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Authors: T. A. Barron

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BOOK: The Raging Fires
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Numb as I was, I could still feel her leafy arms wrap around me. Then I strode off without her, my future as dark as the veil of smoke on the horizon.

P
ART
T
WO

10:
H
UNTER AND
H
UNTED

Within the hour, shafts of glowing crimson streaked the sky, like the strings of a celestial psaltery. I soon reached a winding stream, flowing red in the waning light: the headwaters of the River Unceasing. Crossing the narrow channel, a mere trickle of water compared to the torrent it would become in the spring snowmelt, proved easy. Just as Rhia had predicted.

As my boots ground against the rounded stones in the channel, I wondered if her other, more fearful predictions would also prove true. And whether I would ever see her again. Like the nameless horse from my childhood we had talked about under the stars, Rhia was more than a companion, more than a friend. She was part of me.

Stepping onto the northern bank, I surveyed the lands of the dwarves. Somewhere out there, in those rolling, rocky plains, lay the hidden entrances to their underground realm. While Urnalda would, I knew, be grateful for my help, I doubted that she guessed how much I would also need hers. It still puzzled me why she had declared that I, and I alone, could help her people. Perhaps she, too, knew the prophecy of
The Dragon
’s
Eye:

Lo! Nothing can stop him
Except for one foe
Descended from enemies
Fought long ago.

I shuddered, for while I did indeed carry Tuatha’s blood in my veins, I did not possess either his wisdom or his weaponry. And I shuddered again to think of the unmatched power of Valdearg.
Disaster shall follow His waking again.
Slaying the dragon, in itself, would be difficult enough. Evading the prophecy, and somehow surviving the battle, would be—I felt sure—impossible.

Squeezing the shaft of my staff, I debated how best to find Urnalda. Or, more likely, to help her find me. If I made myself too visible, Valdearg might well spot me first. If, on the other hand, I hid too well, I might waste valuable time. Keep to the open, I decided at last. And stay ever alert.

Soon the stench of smoke grew stronger. My eyes began to water. I entered a stretch of plain that looked more like an abandoned fire pit than a field. The base of my staff no longer swished through tall grasses, but rather crunched against brittle stems and parched soil. Scorched brambles clawed at the smoky air. Boulders, scattered over the plain, resembled lumps of charcoal. And always the smell!

With my second sight, I frequently scanned the darkening sky for any sign of the dragon. As large as he would be, giving me the chance to spot him at a distance, I expected he would also be fast. Terrifyingly fast. And even while watching for him, I also watched the shadowy terrain at my feet, for I preferred not to tumble into one of the dwarves’ cleverly disguised tunnels. Every indentation, no matter how slight; every unusual shadow, no matter how small—all these I checked carefully.

Just then a gruff voice barked a command. It came from just behind a mass of brambly gorse to my left. Cautiously, I crept closer.

Crouching behind the charred thorns, I spotted a pair of dwarves, their leather leggings and red beards catching the last rays of light. Although they stood not much taller than my waist, their stout chests and burly arms gave warning of their surprising strength. Heavily armed, each of them bore a double-sided axe, a long dagger, and a quiver of arrows. They had just drawn their bows, in fact, and were hurriedly nocking their arrows.

I turned to see a pair of deer, a doe and a stag, cowering at the back of a steep gully rimmed by blackened boulders. No doubt the dwarves had driven them into this trap, hoping to fell one or both of them before they could escape. The doe, tensing her powerful thighs, tried to leap up the side of the gully, but slid back down with a clatter of rocks and a cloud of ash. The stag, meanwhile, lowered his massive rack and prepared to charge straight at the hunters. The points of his antlers gleamed dangerously, yet I knew they would prove worthless against speeding arrows.

The peril of the deer made my stomach clench. Myself, I never ate venison—ever since the day long ago when Dagda himself, disguised as a stag, had rescued me from certain death. Yet I had never deigned to interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment of deer meat. Still . . . I had never before stumbled upon one of the graceful creatures’ execution.

At the instant the arrows nocked into the bowstrings, the doe suddenly turned in my direction. Whether she saw me or not through the brambles, I could not tell. Yet the sight of her wide, intelligent, brown eyes—stricken with terror—hit home.

“Stop!” I shouted, leaping into the air.

Startled, the dwarves jumped. Both of their arrows went wide, skidding off the rock-flaked walls of the gully. At the same instant, the doe and the stag bolted across the turf before the dwarves could reach for their quivers again. In a single, magnificent leap, their forelegs tucked tight against their chests, the deer sailed over their attackers’ heads and bounded out of range.

“What fool are you?” demanded one of the dwarves, pointing his reloaded bow straight at my chest.

“I come in peace.” Emerging from the tangle of gorse, I lifted my staff into the smoky air. “I am Merlin, called to join you by Urnalda herself.”

“Pshaw!” The dwarf scowled at me. “Did she also command you to ruin our hunt?”

I hesitated. “No. But I couldn’t do otherwise.”

“Couldn’t
what?”
The other dwarf stomped angrily, threw his bow to the ground, and pulled out his axe. “You miserable, long-legged oaf! Methinks we should bring back man meat instead of deer.”

“A fine idea,” snapped the first. “These days meat of any kind is hard to come by. You won’t taste nearly as good as venison—the first we’ve found in many days, mind you—but you’ll do. Did Urnalda never tell you that your race is forbidden to enter these lands?”

“Go ahead,” urged his companion. “Shoot him now. Before he tries one of his man tricks on us.”

“Wait,” I protested, my mind racing to find some way to escape.

“You say these lands are forbidden, yet I have been here before.” Although my knees were wobbling, I stood my tallest on the charred soil. “And I have come back to help your people, even as you helped me.”

“Pshaw!” He drew back his bow. The arrow point glinted darkly. “Now I know you’re a liar as well as a thief. Our laws tell us to kill human trespassers, not help them! Not even Urnalda, whose memory is as short as her plump little legs, would forget that.”

“Be that so?” demanded a sharp voice from the shadows.

Like myself, both dwarves whirled to face a squat figure standing beside one of the boulders. Urnalda. She wore a hooded cloak over her black robe that glittered with an embroidery of runes. Her ragged red hair, surging out of the hood, held many jeweled clasps, ornaments, and pins. She wore earrings of conch shells, each almost as large as her bulbous nose. One of her thickset hands curled around her staff, while the other hand pointed at the dwarf holding the bow. Her eyes, as bright as the flames that had consumed my own psaltery, burned with rage.

“Urnal-nalda,” fumbled the first dwarf, lowering his bow. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“No?” The enchantress eyed him for a long moment. “An insult be an insult even if the person it maligns be out of hearing.”

“B-b-but you are mis-mistaken.”

“Be I?” Urnalda stepped fully out of the shadows. “Far worse than your insult to me, huntsman, be your threat to our friend here.” She nodded toward me, swaying her shell earrings. “You be about to skewer him before I arrived.”

My own chest relaxed, even as the dwarf panted in fright. Nervously, he pawed his beard. “But he—”

“Silence! He may be a man, but he still be a friend. Oh, yes! A valued friend. And more than that, he be our only hope.” She glared at him. “You seem to be forgetful of my command to keep him safe after he came to our realm. Be that so?”

“Y-yes, Urnalda. I forgot.”

A flash of light burst from Urnalda’s hand. At the same instant the dwarf yelped in surprise. He stood in his same leggings, though they fell like loose sacks around his boots. I thought his pants had fallen—then realized the truth.

“My legs!” he wailed. “You shortened them!” He tried standing on his toes, though he still only reached his companion’s elbow. “They’re only half as long as they were.”

“Yes,” agreed the enchantress. “So now your memory be no longer than your legs.”

He dropped to his knees, now only a little higher than the tops of his boots. “Please, Urnalda. Please give me back my old legs.”

“Not until you give Urnalda back her faith in your loyalty.” Her eyes flicked toward the other dwarf, who stood shivering. “I would do the same to you, but I be short of huntsmen just now.”

Slowly, Urnalda turned to me. Her face, though still wrathful, seemed a touch softer. “I be sorry your return be so unpleasant.”

I bowed respectfully. Then, with a grateful sigh, I leaned against my staff. “I am glad you arrived when you did. Very glad.”

The conch shells swayed as Urnalda bowed her head slightly. “Your timing be just as good as my own, Merlin. You see, this be the night that Valdearg will come back here.”

Stiffening, I glanced at the sky, darkened both by twilight and the hovering streaks of smoke. Gradually, my puzzlement overcame my fear, and I asked, “You know he will come back tonight?”

“That be true.”

“How can you be sure?”

Her cheeks pinched. “Because, my young friend, I made a pact with him. Oh yes! A dragon be a most intelligent beast, aware of what he really wants. And in this case, I be sorry to say, what the dragon really wants . . . be you.”

11:
T
HE
P
ACT

Before I could begin to move, Urnalda waved her hand. A flash of scarlet seared my mind. I flew backward from the impact, landing with a thud on the charred turf. For an instant I felt my heart had been ripped away, and my lungs crushed completely. The pain in my chest! The shadowy sky, tinged with scarlet, careened above me.

Haltingly, I took a breath of smoky air. My throat stung. I forced myself to sit up. There—the swirling face of the enchantress, smirking confidently. So dizzy . . . Not far away, my unsheathed sword lay on the ground. Much farther away, my staff. I could barely keep the images distinct; everything blurred together. Hadn’t I felt this way before? Recently? I vaguely recalled . . . but when? I couldn’t quite remember.

My
sword,
I told myself.
If I can just get it back, I can protect myself.

Stretching out a trembling hand, I tried my hardest to halt the spinning, to concentrate my thoughts.
Come to me, sword. Leap to me.

Nothing happened.

Although I could hear Urnalda sniggering in the background, I did not let my thoughts veer from the sword.
Leap to me, I say. Leap!

Still nothing.

Once again I tried. Gathering all of my power, I poured every drop of it into the sword.
Leap!

Still nothing.

“Sorry to say, Merlin, you be a little lighter now.” Grinning broadly, the enchantress stepped over to the sword and snatched it. “I be taking something that once be yours.”

“My sword.” I tried to rise, but fell back weakly. “Give it back to me!”

Urnalda’s eyes flamed. “No, it not be your sword I mean.” Bending toward me, she spoke in a chilling whisper. “I be taking not your sword, but your powers.”

Suddenly I remembered when I had felt this way before. With the kreelix! My stomach twisted in knots; my mind whirled. Gasping for breath, I forced myself to stand. Though I felt as wobbly as a newborn colt, I faced her.

“Urnalda. You can’t! I am your friend, aren’t I? You said so yourself! How can you do this?”

“Easily,” she answered. “A bit of
negatus mysterium
be all it takes.”

My legs buckled, and I fell back to the sooty ground. “Why, though? I could help you! I’m the only one who can defeat Valdearg. That’s the prophecy of
The Dragon’s Eye.”

“Bah!” scoffed the enchantress. “Such prophecies be worthless. What matters be my pact with Valdearg himself.” Her stubby fingers played with one of her earrings as she studied me darkly. “You see, the dragon awoke from his spell of sleep because someone destroyed the most precious part of his waking life, the one thing he treasured over everything else.”

I shook my spinning head. “What was that?”

“I think you be pretending, Merlin. I think you already know.”

“I don’t! Believe me.”

“All right, then. I shall humor you. Valdearg awoke because someone—someone most clever—found the secret hiding place of his eggs. His only offspring! Then that bloodthirsty someone killed his young ones. Every last one of them. That be a most dangerous thing to do.”

Angrily, she slashed at the air with my sword. “Since the dragon eggs be hidden near the land of the dwarves, Valdearg blamed this deed on my people. The innocent, upright people of Urnalda! So he flies down here, burns my lands, pounds the ground with his tail to make my tunnels collapse, roasts alive dozens of my huntsmen.” Her slashing grew more violent. “Ruin! Devastation! Until finally—yes, finally—I convinced him that the killer be not a dwarf after all.”

I started to speak, but her torrent of words overwhelmed me.

“Urnalda, so clever, so wise, examined what be left of the eggs most carefully. And I found proof that the killer be not a dwarf, but a man. A poison-hearted man! It be no easy task to convince Valdearg himself to look close enough to see the proof, since even flying high above the remains fills him with rage. Uncontrollable rage.” She jabbed at the air with a vengeance. “Even so, I persisted—and finally succeeded. When Valdearg realized the killer be a man, he decided that only his old foe Tuatha—or a descendant if Tuatha no longer be alive—would be capable of doing such a terrible thing.”

BOOK: The Raging Fires
8.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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