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The Pillars of the World

Roc Books, October 2001

For more information, check out www.penguin.com.

Copyright © 2001 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.




Chapter One

Another road was closing. It would take a little time, but not that long. For a few more days, that road through the Veil that separated Tir Alainn from the human world would shine, as it had for as long as the Fae could remember. Then the Veil would thicken and the road would disappear, and any of the Fae Lords or Ladies who tried to travel that road out of Tir Alainn wouldn't come home again.

And once the road closed, the part of Tir Alainn that was connected to that road would disappear as well – another piece of what had been the Fae's most glorious act of magic mysteriously devoured.

We do not ask what becomes of the Fae who lived in those lost pieces, Dianna thought as she stared at the garden beyond the open window. We do not ask if they are somehow surviving in their Clan houses, cut off from the rest of us, or if they've become lost souls who will never reach the Summerland when the flesh gives itself back to the Mother.

Turning away from the window, she faced the man and woman who had been patiently waiting for her attention.

They had the feral beauty that was common to the Fae. The woman had dark red hair and woodland eyes – a brown-flecked green. Some of the Fae said eyes that color harkened back to the House of Gaian, a Clan that had disappeared so long ago it was barely even a legend anymore. Whether that was truth or wishful thinking, no one could say any more than they could remember why the House of Gaian had been special – or why it had disappeared.

The man had black hair and blue eyes that were usually filled with sharp amusement. She saw storms in his eyes now, and sadness in the woman's.

“You found nothing,” she said, not bothering to make it a question since their eyes had already answered.

“We found nothing,” Lyrra replied. “Inspira, Cariden, and I have asked every storyteller and poet we could find. None remember anything that would help us understand why the roads are closing or how to stop it from happening.” She hesitated. “I don't know if this is related to the information we've been seeking, but there was an old poet from another Clan who remembered hearing a fragment of an ancient poem that spoke of the Pillars of the World. But he had been a child when he heard it and could recall nothing else about it.”

“The Pillars of the World,” Dianna said, forcing herself to remain calm. “Do you know what it means?”

Lyrra shook her head. “It's as if we had once known so well what they were, there was no need to explain them, no need to hold onto them with words.”

Dianna swallowed hope turned bitter. “Then it's unlikely they have anything to do with what's happening to us now.” She looked at the man.

“I found nothing,” Aiden said flatly. “The bards know songs enough about riding the roads and the delights that might be encountered on the other side of the Veil, but nothing that will help us.”

If the Muse and the Bard can find nothing, who else can we ask? Dianna wondered. Where else can we look for the answers?

None of them mentioned what might have been known to the Clans who had used the shining roads that had connected to the Old Places in the human countries called Arktos and Wolfram – the Clans who had been disappearing, one by one, since she was a little girl.

Now, the only roads through the Veil were the ones connected to Sylvalan, and those, too, were beginning to close.

Had warnings gone unheeded all those years, or had they never been sent? Had the Fae whose territories had been connected to the Old Places in those countries been willfully blind to the danger, so sure that whatever had happened to another Clan couldn't possibly happen to them – or had they kept to their own Clan houses and their own territories because they'd been afraid that it would happen to them? Or had it been that those Clans had always seemed so distant anyway that no one in this part of their world had paid much attention?

Now the danger was no longer distant, no longer happening to someone else. Now it was devouring their Clans, and they hadn't been able to find out why – and they hadn't been able to stop it.

“I am sorry, Dianna,” Lyrra said softly.

“My thanks for trying,” Dianna said, turning back to the window.

A rustle of fabric. Quiet footsteps walking away.

Only one set of footsteps.

Looking over her shoulder, she could almost see the swelling anger in Aiden. “Something else?”

He joined her at the window. “Before coming to the Clan house here, I went down one of the other roads.” His expression was bland, but his eyes... “I traveled through a couple of villages in the northeastern part of Sylvalan.”

“And no doubt stopped at the taverns to hear a minstrel or two,” she said, working to give him an indulgent smile that might ease his mood.

He didn't smile back. “I listened,” he said curtly.

And hadn't liked what he'd heard.

“The minstrels are singing songs about beings they call wiccanfae.”

Dianna stiffened at the arrogance of anything else referring to itself as Fae. “And they are?”

“Wicked fairies. Witches. Creatures who, out of spite, will make a cow dry or a woman barren, who will creep into a house and devour a newborn's soul so that the mother finds the babe dead in its cradle with no mark upon it. They sometimes steal babes to sacrifice to their master, the Evil One, so that he will come and indulge in carnal acts with them. They use their love charms on chaste young women of good name and family, causing them to become so overcome with lust that they fornicate with men, without the honorable bond of marriage. They are the vessels of dark magic.” He paused. “And they control the Small Folk, who are soulless creatures full of mischief magic. Creatures that must be cleansed from the land so that honest men can take the land's bounty without coming to harm. Do you want to hear more?”

“No,” Dianna said, feeling a winter wind brush past her face even though spring would soon give way to summer. But what she wanted and what duty required were two different things. “Do you think these...wiccanfae...are the reason the roads are closing? Could they be using their magic to keep us out of the human world?”

“It is fact that the shining roads close in the human world before we lose a piece of Tir Alainn.”

Dianna saw something shift in his eyes. “What happened at those taverns?”

“Just as the Muse can still a tongue or open an inner door inside a person that allows the words to flow, so I can give the gift of music – or take it away.”

Dianna hesitated. Even for the Lady of the Moon – a title that made her the most influential female among the Fae – it was the better part of wisdom not to antagonize the Bard. Provoked, he wouldn't hesitate to shape a song that would diminish a person into a fool. “If the witches are our enemies, why stop the minstrels' songs?”

“I cannot stop what already exists, but I can stop any more from being created.”

She place a hand on his arm, felt the tight muscles. “Why stop them?” she asked, wondering how much he hadn't told her.

“One doesn't need to drink from a cup to know that it contains poison,” Aiden said harshly. “There's something wrong with those songs. Music that hasn't flowed through the heart on its journey to the hands offers little and can take much.” He smiled bitterly. “And those who play those songs have sold their hearts for a bag of gold coins.”

“Minstrels have to eat,” Dianna said cautiously.

“There is warm gold and cold gold, and I know which has been taken by the end of the first tune. These minstrels play songs that create an ugliness in the hearts of those who hear them. And they've put new words to old tunes – tunes we created – that once spoke gently of magic and the gifts that magic gives. That is too deep an insult, Dianna, because that is an offense against us. The decision to take back the gift of music is mine, and only mine, to make.”

“Has Lyrra decided to take back the Muse's gift as well?”

His eyes darkened until they were almost black.

Oh, yes, Dianna thought. The Bard heard far more than he has said.

“I have asked her to take back her gift from any minstrel who sings those songs,” he said quietly. “But that is her choice.”

Which meant that, unless she had a strong reason to oppose him, the Muse would honor his request. She and the Bard weren't exclusive lovers, but they were lovers nonetheless and often gave – or withheld – their gifts in tandem.

“And there is another reason to silence the music that would smear all magic with the offal of the witches' deeds.” Aiden crossed his arms, leaned against the wall next to the window. “We travel through the Veil and use our gifts to hinder or help the humans.”

“We do that because it amuses us, not because we need to,” Dianna said impatiently.

“We do that because it amuses us,” Aiden agreed, “and because it's...invigorating.”

Dianna let out a delicate snort. She knew quite well what “invigoration” Fae men found in the human world. Fae women seldom found a similar kind of “invigoration.”

Aiden's blue eyes twinkled, a sure sign that he knew exactly what she was thinking. Then the twinkle faded, leaving him serious again. “That isn't exactly what I meant. Living in Tir Alainn is like floating in the sun-warmed water of a quiet pond. Dealing with humans and their world is like riding the rapids of a fast river. One brings peace, the other stirs the blood.”

“There's nothing wrong with peace,” Dianna insisted. Especially when it might be taken away at any moment.

“Tell me something, Dianna,”; Aiden said. “When you ride with your shadow hounds for the Wild Hunt, do you gallop over the perfect, rolling hills of Tir Alainn or the rough imperfection of the human world?”

She didn't want to answer that, didn't want to acknowledge the truth in what he was saying – that the Fae traveled to the human world because the peace and perfection of Tir Alainn became boring after a while – so she said nothing.

After a moment, Aiden said, “I'll see if I can find any other references to the Pillars of the World. It may have been nothing more than a bard's way of referring to the roads at one time or other, but even knowing that much is more than we know now.”

She nodded in agreement. Then there was nothing more to say.

“Dianna,” Aiden said, bowing slightly.

“Aiden,” she replied.

After he left, she remained at the window. If they didn't find the reason behind the roads closing, the day would come when she would look out and see...what? What had any of the lost Fae seen before their piece of Tir Alainn disappeared?

Wiccanfae.

Her mouth shaped the word without giving it voice.

If they were the reason her beloved Tir Alainn was dying, they would soon discover what it was like to have the Lady of the Moon, who was also called the Huntress, for an enemy.





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