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Authors: T. A. Barron

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BOOK: The Raging Fires
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“Cairpré once asked me,” I mused aloud, “whether the music lies in the strings . . .”

“Or in the hands that pluck them?” Hallia grinned at me. “My own mother, who taught me how to play the willow harp, asked me the same question.”

“And did you answer it?”

“No.”

“Did she?”

“No.” She pulled a barnacle off a shard of driftwood, then tossed the wood into the flames. “But she did say, while we sat on a rock on this very beach, that an instrument, by itself, makes no music. Only sound.”

She furrowed her brow. “I can’t remember her words exactly, but she said something else, too. That musical instruments need to tap into something more—something higher. That’s it. She called it
a power still higher.”

I jumped at the phrase.

She eyed me. “What’s wrong?”

“That’s what I’m going to need if I’m ever going to stop Valdearg.
A power still higher.
It could mean the Galator. Or it could mean something else.” Using the last of the shards, I shoved the burning coals together. “Whatever it is, I don’t think I have it.”

Hallia studied me, half her face aglow from the flames. “Maybe not, but you do have something.”

I looked at her skeptically.

“You have whatever it took to make Domnu give that stallion back his natural form. And, just as important, to set him free.” She turned toward the pulsing waves. “That was a noble thing to do. Almost . . . a stag-like thing.”

I lifted the flap of my satchel and replaced the psaltery string. “Maybe I have done at least one thing right, then. I only hope that hag keeps her word and sets Ionn free.”

Hallia shook her long strands of hair. “I don’t trust her any more than you, believe me! She does need your help, though, if she’s going to get back that pendant. That’s why she told you about the Wheel.”

“Wheel?”

“The oracle. The one in the smoking cliffs.” Her face tightened. “It’s called . . . the Wheel of Wye.”

I squeezed her arm. “You know about it?”

“Not much. Just that it’s hidden somewhere up there.” She paused. “And that it’s a place of fear—and has been long before the spirits came to the mountain.”

“Do you know what Domnu meant by
a minor obstacle?”

“No. And I don’t want to find out.” She drew a halting breath. “There is, though, a village near the cliffs where you might learn more. It’s a brutal place. Filled with m—” She caught herself. “With that
kind
of men. Who don’t even notice their own tracks, who would kill a deer just for sport. Not like . . . well, another man I know.”

For an instant, the fire glowed bright on her cheeks—and, it seemed, on mine. Suddenly she scowled. “That village . . . I’ve never been there. And never want to! But for you, it’s different. It was the place—in my childhood, at least—where most oracle seekers started their climbs into the cliffs. Someone there might know something useful.”

Sensing she was preparing to say good-bye, I felt saddened—even as I felt grateful for her suggestion. “Going there, I suppose, could save time.”

“Though it’s a rough place, and could end up costing you time.” She sighed. “The biggest risk to your time, though, is simply finding it, tucked away in its hidden valley. Unless you know the right trails, you might search for days among the folds of cliffs, and the maze of hillocks on their western edge.”

She paused, her lower lip trembling. “Which is why . . . I’m going to take you there myself.”

My heart leaped.

“The trip will still take time, though. Even more since we can’t use our deer forms. Too much risk of hunters from the village.”

I looked her full in the face. “Thank you, Hallia.”

“It’s only what . . . my brother would have done.”

“Let’s go, then,” I declared. “While there’s still daylight. Just let me put out this fire.”

With my boot, I crunched on the remaining coals. Yet as soon as I lifted my foot, they sprang back into flames. Puzzled, I glanced at my boot. Once again I tried to stamp out the fire; once again it revived. I kicked the largest of the burning embers into a nearby tide pool. It sputtered and sizzled, but continued to flame. Steam rose, mingling with the mist.

“We must leave,” she said urgently. “I only hope we’ll be leaving alone.”

22:
A
C
HILL
W
IND

Hallia guided me over the slippery, mussel-laden rocks to a sharp cleft at the base of the nearest cliff. There we found a thin, winding trail, covered with dust as black as the cliffs themselves. Wordlessly, we followed it inland for some distance, before turning left on another trail, then right on another. Soon we had made so many turns that I would have lost my bearings completely but for the constant presence of the cliffs towering above us.

All the while, as we wormed our way through the sheer buttresses and piles of black rock, we stayed alert for any signs of the mountain spirits. In time, the sounds and smells of the sea began to fade. The trail we were following gradually widened a bit. To our left appeared a string of stubbly fields, while to our right the dark cliffs loomed, separated from us by a row of steep, rocky hillocks. The sun, partly shrouded by a line of clouds, hung low to the west, casting golden rays on the grasses streaked with the auburns and reds of autumn.

By a field where four or five sheep grazed, heedless of us, Hallia stopped. Cautiously, she surveyed the lengthening shadows. “I don’t know which worries me more,” she said, her eyes darting from side to side. “The absence of spirits—or the presence of men.”

“I’m worried about something else,” I said grimly. “Time! There’s just three days left before I must face Valdearg—with or without the Galator. Even if this oracle can help me find it, I still have to get it back somehow. And learn how to use it.”

She gave her flowing hair a shake and began combing its tangles with her fingers. “And one thing more, Merlin.”

My eyebrows lifted.

“You still have to get back to the dwarves’ territory—no little bound from here. While you can, if you choose, run like a deer, you’ll still need to allow at least two days for the journey. Which leaves you only one day to find the Galator.”

Pondering her words, I scraped the ground with my boot—the same boot I had used to try to save the baby dragon. I had failed in that attempt. Would I also fail in this one?

A rock suddenly clattered down from the cliffs above. Hallia started. Her hand tugged anxiously at her hair. “The spirits . . .”

I held her gaze. “You don’t have to come any farther, you know. You’ve already done more than I would have asked.”

“I know.” Her back straightened. “Even so, I shall stay with you a little longer. To the village. But there I must leave you.” She glanced at the shadowed cliffs. “And wish you whatever luck is left in this land.”

So very much, I wanted to tell her thanks. And something more, something beyond words. Yet my throat had closed as tight as a fist.

As her hands went back to combing her tangled hair, she turned and started slowly down the trail. I stared past her toward the rocky hillocks and the smoking crags behind. The sun’s rays, piercing the gathering clouds, had deepened from gold to orange, yet the cliffs seemed darker than ever. Darker than my second sight could fathom.

In silence, we walked. The trail swung straight into the hillocks, which pressed so close to our sides that at times the mountain itself disappeared from view. While Hallia’s bare feet made only the slightest shuffle on the pebbles and dust, my boots crunched with every step. Although the trail continued to grow wider, broadening into a rough road, the shadowy rock piles seemed to press all the closer.

As she maneuvered deftly around a yellow-spotted snake, Hallia gave me a worried look. “The Wheel of Wye, as an oracle, must have strong magic of its own. But it may not be stronger than Rhita Gawr’s spirits. That might even be why he sent them here—to destroy it, or make it serve his purposes.”

I kept striding. Shadows deepened all around us. Under my breath, I replied, “I only hope that he himself is not among them.”

She inhaled sharply. “You really think he might be?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that . . . well, I can’t shake the feeling he’s somehow more involved than we know. Not just with the spirits’ return, but with other things, as well. The kreelixes, for example. Why did they come back just now? And the outbreak of
negatus mysterium—
strong enough to steal the Galator from right under Domnu’s warty brow. Maybe even, though I can’t explain why, the murder of all those baby dragons.”

She studied me doubtfully. “That’s like saying the crying of a fawn is connected to the stirring of oak leaves in the wind.”

“Exactly,” I declared. “For connected they are! I don’t understand why or how. Just that, somehow, they are.”

Her face pensive, she continued along the rock-strewn road. “You sound almost like . . . someone else.”

A moment later, we rounded a bend—and suddenly halted. Before us, lit by the reddening rays, rose three columns of smoke. Not from the cliffs, but from chimneys. The village.

Hallia tensed, one foot twisting anxiously on the pebbles. “I’m . . . frightened.”

I took her arm. “You don’t have to go any farther.”

She shook free. “I know. But I’ll decide when I’m turning back. Not you.”

Together, we continued walking. The high-walled hillocks on both sides receded, opening into a compact valley. There, scored by shadows, sat a ramshackle settlement, made of the very slabs that dotted its stony field. The huts, seven or eight in all, looked like nothing more than square piles of rock. The roof of one had fallen in, but no one seemed to care enough to repair it. But for the smoke streaming from the chimneys, the sheep gnawing at the few tussocks of grass, and the pair of huddled figures leaning against the wall of the largest building, the whole village could have been mistaken for the rock outcroppings around it. Rising sharply from the far end of the valley, the mountain surged into smoking crags, dark and foreboding.

Hallia rolled her head, sniffing the air. “You see what I was saying about this place? Just look at it! Whatever people live here haven’t joined with the land. Never have. See there? Not a single garden, or flower box, or even a bench to sit upon. Most of those huts don’t have any windows.”

I nodded. “The kind of place where people come to escape from trouble. Or maybe cause it.”

A few raindrops splattered us. I glanced at the thick bank of clouds now obscuring the horizon. Arms of clouds, writhing like dark serpents, stretched toward the cliffs. The wind blew cold and hard out of the west, promising more rain shortly. There would be no sunset tonight—and probably no stars for some time.

Grimly, I pondered the cliffs. “I can’t hope to climb up there in a storm. Whether or not I can learn something useful, I’ll need to wait out the worst of it in the village. As soon as it starts to clear, and some stars emerge, I’ll leave. Until then, I’ll just say I’m a traveler passing through.”

“Two travelers,” declared Hallia. She blew a long breath. “Though I’d rather find shelter in the rocks, believe me. No matter how hard it rains.”

“Are you sure?”

She lifted her chin a bit higher. “No, but I’m coming anyway.”

The chill wind shoved us along the road, which skirted the edge of the village before continuing up the narrow valley. More clouds rolled in, obscuring all but the nearest huts. More quickly than I expected, the rain swelled into a shower, then a downpour. Thunder echoed off the crags, pounding like celestial hooves. By the time we reached the larger building, sheets of rain slapped against the stone roof. The two huddled figures we had seen from a distance had already gone inside, leaving the roughly planked door ajar.

After shaking the water from my hair and wringing out the sleeves of my tunic, I peered inside. Not much to see. Just a peat fire sputtering in the hearth, a few spare tables and chairs, and a bent, white-haired fellow emerging from another room. This was, apparently, some sort of tavern. The old fellow, who Wore a waiter’s apron, was carrying a clay bowl in his hands. From the room he was leaving, someone bellowed at him—so loudly that he nearly dropped the bowl. Meekly, he nodded, plunging the tips of his sagging moustache into its steaming contents.

“My broth!” roared a man from a table by the fire. “Bring my dog-damned broth!”

Hurriedly, the old waiter brought over the bowl. The man tore it away, planted his feet on the wall beside the fire, then drained the broth in three swallows. He tossed the bowl to the floor, where it shattered into pieces. Even as the old fellow stooped to clean up the mess, the man shouted at him again.

“Fetch some more peat for the fire, will you? I’m wet and cold, can’t you see? What sort of rat’s hole inn is this that you freeze your guests like corpses?”

The old fellow, his white hair all askew, holding the chips of pottery in his apron, headed toward the adjacent room. He stumbled past the other man who had come in from the rain, now seated in a dimly lit corner, tearing roughly at some dried meat. Although the hood of his black cloak obscured his face entirely, his manner conveyed the same surliness as the man by the fire.

With a frown at Hallia, I pulled open the door. Its squeal was drowned out by the cacophony of the rain on the roof, but the heads of both men immediately turned our way. Even though the hooded man’s face remained in shadow, I could almost feel the harshness of his gaze. Hallia, close behind me, hesitated in the doorway.

“By the corpse’s death,” grumbled the man by the hearth. “Close the dog-damned door!’’ His eyes, like his coarse beard, glowed red in the firelight. “You’ll give me a dog-damned fever, you Will.”

She looked for an instant as if she were on the edge of bolting, but stepped inside and shut the door. I nodded toward a rough-hewn table at the opposite end of the room. While it sat not far from the other man, whose black hood still dripped from the rain, he seemed likely to be a better neighbor than the ranter by the hearth. As we moved toward the table, the white-haired waiter returned, bending even lower than before under the weight of a few clumps of peat. He barely glanced at us as we passed.

BOOK: The Raging Fires
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