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Authors: T. A. Barron

The Mirror of Fate (10 page)

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
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Where could such light come from? The very air? The song itself? In a flash I understood. The tiny hairs themselves! Each one of them grew more radiant by the second, its fruited cap swelling with light. Meanwhile, the countless hairs continued to stream with motion. So as the walls grew more luminous, they also grew more textured. On every side, they sparkled and flowed, pulsed and danced.

This was, indeed, a crystal cave. Though very different from the one I sometimes dreamed of finding—yes, even inhabiting—one day, it held a marvelous magic of its own. And it was so completely hidden, a surprising secret of the marsh. Might there, I wondered, be others?

The ballymag opened his eyes. His song faded slowly away, the echoes encircling us for some time. As he watched the light play across our mud-streaked faces, he released a grunt that showed no hint at all of satisfaction. Still, while it might have been just a trick of the light, I thought his whiskers turned upward ever so slightly—the hint, perhaps, of a smile.

Then he set to work. Sliding close to one wall, he unfurled all his tails and spread them out like long, slender fingers. Holding them rigid, he brought them very close to the wall, but not so close as to touch it. He held them there, motionless, for a long moment. He seemed to be waiting for something, like a hawk poised to feel the slightest gust of wind on its feathers.

Without warning, the remotest tip of one of the tails quivered. Slowly, ever so slowly, the motion spread down its entire length. Another tail suddenly bent, quaking along its middle. The other tails soon came alive as well. In a few seconds all of them were vibrating, shimmering in the dancing light of the chamber.

In a single snap, the ballymag whipped all the tails into the air. He started whirling them around and around, faster and faster, until they were only a blur of motion. In the middle, a glowing green bowl, larger than the ballymag himself, began to form. The more rapidly the tails spun, the more solid the bowl appeared.

An instant later, the ballymag pulled back his tails. He deftly rolled to the side, just as the gleaming bowl dropped to the soft floor. Hallia and I leaned over its rim, and gasped in unison. For the deep bowl contained a radiant, green fluid, every bit as dazzling as the walls themselves.

“Liquid light,” I whispered in amazement. “A bowl of liquid light.”

The ballymag scowled. “Whatsomething else forado scrubamuck?” He heaved a sigh. “Oh, painawoe . . . It’s my cursafate alwaysever have intruderguests so stupidslow.”

With that, he bent his back and threw himself into the air. He landed with a splash in the bowl. Completely oblivious to us, he splattered and scrubbed himself, humming as he did so. At last, he lifted his head, grunted, and pulled himself over the rim. He sprawled on the floor, glitteringly clean.

Next came Hallia. I turned away so that she could undress and bathe with privacy. And I twisted the ballymag’s head around so that he did the same. For several delighted minutes, Hallia splashed around. When she finally emerged, she took a moment to wash her purple robe and the band of heather she wore around her wrist. And when she stood before us again, she fairly glowed.

Nevertheless, I hesitated before taking my turn. Unsure what to expect, I cautiously pulled off my boot and dipped my toes into the green liquid. My shadow, even more hesitant, dallied at the edge of the bowl. Suddenly I felt a delicate thrill, like warm rain falling inside my foot. As I pulled off my tunic and leggings and climbed fully inside, I couldn’t help but sigh with pleasure. Only then did my shadow finally follow suit, sliding itself into the bowl. By now, my whole body tingled. Not just my skin, but every particle underneath. My bones felt more sturdy, my muscles more responsive, my veins more pure. And the longer I stayed, the deeper the cleansing. Before long, every element of my being felt somehow renewed. Scrubbed, like never before.

In time, I emerged and quickly rinsed my clothes. And also my staff, my leather satchel, and—though it gave me a pang to see it empty—my scabbard, studded with purple gemstones. I marveled at how, despite all the putrid muck we had washed off, the liquid of the bowl shone as clear as ever.

I dressed and gave the ballymag a slight bow. “Whatever magic you used to fill that bowl, and us, with liquid light, it was marvelous indeed. If I didn’t thank you properly before, I do now.”

His tails curled and uncurled in unison. “Don’t flatterwoo me, manmonster.”

“It’s true,” added Hallia, leaning her back against the soft, glistening wall. “You have great magic, as does this place. I’ve never seen or heard of a spot like this. To think it’s right beneath that swamp! It’s really the reverse of all that horror above, and yet somehow connected to it, too.”

I ran my open hand along the flowing contours of the floor. “It’s so lush, so verdant, so rich in here. Like a garden. No, no, that’s not it. More like . . . a womb.”

Hallia’s eyes danced in the light. “Yes. Like being inside of a womb.”

I moved closer to her side. “Even that doesn’t quite describe it. Maybe it’s just one of those things that simply can’t be reduced to a word.”

“Wrongfoolish,” grumbled the ballymag. “There be a verilous, perfectsay word.”

Annoyed, I glared at him. “All right, then. If there is a word, what is it?”

The ballymag’s whiskers lifted slightly. “Mooshlovely.”



We slept, nestled against the soft walls of the ballymag’s underground home. When finally I awoke, however many hours later, I felt pinched with hunger. And painfully stiff in the tender spot between my shoulder blades. As I stretched my arms, Hallia, who was already awake and seated next to the ballymag, handed me a thick brown roll. It was a leaf, stuffed with a doughy substance that smelled like a mixture of honey, nuts—and mud.

Hungry as I was, I took several quick bites. The ballymag, his tails rhythmically coiling and uncoiling, watched me expectantly.

“It’s very . . . filling,” I said, trying not to offend our host.

“You thankously welcomesay,” he replied, proudly twirling his whiskers. “Thisotreat cametook from winterstores, callit gobblejoy.”

“Gobblejoy.” I tried, with difficulty, to swallow my mouthful.

“And heretaste for drinksome.” Using three claws, the ballymag scooped up a wooden drinking bowl. He rested it on his prominent paunch, which protruded like a shelf. “Makeyou easytime for gulpchew.”

,” I answered, still trying to swallow the first course.

Hallia took a sip from her own wooden bowl. “It’s like spice soup, but cold. Try it.”

Taking the bowl, I peered into it cautiously. On the surface of the clear broth, I saw my own wavering reflection. My face, even my hair, had taken on the green hues of the walls around me. Then, bringing the bowl to my lips, I drank. A burst of cloves, or possibly anise, struck my tongue. Then marigold, the low-lying sort that thrives in wet turf; a strong flavor of mushroom; and delicate hints of singing-rush and gingerroot. Lowering the bowl, I looked approvingly at the ballymag.

“Did you collect all the ingredients yourself? From up there, in the swamp?”

Quite suddenly, his customary look of fear returned. His eyes, glistening with green, narrowed slightly. “Somotime soonshort they findcome.” The coiled tails lining his spine flexed tightly. “And killoscream horribulously.”

I shook my head. “Really, I don’t understand.” I turned my face toward the ceiling of the chamber, watching the waves of light flow over it like a waterfall. “Why do they want to kill us?”

Hallia, still sipping her soup, grunted. “Because they are marsh ghouls.”

“No, no, there’s something more. You heard that woman in the forest. They have never acted so viciously before.”

“Verilously,” intoned the ballymag, giving his whiskers a stroke. “Butathey plentylots viciousmaim now.”

Putting down her bowl, Hallia looked sullen. “The ghouls may be worse now, for some reason. But they’ve always been the bane of the marsh. Even in ancient times, when my people made the trek to the Flaming Tree—even then, marsh ghouls made sure that some never returned.”

“Flaming Tree?” I asked. “What is that?”

“A wonder,” she answered. “A tree, deep in the heart of the marsh, that was always aflame, since before the first fawn came to run upon this land.” Her steady gaze swallowed me. “Long ago, when Fincayrans still wore their wings, the deer people were plentiful. So plentiful that we lived everywhere that grass could grow—even, it is said, on the shores of the Forgotten Island far to the west. Except for one place: this very swamp. But to prove their courage when they reached adulthood, every deer maiden and man came to this place all alone, and spent three full days by the Flaming Tree.” She frowned. “Even though the marsh ghouls only stalk by night, they still waylaid many.”

“Is that why,” I asked gently, “the rite was abandoned?”

Shaking her flowing hair, she looked down at the floor. “That had to do, my father told me, with the same wickedness that cost us all our wings. And while your kind was doomed to remember your fall by the ache within your backs, in the spot where wings might have sprouted, my own kind received a different punishment. For us, the Flaming Tree—symbol of our lost courage and freedom—lurks always in our dreams. Though many generations have passed since deer people trekked there, it is said that any one of us could still find the way, for the trail is forever marked upon our hearts.”

Pondering her words, I worked my stiff shoulders. To my dismay, my shadow leaped away from me and started dancing across the luminous walls, turning cartwheels and somersaults, spinning as lightly as a blowing seed. Although no one else seemed to notice its gyrations, I knew that my second sight hadn’t deceived me. That shadow, once again, was mocking me! I wished I could tear it away from myself completely. Yes! And cast it into the remotest part of the swamp.

Hallia lifted her head—just as the shadow leaped back to my side. “Now you can see why I’m not surprised by the marsh ghouls’ latest behavior. They are terrible creatures. Worthless creatures.”

“Worthless?” I bristled at the word. “Are you certain?”

“You don’t know them.”

“I know enough.” I pursed my lips. “Long ago, in the most desolate land you can imagine, I was very nearly killed by a creature that everyone, including me, considered worthless. But later, when I had the chance to destroy it, I didn’t—because I had discovered something about it that was valuable, truly valuable.”

Her eyes narrowed in disbelief. “And what creature was that?”

“A dragon.” I watched her expression slowly change. “The same dragon who became the father of Gwynnia.”

She swallowed. Then, her face full of wonder, she gazed at me for a long moment. “Young hawk, you will make a fine wizard one day.”

“So I’ve been told.”

Still observing me, she began braiding her locks. “I didn’t mean to upset you. But isn’t being a wizard still your dream?”

“Yes, yes. It’s just that, these days, everyone else seems to see my dreams more clearly than I do.”

She paused in her braiding. “They’re still your dreams, you know. Your visions of the future. You can change them if you want to.”

“I don’t want to! Can’t you see? But the future itself, that can change. For years now, whenever I look into the future, what looks back at me is a wizard—and yes, a great wizard. That’s what I see. Or, at least, what I
to see.” I chewed on my lip for a moment. “Yet . . . what if that doesn’t turn out to be true? Maybe it was only a false vision to begin with.”

“Maybe it was,” she replied. “And maybe not.”

With a sigh, I said, “We should go now.”

Tying off her braid, she nodded in assent.

Suddenly the ballymag leaped into Hallia’s lap. His eyes at their widest, he moaned, “Nowoewoe, please! Makedon’t mepoorme riskycome. Oh, nowoewoe.”

“We won’t,” she answered, stroking his curved back. Gently, she entwined her fingers with one of his tails. “You’ve done enough for us already. And you have given us a gift we won’t forget.”

The ballymag wriggled closer to her and gave a high squeak that echoed in the luminous chamber. “Well . . . truthsay is, you diddo muchously wellogood to savehelp my lifetender.” Then, with a glance, at me, he clacked two of his claws. “Thoughnearly you maimkilled mepoorme thenafter.”

“My apologies.” I extended my hand. “If we must part company, then, let’s do so as friends.”

The ballymag watched me cautiously. Suddenly, in one swift motion, he slapped his tail across my cheek, so hard I fell into the wall. Before I regained my balance, he had jumped off Hallia’s lap and vanished down a thin crevasse in the floor. For a few seconds, the sound of his body sliding through moist tunnels came back to us. Then—nothing.

Hallia, her eyes laughing, stroked my cheek. “Something tells me that’s not his usual good-bye.”

I scowled. “He must save that for his dearest friends.”

For a moment, we scanned the glowing surfaces, rippling with shades of green, all around us. When again would we see a place so lush, so alive—yet so near to another place reeking of death and decay? Then, as one, we turned toward the end of the chamber where a large passageway opened. From the movement of light, I could see that it angled upward. “That’s our route, I think. Are you ready?”

“No,” came her hushed reply. “But I’m coming anyway.”

Together, we entered the passageway. Soon the walls drew closer and the ceiling bent downward, forcing us to crouch. And before long, to crawl. In time, the green illumination of the walls began to fade, overpowered by the tentacles of darkness that probed ever nearer. The air grew rancid, heavy with the smells of things rotting.

At one point, Hallia hesitated, wiping her watering eyes with her sleeve. I started to speak, but her severe glance cut me off. An instant later we were crawling again, moving upward into the gloom. All at once, both of our heads bumped into something. Hard yet flexible, its slimy surface bent to our touch, like the peeling bark of a tree. It was, I realized, a slab of peat. Bracing myself against the wall of the passage, I prepared to push the slippery barrier aside.

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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