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Authors: T. A. Barron

The Mirror of Fate (8 page)

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
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Aaaraaarr
,” moaned the buried giant. “I ith feeling sickly sick. Certainly, definitely, abtholutely.”

“Shim!” I exclaimed, recognizing his favorite phrase—if not his voice, due to all the muck blocking his nose. Rushing to his side, I shouted into his clogged ear, “It’s me. Merlin.”

The bulbous nose scrunched, breaking off an avalanche of debris. A good deal landed in Shim’s mouth, causing him to spit and cough violently. That in turn dislodged more swamp muck, which he in turn swallowed, making him cough all the more. The fit lasted several minutes. To avoid being struck by his pounding head and flailing arms, I retreated to the very edge of the trees.

Hallia, back at my side, shot me an anxious glance. “You know this giant?”

“My, yes! Since before he got—well, so big. He helped me save the Wise Tools when Stangmar’s castle collapsed.”

“He could still crush you like a worm underfoot if you’re not careful.”

I waved my staff at the other giants, a short way down the slope. They were still so busy shouting at the two wrestlers, and roughly shoving each other, that they hadn’t noticed Shim’s revival. “They worry me a lot more. Shim’s a friend. And he might know what’s really happening down there in the marsh.”

Seeing Shim’s violent spasm coming to an end, I started back toward him. But Hallia’s gaze, as piercing as a spear, halted me. “Listen, young hawk. Giants are bad enough, but at least you might outrun them. The Haunted Marsh, though, is something else again. What more do you need to know, other than it’s already too near? Right down there, at the base of this hill! Let’s get away, as fast as we can.”

“Believe me, I understand. When I was there before . . . well, I don’t want to go back unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Deep within the sling on my chest, I heard a muffled groan. Even while unconscious, the ballymag was voicing his views.

“How can you even speak about going back there?” Hallia pressed. “Once should have been enough.”

“All I know is something feels very wrong.” I motioned toward the dark vapors rising from the swampland. “There’s a presence down there, something I haven’t felt in a long time. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it’s dangerous.”

She eyed me doubtfully. “Careful, young hawk. This is one time to be sure of your intentions.”

“I am sure. I want to help the land—our land.”

“Not just to be someone’s image of a great wizard?”

“No!” I jabbed my staff into the turf. “And whether or not you believe it, I also intend to be careful.”

She drew a slow, unsteady breath, and shook her head.

8:
A
RROWS THAT
P
IERCE THE
D
AY

As Shim’s thunderous cough faded into a rasp, I stepped nearer. “Tell me, old friend. What happened to you?”

He made an effort to sit up, then fell back to the grass with a resounding thud. The noise was lost, however, in the ongoing tumult from the wrestling giants not far down the hill. Their bellows and roars, punctuated by bodies slamming the turf with enough force to shake the entire slope, joined with the shouts of their onlooking companions. “My poorly node,” moaned Shim. “So stuffed full of muckly muck. Can baredly breade.”

His massive head turned toward me, spilling more mud and the twisted, barkless remains of a tree. “Merlin. What ith you doings here?”

“A mistake—my own. But it’s good to see you again.”

“And you, even wid so muj disgustingly muck.” He groaned, lifted his hand, and took a swipe at his nose. “I’d be gladly to takes you homely, bud I cad hardly move. I feel so weakly! Certainly, definitely, abtholutely.”

“What happened?”

His pink eyes glowed like a smith’s tongs. “Dey tries to block da giants’ roadway, de anciently way across da marth. Why, it’s been dere since Fincayra wath bornded. And it’s our bestly pathway for summer fishing in da eastern seath.”

Glancing at the grappling giants, I shook my head. “Who would be so foolish? So brazen?”

“Marth ghoulth.”

“Marsh ghouls?”

“Yeth!” His enormous hand closed into a fist. “When we tried to opens da roadway anew, dey attack us. Wid arrowth, murderly arrowth, so strong dey can pierce da day.”

Behind me, Hallia gasped. At the same time, I could feel the ballymag starting to stir again in the sling upon my chest.

“What do you mean, Shim? Arrows that pierce the day?”

“Angrily!” he bellowed, ignoring my question. “I gets angrily! I chases dem off da roadway.
Arrrarrr,
dose ghoulth, dey trick me. I fall headfirstly into a deeply pool of muck.”

I reached my hand to touch his earlobe, though it was so caked with mud that only a few patches of skin shone through. “That was brave of you.”

“Brave bud stupidly.”

“Maybe so.” I grinned. “But I remember a day when you weren’t so brave. When you’d run until sundown just to avoid a bee sting.”

Shim half guffawed, half coughed. “I never did like getting stingded.” Then the edges of his mouth turned down. “Dis time, dough, I almost drownded. Only my friends’ brawnily arms pulls me freely. And even den, I thinks I’m surely going to die from muckly muck.”

Solemnly, I pondered his words. My heart beat almost as loud, it seemed, as the shouting giants down the slope. “But why, Shim? Why have the marsh ghouls suddenly turned so vicious? They were always frightening, to be sure, but only to those who entered their territory. Now they’re attacking giants, terrorizing villagers . . . as if they’re chasing everyone else—even the snakes—out of the swamp.”

The great eye studied me knowingly. “I’ve seen dat look before, Merlin. You ith full of madness again.”

“And your nose is full of muck. Here, let me see if I can help you.”

Using my staff for support, I began to scale the slippery mountain that was the head of my friend. It took me some time just to climb over his tangled hair to the rim of his ear. Then, just as I mounted it, a new wave of mud slid over me, knocking me back to the ground. At the same time, a potent smell—heavy with fetid, rotting odors—filled the air, making my lungs burn.

Without bothering to brash off my tunic, I started up his head again. By wedging my staff under a mud-crusted stone, I finally managed to reach the top of his ear. Pushing higher, I surmounted his temple and crawled over his cheek, trying hard not to slip in the layers of ooze, until at last I reached the base of his massive nose. There, I found myself facing a pair of cavernous nostrils, completely blocked with debris.

Planting my boots firmly, I tried pulling out some of the muck and branches. Only a small amount came free: The nostrils were jammed tight. I tried poking at the blockage with my staff, without much success.

“Give ub, Merlin,” moaned Shim, speaking softly so the force of his voice wouldn’t knock me off his upper lip. “It’s all too stuckly.”

“Not yet,” I replied. “Maybe if I try something else, I can break through.”

I slid the staff under my belt and took the hilt of my sword. As I pulled it from its scabbard, the blade rang in the air, echoing like a faraway chime. As many times as I had heard that sound, it always reminded me of the sword’s heralded destiny—and its connection, however mysterious, to my own. I turned the blade in my hand, flashing it in the sun. At one point, I caught the reflection of my own face, looking back at me with pride, and yes, even confidence.

Carefully, I aimed the sword at one of Shim’s clogged nostrils. “Hold still,” I commanded. “Very still.”

“You ith full of madness,” he muttered. “Just don’t sting me wid dat pokingly blade.”

I drew back the sword and plunged it in. Though I twisted it vigorously, no muck came free. I jerked it loose, raised the gleaming blade over my head, and jabbed again. This time, I wrenched my whole arm as I thrust.

At that moment, one of the other giants—the rust-haired female—turned around. “Hold!” she shouted, waving her long arms. “The manling is trying to kill Shim!”

All but the two wrestling giants immediately froze. They let loose a unified bellow of rage. At the same time several giants charged up the slope, their faces contorted with wrath. Immense hands reached toward me, eager to crush every bone in my body.

Whirling to face them, I pulled my sword free. Almost. Something in the jammed nostril caught the blade, holding it tight. I tugged and twisted—to no avail. I heard Hallia scream. At the same time, the sky above me went completely dark. The smell of sweaty hands replaced the odor of the swamp. In just an instant powerful fingers would close over me, squeezing the air from my lungs, the life from my body.

Suddenly an eruption, as violent as any volcano, threw me high into the air. My ears almost burst from the simultaneous roar. Arms and legs flailing, I tumbled helplessly, aware only of my own flight—and of the slimy, gray-green ooze that covered my face and chest.

For Shim, I knew beyond any doubt, had sneezed.

I struck the ground. After much rolling and bouncing, I finally came to a halt. Though my head was spinning, I lifted myself into a sitting position and wiped my cheeks and brow. Far up the slope, I could see the giants gathered around Shim, slapping and shaking him. I smiled—and hoped that, in time, he would feel strong enough to walk again. And that, at long last, his nose was clear.

A beautiful doe bounded over the grass toward me. Approaching a boulder, she leaped skyward, her muscular legs tucked beneath her body. As she sailed gracefully over the obstacle, she held perfectly still for a single, magical heartbeat. When at last she landed, the ground seemed to move toward her, lifting itself to greet her hooves. And when she sprinted the last few lengths toward me, my own face felt the rushing of air, my own thighs the pounding of turf. For I remembered, with aching clarity, the freedom of running like a deer.

Stretching my stiff shoulders, I thought about the legend, first told to me by Cairpré, that long ago all Fincayran men and women could fly. Everyone possessed wings, he claimed, wings that had been treasured, before they were somehow lost forever. Many times I had wished that I, too, could fly. Yet, as I followed Hallia’s movement down the slope, drawing nearer to me with every bound, I knew that I would rather fly over the ground in another way altogether. With her at my side.

I watched as the doe slowed her gait to a walk. At the same time, she straightened up, lifted her head, and transformed into a young woman. She strode quickly to join me. Seeing me uninjured (and covered with swamp muck), she broke into a grin.

“You do have a way with giants, young hawk.”

“Only ones with clogged noses.” I clambered to my feet. With difficulty, because of all the filth sticking to my boots, I managed to step clear of the debris. But apart from a few bruises and a scraped hip, I felt no injuries. My staff, still hanging from my belt, was also intact. As was the ballymag—whose muffled ranting and howling from inside the sling told me that he had revived. And that he remained quite unharmed.

Hallia’s grin faded. “Please, now, let us return to the Summer Lands. To my people, and also my dear Gwynnia. She’ll be frantic by now.”

Instead of replying, I turned my gaze toward the steaming bog that stretched all the way to the horizon.

Reading my thoughts, she persisted. “Perhaps you’ll find some way to help—but later, when you know more. The elders of my clan might be able to tell you some useful things about the marshlands. And there’s Cairpré, too. Surely he can advise you.”

Still facing the marsh, I gave a subtle nod. “He could, that’s true.”

“Besides, young hawk, you just can’t go in there. No one goes in there.”

Slowly, I turned back to her. “Then why do I feel so drawn to it? Even as I feel so repelled by it—and whatever dangers it holds?”

She sighed. “I don’t know. But shouldn’t you look for the answer to that before you go any further?”

“I’ve been looking, believe me, but it’s all a blur.” I chewed on my lip. “A real wizard, I think, would see things more clearly.”

Moving closer, she fingered the muddy sleeve of my tunic. “A real wizard would know what he can do—and what he cannot.”

“I suppose . . .” I hesitated, clenching my jaw. “I suppose it’s folly to rush into this. That forest has survived for centuries. Surely it can last a little while longer—long enough, at least, for me to learn more about what’s really happening.”

“That’s right,” she said softly. “And now let’s run. Before the sun falls any lower.”

“You lead,” I proposed. Then, noticing my empty scabbard, I caught my breath. “My sword! Where is it?”

Hallia spun around. “There,” she announced, pointing down the slope. “See where it landed?”

Indeed, it could not be missed. For my shining sword stood perfectly upright, its tip planted in the soil, its hilt held high. Rather than a weapon, it looked more like a marker, dividing the forested lands above from the swampy morass below. In the distance, the swirling vapors almost seemed to reach toward it, curling themselves around the hilt, clutching at the blade.

At that instant, a large, gray-winged bird swooped out of the sky. Without slowing its plunge, it clasped the hilt in its claws and wrenched the sword free from the ground. The bird gave a raucous shriek, flapped its powerful wings with a slow, rowing motion, and rose again into the sky.

“Come back!” I shouted, so taken aback that I couldn’t have wielded any magic, even if I had known what magic to use.

Flapping slowly, almost wearily, the great bird flew toward the lowering sun—and the vast reaches of the Haunted Marsh. In what seemed like only a few seconds, and at the same time, an eternity, it entered the twisting columns of vapors. Then, with another shriek, it released its prize. My sword flashed bright once again, then plummeted downward, vanishing in the mist.

9:
L
OST

Aghast, I watched the dark vapors swallow my blade—and the bird who had stolen it. “Gone,” I said in disbelief. “Gone! I must get it back.”

“Wait.” Hallia’s round eyes peered at the distant swamp, whose contorted clouds lined the horizon. The sun, riding low in the sky, painted the entire vista gold, with a growing hint of scarlet. “It’s all so strange. Why would a bird do such a thing? Unless, perhaps, it was . . .” She shook her head, as if hoping to banish an unwanted thought.

BOOK: The Mirror of Fate
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