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Authors: T. A. Barron

The Mirror of Fate (7 page)

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
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In deep, breathy tones, the tree sang again:

Our heartwoods are tied, we stand side by side—
Trusting wind gusting—

Folly to hide.

I know not your name nor whither you came,
Yet now we are kin roots.

Lo, twin roots!

For though I felt lost,

And silently cried,

Yet now we are found roots.

Lo, bound roots.
Lo, bound roots.

The final phrase seemed to rise on a breeze, stirring the branches of a graceful cedar nearby. The drooping limbs lifted and fell, as smoothly as a single breath. Other trees caught the same lilt, rustling the air. Still others followed, until all around us branches swished and whispered, swaying in unison. In time, the whole grove, the whole forest, it seemed, joined in the song of celebration.

Then, abruptly, the music shifted. Harsher, deeper tones emerged; the branches started clacking and moaning. As the dissonance swelled, it reminded me of the first cries of pain I had heard from the trees. But this time the wailing reverberated across the whole forest, as if the land itself were drowning in a wave of suffering.

Against this background, the walking tree raised its voice. It sang to us, in words heavy with sorrow:

On land where we thrive, the blight does arrive:
Cleaving, bereaving—

Till none left alive.

Advancing by stealth, it chops at our health;
It poisons all our breedlings.

Our seedlings!

Their leaves cannot breathe;

Their roots not survive.

It poisons all our taplings.

Our saplings.
Our saplings.

I felt drawn, as never before, to the spirit of this tree—and to those many saplings, yearning to live, whose anguish it bore. “What is this blight?” I cried out. “Can’t it be stopped?”

All of a sudden, the tree went rigid. Throughout the forest, the moaning branches fell silent, even as a new sound, a relentless pounding, rose in the distance. Louder and louder it swelled, as rhythmic as a great drum, shaking the ground and the trees anchored within it. Whether the sound came from somewhere in the forest, or from somewhere beyond, it was clearly approaching. Rapidly.

The walking tree stirred again. Its roots uncoiled from our legs, curled sharply downward, and plunged into the ground. As they worked themselves into the soil, the roots vibrated, humming in mournful tones that echoed the final phrase of the tree’s song.
Our saplings. Our saplings.
An instant later, the tree’s slender eyes closed behind lids of bark. As they disappeared, so did any sign that this was anything but another pine, one more tree among many.

Meanwhile, the clamorous rumbling grew louder. Twigs and flakes of bark, knocked loose from the vibrations, rained down on us. I felt the ballymag curl into a tight ball inside the sling, his row of tails twitching anxiously against my chest. A high branch split off and crashed down through the layers of limbs, thudding into the roots by our feet.

Hallia pulled my arm frantically. “We must run, young hawk. Away from here!”

“Wait,” I objected. “I know that sound. We should—”

But she had already dashed from my side. I saw her legs, blurring with motion; her back, pitching forward; her neck, thrusting higher. Her purple robe shifted to green, then glistening tan. Muscles rippled across her back and legs, while her feet and hands melted into hooves.

Hallia, now a deer, bounded into the trees. I watched her vanish. Then I, too, started to run—not away from the rumbling, but toward it.

7:
A
F
IERY
E
YE

I dashed through the dark woods, drawing ever nearer to the swelling rumble. Pounding, pounding, like thunder of the land, it shook the towering trees down to their roots, making them shudder and groan. Every few steps, I heard the crash of a falling limb or a toppled tree whose roots had wrenched loose at last. Cracks opened in the soil; roots popped and split; stalks of fern, as delicate as dragonfly wings, trembled in unison. With the help of my staff, I kept my balance. And, despite the ballymag’s shouts at every jostle and bounce, I kept my ears to the rumbling.

For I wanted to find its source.

The trees began to thin, allowing more light to reach the forest floor. I pushed past a net of vines, studded with red flowers. All at once, I broke into full, unobstructed sunlight.

I stood at the top of a long slope, surveying the vista. Auburn grass, swaying with shifting winds, fell away from me, almost to the horizon, finally merging in the far distance with a dark line of shifting, steaming vapors. It was, I knew with a shudder, a vast swamp: the Haunted Marsh.

So near! The ballymag had been right after all. Yet Hallia’s memory of this forest, and its distance from the marshlands, couldn’t have been more clear. Could the swamp be advancing, pushing its way into the forest? And so rapidly? Something told me that the forest blight, in all its forms, stemmed from the encroaching marsh—as did those strangling snakes, the ghouls that had driven the family from its village, and whatever forces had robbed the ballymag of his home. But what lay behind it all? Was it possible that something else, even more sinister than the marsh itself, was at work here?

At the bottom of the slope, near the swamp’s edge, towered a grove of immense, ragged trees. Though a great distance away, they stood out sharply against the roving mists beyond. Almost as wide as they were tall, they stirred strangely, as if caught in a ceaseless, circling wind. Then, all at once, I realized that they were not trees at all. And that they were the source of the incessant pounding.

For as overwhelming—no, as terrifying—as that sound was, I had heard it before, and never forgotten. I knew its thunderous impact, its relentless rhythm. Nothing could shake, in that way, the soil and the air and everything in between. Nothing—but the footsteps of giants.

Bracing myself, I watched the hulking figures march steadily up the slope. With remarkable speed they climbed, though they seemed as immense, and heavy, as the tallest trees. Yet with each passing second their outlines grew more clear. Powerful trunks transformed into legs, bellies, and chests; hefty branches became arms covered with wild tangles of hair. Necks, jaws, and eyes also appeared—along with noses, some as sharp as pinnacles, others as round as boulders.

A few giants wore little clothing , but a ragged beard and shaggy pants woven of leafy branches and strips of turf. Others, however, wore colorful vests and bristling cloaks. Earrings made of millstones and waterwheels poked through their long manes; wide belts carried immense hatchets and daggers the size of grown men. For all the variety of their garb, however, they shared one common quality: sheer, stupendous size.

As they drew nearer, the crushing blows of their footsteps grew louder. Leaning against my staff, I recalled standing by the feet of my friend Shim, stretching just to touch the top of one of his hairy toes. I glanced down at my own feet, so puny by comparison. And I remembered seeing my footprints, glistening in the wet sand, on the day my makeshift raft had somehow brought me to Fincayra’s shore. That day seemed so long ago . . . and yet so close at hand.

My gaze moved to my shadow. Like me, it quivered with every new wave of rumbling that shook the ground. Only more so. It swayed and flailed wildly, like a distorted reflection in the waters of a windblown pond.

As I tried my best to stay upright, the ballymag poked half his head out of the sling. Seeing the approaching giants, he gasped in horror. One of his claws clamped on the neck of my tunic. He looked up at me, eyes ablaze with fear.

“Ve-ve-verilously,” he stammered. “Thereshriek be tr-tr-treetall, thunderstepping crashgiants!”

I nodded, watching them march up the hill.

“Why manmoster not ru-ru-ru-runhide?” He tugged on my tunic. “Nowspeed!”

“Because,” I answered, raising my voice over the rumbling, “I want to talk to them.”

The ballymag’s whiskers splayed in every direction, as stiff as dried grass. “Manmonster! You wouldcouldn’t—shouldwouldn’t . . .” He turned toward the advancing line of giants. With a sharp squeal, he fainted away, sliding limply back into the sling.

I scanned the giants’ craggy faces, looming larger by the second. Their ancient race, Fincayra’s first people, possessed deep understanding of the land and its mysteries. Immense as they were, I knew that their keen eyes often noticed details that many smaller creatures ignored. Sometimes their great height above the ground allowed them to sense patterns that others couldn’t perceive. Perhaps, just perhaps, they could explain the sudden growth of the swamp—and all the trouble it had caused.

To be sure, something strange was happening in the Haunted Marsh. And though I didn’t yet understand it, I felt a growing fear that it threatened more than the swamp’s immediate neighbors. Pondering the dark, shifting vapors at the edge of the bog, I touched the chafed skin of my neck. Something down in that morass, I suspected, could choke off part of Fincayra’s future, much as that snake had nearly choked me. And a wizard—at least a great wizard like Tuatha—would do everything in his power to prevent it.

Whether or not the giants would tell me anything was another question. They were shy and generally unwilling to share their secrets. Even though, thanks to Shim, I had spent some time among them, I was still an outsider. And a man. And, worse yet, the son of the wicked king who had hunted them down mercilessly.

As the ground rocked beneath me, and my heart galloped inside my chest, I fought to stay calm. Would any of them stop to hear me? Or would they crush me before I could even ask my questions? Then, borne by some faraway wind of memory, I heard again the words of a friend, whispered to me on my first visit to Varigal, the giants’ ancient city of stone:
One day, Merlin, you may find that the merest trembling of a butterfly’s wings can be just as powerful as a quake that moves mountains.
But whether this was the day, I had no idea.

Their gargantuan shadows fell over me. Anxiously, I reminded myself that giants were fundamentally peaceful. Most of the time, at least. One Fincayran giant could flatten a tree with a single blow, drink a lake dry within minutes, or crush a boulder with ease. Once I had seen a brawny female lifting a chunk of rock that would have required at least fifty people my size to move; she had tossed it about like a bale of summer hay. Still, thankfully, they rarely used their strength to harm others. Or so I hoped.

There were six of them, each taller than the tallest trees in the forest. And Shim, I could see, was not among them. Worse, their faces looked positively grim and wrathful. As they came closer, rocking the ground with every step, I realized that they were dragging something behind them: a huge bundle, caked in mud, peat, and brambles.

“You are either very brave, or very foolish,” declared a familiar voice.

Hallia! She was just emerging from the trees, her form metamorphosing back into a woman. Briskly, she stepped to my side on the open grass, her doe eyes darting from me to the immense forms striding up the slope.

I waved her back. “Stay in the trees—where it’s safer.”

“Not if you are here.”

My jaw clenched. “You were right to run away in the first place.”

“Until I realized you weren’t coming. And that the swamplands had grown so much, more than I would have ever dreamed.” Defiantly, she thrust out her chin. “I’m staying with you, young hawk.”

“But I don’t—”

A booming voice, from high above our heads, cut me off. “Behold! A manling and a womanling.” It was one of the lead giants, a female whose serpentine hair, the color of rust, reached down to her knees. “They bring trouble.”

“Naw,” countered another gruffly. He licked his wide lips. “
Mmmmm,
they bring food! Not nunmuch, but mmmore than that mmmeager taste o’ swamp berries.”

He reached toward us, his great hand grasping the air. Even as we started to back away, a third giant—whose dark beard was caked with the same mud that covered the bundle—roughly shoved his arm aside.

“Lettez ‘em liven,” he barked. “Ussez seen enoughen dyining fer onen days.”

His companion closed his hand into a fist. “Nobody else, mmmainly you, can tell mmmee what to do!”

“Thatsen acuz yer so thickster yer nevers understandining nobody elzen.” He beamed as two others guffawed at his joke. “Itzen truer, harrur-harrur.”

Growling with rage, the ridiculed giant swung his fist. While missing his target, he clipped off several high limbs from a tree. Needles and broken branches showered us. Hallia jumped and started to dash away, but caught herself.

“Seeyen there! Yer canten evenz hitsen whats yer wantzen, hoho-hurr.”

The other giant lunged at him. But his massive foot caught on the edge of the bundle, and he lost his balance. Bellowing angrily, he crashed on the grassy slope—so hard that both Hallia and I tumbled over backward. We righted ourselves in time to see the two belligerents start wrestling. Their huge bodies rolled over each other, arms and legs thudding the ground. The other giants moved closer to watch, shouting jeers at the two wrestlers, leaving the mudcovered bundle unattended.

And then the bundle groaned.

An avalanche of mud fell from the lower end, revealing a pair of huge, hairy toes. Then came another groan, and a sudden twist—spraying more putrid smelling debris on the grass. A few paces from us, a fiery pink eye opened, blinking from all the muck weighing down its lid. Above the eye loomed a gargantuan, pear-shaped nose, its cavernous nostrils stuffed with stones, sticks, and ooze.

At the base of the encrusted giant’s head, the layers of slop started vibrating. The faster the chin—or neck, or whatever lay beneath—shook, the more clumps of swamp matter flew into the air. Hallia barely dodged a decaying branch, which struck the grass beside her, splintering into shards. Then a crack appeared in the mountain of muck. Slowly, it widened into a crevasse-like mouth.

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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