpbacked hill on the far side of the river.
“Is it too wide to try and swim?” asked Connor.
Rathina stared inland along the curve of the river. “Swim, forsooth?” she said. “Do you not see the mire, Master Connor? You would be swallowed up, top to toe, before you set foot in the water. We must find a bridge.”
“If the people here are anything like the ones we met in Faith-in-the-Surf, the bridge will probably be guarded,” Connor said.
“We’ll deal with that if there is a bridge,” said Tania.
She knew Connor was right—but they had persuaded the other villagers of their good intentions and she was hopeful that she could do it again. Something else was worrying her right now.
It was not long since Lord Aldritch of Weir had stormed out of the Throne Room in Veraglad Palace, denouncing Oberon and denying his Kingship over the Earldom of Weir.
Would news of that renunciation have reached Hymnal yet? And if so, how would two of the daughters of King Oberon and Queen Titania be greeted? The last time Tania had been in Weir, she had escaped the clutches of Lord Aldritch only by fleeing his castle in the dead of night. How much worse would she fare now that Aldritch stood in open opposition to the King?
The river wound in a wide loop between its high banks, snaking off into the darkness, filling the night with strange guttural noises as the sea fed into it.
“There! A bridge,” said Rathina, pointing to a distant black arch that vaulted the banks. “And unguarded, I think.”
“But what’s that next to it?” asked Tania, straining her eyes. Long gray shapes lay on the banks beside the bridge—shapes that she vaguely recognized, shapes that filled her with unease.
As they approached the bridge, the gray shapes became clearer. They were bodies draped with white silk. By the look of it, the bodies of seven adults and three children.
“This is wrong,” said Rathina, her voice trembling as they stood over the shrouded shapes. “To be left without friend or family to watch over them till they are called to Albion. It is against all custom—against all virtue to abandon the dead thus.”
Tania’s stomach twisted as she remembered the baby boy whose death had been the first sign of the plague. She had spent a full night with his grieving mother, and the memory haunted her still.
Connor crouched and lifted a corner of one silk shroud. Tania saw a glimpse of yellow hair and an ash white face before she looked away. It reminded her too sharply of Cordelia’s stricken face as she had lain sickening on her bed. And how were her other sisters and her mother and father faring? Were they still able to keep the plague at bay? Did any of them have that same deathly look about them yet?
“There’s nothing we can do for them,” Connor said, covering the face again and standing up. “Will they still get to. . . what was it. . . Albion? Will they still get there if they’re left on their own?”
“They will,” said Rathina. “But it will be a sad journey, and those who abandoned them thus will feel a wound in their hearts that will never heal.” She sighed and walked away from the bodies. “The Rituals of Leave-taking are not solely for the dead, Master Connor,” she said. “This pestilence eats like a canker into our very souls.”
The bridge was of stone, rough-laid and clearly very old. The noises of the river were magnified under its arch. As they crossed, it sounded as though lost spirits moaned beneath their feet.
Tania was glad to get to the far side; things were bleak enough without their being haunted by river phantoms.
The main course of the Styr meandered into the eastern night, but close by they saw a spur of dark water that led off between banks that were supported by wooden stakes. It ran a straight course behind the hill.
“No sign of sentries or armed guards,” Connor murmured, his head close to Tania’s as they came to the steep trackway that led up to the town. “But maybe we should avoid the town altogether.” He pointed along the straight channel. “That’s got to be man-made,” he said. “It probably leads to a marina or a harbor. There’ll be boats there, for sure. Why don’t we just take one and get out of here before anyone knows about it?”
“I think not,” said Rathina. “The tide is low. I doubt that any seaworthy vessel could navigate these waters until the flood tide, and that is many hours away yet.”
Tania gazed up at the dark mass of the hill. Few lights were now burning, and the town reared over them like a sleeping dragon, stones walls forming its backbone and peaked roofs and spires rising like spines and horns against the heavy sky. But for some reason the sight did not daunt her; perhaps it was the knowledge that this town had welcomed her mother hundreds of years ago. These people had befriended a young Mortal woman lost and alone in a land she did not know. Maybe Tania could hope for such kindness to be shown again—even in these grim times.
She turned to Connor. “We’re going up there,” she said. “I’m not going to steal a boat.” She strode toward the steep path. “Besides, I’m hungry and cold and totally exhausted—we should try and find shelter for the night.”
“Aye,” agreed Rathina, following her. “An inn would be most welcome, if any will take three such curiously dressed strangers at such a time of wretchedness and despair.”
Tania linked her arm with her sister’s. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but I have a good feeling about this place. I think we’ll be all right.” She turned. Connor was still standing at the foot of the track staring apprehensively up at the town, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. He shrugged and walked quickly to catch up with them.
The town of Hymnal was a maze of narrow cobbled lanes and alleys that ran between half-timbered buildings leaning toward one another as if they were sharing outlandish secrets. Most of the dwellings were in darkness, although here and there a yellow lantern hung over a gabled doorway and the occasional mullioned window glowed with ruddy firelight.
“What time is it?” Connor asked.
“I don’t know,” Tania said. “I don’t have a watch.”
“The moon is rising,” said Rathina. “The night is at the first quarter.”
Connor moved close to Tania. “How does she know that?” he asked, staring up between the buildings into the opaque sky.
“I don’t know,” Tania said. “I think everyone here can do it. They have a kind of intuition abut things like that.”
“But you don’t?”
“No. . . not really. Not yet.”
“But one day, huh?”
“I hope so.” She knew what he was thinking: This was yet another thing that separated him from everyone around him.
The town was deathly silent. The footsteps of the three travelers echoed like the striking of drumbeats, and Tania was consumed by the impression that behind every wall people were huddling in sickness and fear.
There was no doubt that the plague had visited this place—the bodies down by the river were proof enough of that—and as Tania made her way between the hunched buildings, fear and dismay seemed to flow along with her through the deserted streets like a thick fog.
“What are we looking for?” whispered Connor. “A hotel or something?”
“Or something. . .” Tania replied.
“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” Connor asked. “It feels to me like we’re walking into a trap.”
Tania looked into his face. “Does it?” she said softly. “It doesn’t feel like that to me at all.” She took a deep breath, wishing to draw the essence of the town into herself. “I don’t think we’ll be harmed here.”
They came quite suddenly upon a large round courtyard. Tania stepped onto the cobbles, her skin tingling as though the air of the town had come alive around her. There was something special about this place—she knew it instantly. In the center of the courtyard a stone fountain rose. Its wide granite bowl was filled with dark water, and from its middle lifted a fluted plinth with a single-masted, stone-carved boat on its top.
Words were etched around the rim of the bowl. Tania walked slowly around the fountain, reciting the words softly.
“Drink, weary traveler, and take thy fill, for this water flows by Titania’s will.”
A sudden rush of joy filled her heart. She looked at Connor and Rathina. “They built this to remember our mother,” she said. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Rathina ran her hand over the smooth granite. “I looked not to see such an honor to our family in the Earldom of Weir,” she said. “’Tis a good omen, I think.”
Tania noticed that Connor was looking curiously at her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“It’s a bit odd to hear you refer to the Queen as your mother, that’s all,” he said. “When I think of your mum. . . well, I think of your real mum, you know? Back in London.”
A shaft of darkness pierced Tania. There was no reproach in his voice, but she could sense the unspoken criticism. The truth was that she would never see her Mortal parents again. And worse, they would live out their lives never able to speak to her again—never knowing her fate or the fate of Faerie.
“Do not grieve, my daughter—all is not lost.”
The female voice sounded soft, insubstantial as mist.
“Mother?” A rush of emotion gripped Tania.
“Yes, Tania. I am here.”
“Look!” breathed Rathina, staring into the water. “Do you see her? Do you see our mother, the Queen?”
Trembling, Tania gazed down into the still water. A silvery light glowed now in the depths, gentle and warm as candlelight. Gazing up at her was a face, green-eyed, framed with curling red hair, the cheekbones wide, the lips full and red. A face so like Tania’s own that it was almost like gazing into a mirror. Queen Titania, mother to the Faerie half of Tania’s split soul. But it was a face filled with fatigue and sorrow.
“I am glad of heart to see you, my children,” Titania said from the mystical water-mirror. Her eyes turned to Connor. “And you, too, Master Estabrook—you who were brought here from your own world and sacrificed all to help us. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Connor, staring into the water. He looked at Tania. “How is she doing that?” he hissed.
“It was my wedding gift from Oberon,” Titania explained. “In still water I can communicate across many miles.” Her tired eyes turned again to Tania. “How goes your quest?” she asked. “It is two days now since Eden left you at Caer Regnar Naal—I had hoped to speak with your sooner.”
“We found the Lost Caer,” said Tania, leaning over the bowl, her hands gripping the sides. “But there’s more—so much more. I don’t know where to start.”
“Reach down your hand and touch the water,” Titania said. “Gently now—make not a ripple on the surface.”
Breathlessly Tania lowered the flat of her hand toward the still surface. As she did so, she saw that Titania’s hand rose to meet hers. They touched, palm to palm, finger to finger. The reassuring touch of her mother’s flesh was startlingly real. Titania’s hand felt warm and alive in the cool water, and Tania was profoundly comforted.
“May I enter your thoughts, Tania?” the Queen asked.
“Yes. . . of course. . .”
A moment later Tania had the sensation of something gentle and soothing moving through her mind. She had always known there were strong emotional bonds between the members of the Royal Family, but she had not realized that they ran quite so deep as to allow for such intimacy as this. She felt no pain or concern as her Faerie mother probed her memories. Quite the opposite. She sensed her mother’s love stirring deep within her, vibrant and vital as the air in her lungs and the blood in her veins.
But suddenly she saw her mother’s face grow concerned and then deeply alarmed.
“No!” Titania snatched her hand away, and the surface of the water shattered into racing furrows that crossed and recrossed one another.
“What happened?” asked Rathina.
“She saw everything I’ve seen since we left the palace,” said Tania breathlessly, leaning heavily on the granite rim of the bowl to try to see Titania in the agitated water.
Gradually the water calmed and the Queen’s anxious face reappeared. “Daughter, I had not expected to encounter such things in your mind,” came Titania’s voice. “But all is well. I understand now all that has happened.” There was a pause and her look of alarm faded. “You have come, then, to the town of Hymnal,” she continued. “That is good, I hope. Even in these dark times you should not be harmed by the folk who dwell there. They keep a strong allegiance to the House of Aurealis, and in all of Weir only they share loyalty between the earl and the Royal Family.”
“We need a boat,” said Tania. “We have to sail to Tirnanog.”
“Yes, I saw this in your mind,” said the Queen. “But you need not depart these shores in the black of night. Go to the Inn of the Blesséd Queen. You will be welcomed there by the landlord, Elias Fulk. He will give you food and beds—and unless the plague has entirely corrupted his nature, he will find for you a ship come the dawn.”
“I saw the inn,” said Rathina, pointing back the way they had come. “I am sure of it! It is not far.”
“Go find it,” said Tania. She looked at Connor. “Go with her, please. I won’t be long—I want to talk to my mother alone.”
Connor frowned. “Talk about what?” he asked. “If it’s anything to do with the quest, I want in on it, too.”
“It’s personal, Connor,” Tania said. “Please? Go with Rathina.”
“Come,” said Rathina, taking Connor by the arm. “I would warm myself by a fire. Tania will follow in good time.”
Reluctantly Connor allowed himself to be led back across the courtyard and between two leaning buildings.
“You are distressed, Tania,” said the Queen. “I felt it in you. Speak to me of it and perhaps I can give you comfort and ease.”
Tania had hardly realized how the anguish had been building in her till this moment. She had been keeping her emotions under control—she didn’t want to let Connor and Rathina know what was brewing in her mind.
“Why didn’t the King tell me the truth about the plague?” she demanded fiercely. “Why did he pretend he couldn’t remember about the Divine Harper and the covenant and everything?”
The Queen’s face clouded. “Tania, your father the King remembered nothing of these things. Nothing!”
“Are you sure?” insisted Tania. “Are you absolutely sure he didn’t know?”
“Tania, listen to me,” came her Faerie mother’s voice. “There are no secrets between the King and me—there can be none. All artifice and pretense are swept away in the Hand-Fasting Ceremony.” Tania knew what that was: a mystic amber fluid was poured over the linked hands of a betrothed couple, and in that moment each could see clearly into the mind of the other. “If Oberon knew of the things you have learned, I would know them, too.”
“I’m sorry. . . I thought. . .” Tania paused. “I don’t know what I thought. But. . . I feel like I’m being played, you know?” Tears burned behind her eyes. “Everything’s so horrible, Mother. . . . It’s too hard. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t.”
She leaned over the cold stone, her tears falling into the water, spreading rings through which the compassionate face of her mother gazed.
“You are not alone, Tania,” said Titania. “You are never alone, my darling child.”
“So why do I feel like this?” Tania gasped, her face hot, tears burning as they scored their way down her cheeks.
“Do not grieve, sweetheart.” Her mother’s voice was soft as feathers. “I know the hollow wound that gapes in your heart—but you have not lost him entirely. Trust me, you have not.”
Titania’s words allowed Tania to open up to her grief. Edric was gone. Her love. The one constant in the madness of the past months. She leaned over the water, her hair hanging, her shoulders rising and falling as violent sobs wracked her body. She could not speak: The pain in her chest was so intense that she could hardly even breathe. She felt ripped open, heart, spirit, and soul.
She had no idea how long her torment lasted, but as her weeping finally abated, she heard a soothing voice from below her.
“Do not surrender entirely to grief, my child,” Titania said. “Tomorrow is a glad new day! A clear path lies ahead of you, and who can say what wonders you will find at journey’s end?”
Gathering herself, Tania lifted her head, wiping her sleeve across her face. The solace of the Queen’s words filled her with new resolve. She was prepared now to face whatever the quest held in store. And perhaps her Faerie mother was right: Perhaps she would find wonders waiting for her on distant shores.