In Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, tales are told of strange lights, of mysterious roads…of wondrous folk from enchanted realms. All these are hidden from mortal men, and those who have the gift to look on them are both blessed and doomed…
Young David Sullivan never dreamed that the myths of marvels and magic he loved were real. But in his blood was the gift of Second Sight. And near his family’s rural farm lay an invisible track between worlds…where he would soon become a pawn in the power game of the Windmaster, an evil usurper among those the Celts called the Sidhe. David’s only protection would be a riddle’s answer and an enchanted ring…as he began his odyssey of danger into things unknowing and unknown…
“WINDMASTER’S BANE has heart, an easy humor, and the simple wisdom of compassion.” —Michael Bishop
David shouldered his pack and pointed up the mountain with his runestaff. “That way, old man.”
They began to walk—past the barn and the corn crib and the car shed, turning onto the dirt logging road that became the Sullivans’s driveway further down. There were signs of “civilization” at first: beer cans and food wrappers left by parking couples who defied Big Billy’s POSTED signs. David stopped at the first sharp curve in the road and gazed back down the mountain to where the family farm lay, framed by the dark and dreaming pines, a patch of light between the shady trunks. He checked his watch; it was almost six o’clock. They turned and climbed higher, soon lost the sound of the cars on the highway. The air became cooler, crisp and clean, and smelled of pine. A little after seven they reached their destination. Halfway up the mountain, a spur trail broke off to the right, running more or less level beneath overhanging trees for a quarter mile or so before opening abruptly into an almost circular clearing atop a rock outcrop that jutted from the body of the mountain.
Once trilobites lived here, David thought as he glanced to the left where the hard stone of the mountain proper pushed through the encircling pines like the old bones of the earth wearing through the thin, tree-clad skin. A shimmering waterfall slid in what seemed like unnaturally slow motion down those black rocks to create at its bottom a small pool, maybe fifteen yards across. Mountain-born, it was always cold, even in high summer.
Without a word, the two boys picked their way among lichen-covered boulders and fallen tree trunks to the precipitous ledge that gave Lookout Rock its name. David’s eyes misted slightly, as they always did when he beheld the expanses of furry-looking mountains, now beginning to purple as the sun lowered. Most of the towns were invisible, hidden behind the ridges, but here and there bits of highway showed themselves like a network of scars. The dark silver mirror of the lake lay silent and mysterious in this less populated end of the county. David’s own four-times-great grandparents on his father’s side had built a cabin that now lay beneath a hundred feet of that cold water. Their graves were there too. He sometimes wondered what they dreamed.
A lot of things have changed since then, he reflected as he busied himself building a small cooking fire, setting up his battered but well-loved cooking pot, and putting the almost frozen venison on to simmer with mushrooms, onions, carrots and potatoes—and a limp brown packet of the secret family seasonings. The odor soon mingled with the scent of pine trees and wet leaves, as the first breeze of evening brought the tiniest hint of chill creeping around the mountainside. It could get a little nippy on Lookout Rock, even in July.
Alec had finished setting up the tent in the traditional place at the edge of the clearing and now came over to stand beside his friend, wiping his dirty hands on his jeans. He was sweating lightly. “You don’t suppose it’s warm enough to go swimming, do you?” He glanced skeptically toward the pool.
David stood up and looked Alec straight in the eye. “It is July,” he said. “It doesn’t get any warmer than that. And, besides, my vainly hopeful friend, it’s never been too cold for me to pay due respect to my Place of Power. Of course we’re going swimming; we must placate the spirits of this place by offering our bodies naked to the waters.”
Alec rolled his eyes. “Now?”
David slapped him roughly on the back. “Won’t get any warmer tonight, kid. We’ve done it in April, so what’s to worry about July?”
The wind shifted, whistling through the trees. The harsh cry of some unfamiliar bird crackled in the air. Suddenly David’s eyes were itching furiously. He rubbed them and shook his head vigorously from side to side. Smoke must be getting to them, he thought.
“That wind feels like fall; we’ll have to swim quick if we don’t want to freeze our butts off,” Alec sighed, rummaging in his pack for a towel before starting for the pool. He looked around for David, expecting to find him already at waterside and half undressed, but his friend had not moved; he stood staring toward the overlook, his brows lowered thoughtfully. “Davy?” he called tentatively. “Last one in’s a rotten possum.”
“My eyes keep tingling,” David whispered, mostly to himself, as he slowly followed Alec to the edge of the pool. He felt strange, too, he realized: almost dizzy. Things seemed to slip in and out of focus. The sensation was almost exactly like the way new glasses made his eyes feel, as if something were forcing his vision, tugging at his eyes.
“Some of this cold water’ll do wonders for ’em,” Alec tossed over his shoulder as he skinned out of his T-shirt and started on the laces of his hiking boots.
“I hope so,” David muttered absently. He cast one last backward glance toward the precipice and hastily began stripping off his clothes. A moment later both boys stood naked by the waterside. They hesitated for a moment, feeling the sly nip of wind against bare skin, knowing that the water was far, far colder. Still, there was tradition to consider—and honor.
“After you,” said David.
“Your Place of Power,” Alec pointed out.
David frowned, ever so slightly. Somehow that idea did not appeal to him just then, though he couldn’t quite think why. He’d said the phrase himself only a moment before, had found it in some fantasy novel or other and appropriated it to designate his special place, that private place of beauty and contemplation he had claimed for his own, that he shared with no one else except by his choice. But now, for no apparent reason, such casual usage seemed frivolous, almost sacrilegious.
Alec cleared his throat. “Your Place of Power, I say.”
David bit his lip and nodded decisively. “Right. Together then, and none of this sissy wading stuff: Jump in like men. Come on, race you to the falls.”
Alec nodded in turn, and he and David simultaneously launched themselves in flat, shallow dives into the darkening water. David came up gasping as the coldness stole his breath, and ducked again, opening his eyes to let the water have a go at the annoying tingle. He felt a hand briefly brush Alec’s kicking leg and struck off in the direction of the falls. A moment later, his fingers touched mossy rock, and he broke surface to see Alec’s sleek, dark head emerge beside him spitting water. They both took deep breaths and started back.
David quickly found himself intensely uncomfortable, and not only from the chill of the water. The tingle in his eyes seemed to be getting worse. It was almost a burning now, and he thought he saw bright flashes in the water around him.
“Too cold for my blood,” David gasped as he emerged from the water a mass of goosebumps. He gathered up his clothes and headed back to the fire to dry off and dress.
Alec stayed in a while longer, only coming out when he felt his fingers begin to numb. He wrapped his towel around his waist and made his way across the clearing, shivering all the way. David had returned to the edge of the lookout when he got there, gazing off into space again. The fading sunlight cast red highlights on David’s bare shoulders.
“You look like a barbarian,” Alec said as he tugged on his jeans and applied the towel to his hair. “You know, like on one of those science fiction book covers? All you need is a sword and a beautiful maiden and a fearful monster.”
“And about ninety pounds of muscle and nine inches of height,” David added offhandedly. Beyond him the sun touched the horizon.
“Stew smells good,” Alec ventured.
David did not respond; he was gazing across space at the next high mountain over, a mountain whose nether slopes were entirely ringed by the lake—an island, but no less a mountain.
Bloody Bald, they called it, though it had a name in Cherokee. Bloody Bald, because the naked rock outcrops on its east and west flanks caught the first red rays of dawn and the last red rays of dusk.
Suddenly the half-heard, half-felt buzz was back, like some insect humming in front of David’s face, and his eyes misted again, worse than ever, tingling badly. He rubbed them with his fingers, squinted, and stared into space, suddenly motionless.
For Bloody Bald shimmered as David looked at it, seeming at once to fade and to rise higher, into a symmetrical cone almost as perilously pointed as—as the steeple of a church, David thought. Misty, gray-green trees shrouded the lower slopes, merging into a sort of twisting haze of pastel colors that obscured the place where the shoreline should have been. A little higher up shadowy gardens now overlaid the naked rocks, weaving in and out of the ghostly filigree of embattled white walls which in turn gave way to the slender, fluted towers that crowned the peak like the clustered facets of some rare crystal. Pale banners flickered from the golden roofs of those tenuous pinnacles, and faint but clear came the distant sound of trumpets blowing.
It was like a watercolor painting seen through a screen of fog, like a thing seen in a dream, shaped by the mind alone. Or by the spirit.
David stood immobile, caught up.
Alec came over to stand beside him, followed with his own eyes David’s rapt stare—and saw only the familiar forested peak, fuzzy with trees except at the top where red rocks blazed from purple shadows.
“David? Are you all right?”
David shook his head, wrenched off his glasses and rubbed his eyes vigorously, glanced at the ground then back into the air. He shook his head again and frowned.
David turned to face his friend, and Alec could see the tension flow out of him like water, leaving a residue of incredulity—or was it fear?
“Strangest thing, Alec, I think I just had a hallucination.”
“A hallucination? What kind of hallucination?”
“I don’t know…I could have sworn just now that old Blood Top over there had a castle on it.”
Alec folded his arms and nodded sarcastically. “Been reading those wild books again, haven’t you? Finally affected your mind.”
“I’m serious, Alec. It looked real. I mean really real—like a mixture of Mad Ludwig’s castle and a Gothic cathedral transformed into glass. But now I look again I don’t see a thing.” He replaced his glasses and shook his head. “Must have been a trick of the light or something.” David did not sound convinced.