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Authors: T. A. Barron

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BOOK: The Raging Fires
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Cairpré paused, looking up into the branches of the towering rowan. “Finally, Valdearg carried his rage southward, to the rest of Fincayra. It was then that your grandfather, Tuatha, engaged him in battle—driving him back into the wastelands. Although the Battle of Bright Flames lit up the skies for three years and a day, Tuatha finally prevailed, lulling the dragon into enchanted sleep.”

I peered at the fragment of the psaltery in my hand. “Sleep that has now ended.”

“Yes, which is why I spoke of
The Dragon’s Eye.
That poem, you see, tells the story of their battle. And describes how Tuatha relied on a weapon of magic, great magic, to triumph in the end.”

“What was it?” asked Rhia.

He hesitated.

“Tell us,” she insisted.

The poet spoke softly, yet his words thundered in my ears. “The Galator.”

Instinctively, my hand moved to my chest, where the jeweled pendant, possessing powers as mysterious as its strange green radiance, had rested so long ago. Rhia’s eyes, I could tell, caught my movement. And I knew that she, too, was recalling the Galator—and its loss to the hag Domnu, that thief of the marshlands.

“The poem,” continued Cairpré, “ends with a prophecy.” Grimly, he studied my face. “A prophecy whose meaning is far from clear.”

He seated himself on a bulging root, his gaze focused on something far distant. After a long moment, he began to recite:

When Valdearg’s eye opens,
Too many shall close:
The darkest of days brings
The deepest of woes.
Together with terror
That swells into pain,
Disaster shall follow
His waking again.

By anger unending
And power unmatched,
The dragon avenges
His dreams yet unhatched.
For when he awakens
To find those dreams lost,
Revenge shall he covet
Regardless the cost.

Lo! Nothing can stop him
Except for one foe
Descended from enemies
Fought long ago.
In terrible battle
They fight to the last,
Reliving the furor
And rage of the past.

Yet neither opponent
Shall truly prevail.
The enemies’ efforts
All finally fail.
Though striving to vanquish,
They perish instead:
The dragon’s eye closes,
His enemy dead.

Then air becomes water
And water is fire;
Both enemies fall to
A power still higher.
Thus only when elements
Suddenly merge
Shall end the dragon,
Shall end the scourge.

But for the rustling of rowan leaves, there was no sound on the knoll. No one stirred, no one spoke. We stood as still as the charred scraps of my musical instrument. And as silent. Finally, Rhia stepped toward me and wrapped her forefinger around my own.

“Merlin,” she whispered, “I don’t understand what all that means, but I don’t like its sound. Its feeling. Are you sure you want to go? Maybe Urnalda will find some way to stop the dragon without you.”

I scowled, pulling my hand free. “Of course I don’t want to go! But she did help me once, when I truly needed it. And I did promise to help her in return.”

“Not to fight a dragon!” exclaimed my mother, her voice frantic.

I faced the woman who had, only moments before, been jubilant enough to sing. “You heard Urnalda. She said I’m the only one who can save her people. Why I’m not sure, but it must have something to do with the prophecy. No one can defeat the dragon except for one person—the one
Descended from enemies Fought long ago.
That means me, don’t you see?”

“Why?” she implored. “Why must it be you?”

“Because I am the one descended from Tuatha, the only wizard—out of all those who must have battled him down through the ages—who finally bested him. Who defeated him, at least for a time.” I tapped the top of my staff. “And I am the only one, it seems, who might have a chance to do the rest.”

Her sapphire eyes dimmed as she turned to Cairpré. “Why didn’t Tuatha kill the dragon when he had the chance?”

Slowly, the poet ran both of his hands through his hair. “I don’t know. Just as I don’t know what the prophecy meant by the dragon’s lost dreams. Or by air becoming water and water merging with fire.”

With an effort, he tore his gaze from Elen and turned to me. “Yet some of it seems plain. Too plain. It does, I fear, point to you as Valdearg’s foe—and as the only one who can stop him from reducing most of Fincayra to ashes. For once he begins, he won’t be satisfied just to wipe out the dwarves’ realm, or even this forest. He will thirst to destroy everything he can. And so, Merlin, it may well be your part to confront the dragon, just as your grandfather did in the Battle of Bright Flames. But this time the outcome will be different. This time . . . both of you will die.”

He swallowed. “Every bard I know understands the importance of this poem. That is why I spent so many years transcribing it, trying to piece it all together. While much remains debatable, no one—no one at all—disagrees on the outcome of the battle.
The dragon’s eye closes. His enemy dead.
Whoever vanquishes the dragon will die as well.”

Even as she tucked a loose vine back into her sleeve, Rhia examined him closely. “But there’s more, isn’t there? Something important that the other bards don’t agree with you about?”

His cheeks flushed. “You have your mother’s way of seeing right through my skin.” He indicated the sphere, glowing softly with orange light, hanging from her woven belt. “Perhaps that is why Merlin gave you the Orb of Fire.”

Thoughtfully, Rhia stroked the Orb. “The truth is I’m still not sure why he gave it to me.” She glanced at me. “Even though I’m grateful. But that doesn’t matter now. Tell us the rest.”

The wind strengthened, rattling the branches above us as a warrior rattles sword and shield. The leaves rustled at our feet, while more leaves, twigs, and flakes of bark twirled downward. I felt a touch of winter chill in the air, even as my fingers still smarted from the heat of my burning psaltery.

Cairpré brushed a twig off his ear. “I’m not at all sure about this, but I think the key to the prophecy may be that obscure reference near the end:
A power still higher.
Whatever it means, it must be something stronger than the dragon. And stronger than . . .”

“Me. Someone whose magical instrument never played a single note.”

“I know, my boy.” He studied me anxiously. “Yet, even so, this power may be something you could still master. And if you could, perhaps you could use it somehow to overcome the dragon.”

“What is it?” I demanded. “What could be more powerful than a dragon?”

“Rags and ratholes, boy! I wish I knew.”

Rhia slapped her thigh. “Maybe it’s the Galator! After all, we know it helped before.”

I waved the idea away. “Even if you’re right, there’s no time now to try to get it back. It’s all the way on the other side of the island. And Urnalda needs help right now! It’s going to take several days, as it is, just to reach her borders. If only my Leaping were strong enough to send me there right away . . . But it’s not.” I rolled the blackened string between my fingers. “And probably never will be now.” Somberly, I shook my head. “No, let’s hope that this higher power means something else besides the Galator. And that I can somehow find it.”

Her voice weak, my mother protested once more. “But you don’t even have a plan.”

“Nothing unusual for him,” observed Rhia. “He’ll try to make one up as he goes along.”

“Then I shall make a plan of my own,” Elen replied grimly. “To pray. And to try not to grieve before I must.”

Cairpré heaved a sigh. “Are you sure you want to do this, Merlin? No one would blame you if you chose to stay right here with us.”

My gaze fell to the brittle string and shard of wood in my hand. All that remained of my psaltery. My failed attempt at higher magic. How could I, with only my staff and sword to help me, even hope to challenge a powerful foe? Let alone Valdearg himself? I lifted the lid of my satchel of healing herbs and precious objects, started to slip the charred remains inside—then caught myself. Why should I keep such a thing? It was useless to me, or anyone else. I let it fall from my grasp onto the ground.

At the same time, my fingertip, already inside the satchel, brushed against something soft. A feather. I smiled sadly, remembering the feisty young hawk who had given me so much, including my own name. Who had never shied away from a battle, even the one that finished his life.

At last my head lifted. “I must go.”

4:
A
D
ISTANT
C
HIME

Caipré’s hand brushed a pair of leaves from my shoulder. “Before you go, my boy, you should take this with you.”

He bent to pick up the blackened string from my psaltery that I had discarded. Carefully, he retrieved it from the leaves and grass by my feet. Resting there in his open palm, it looked like the twisted, blackened corpse of a snake—killed in its very infancy.

I pushed his hand away. “Why would I want that?”

“Because you made it, Merlin. Crafted it with your own hands.”

“It’s worthless,” I sneered. “It will only remind me that I failed the test.”

His tangled brows climbed higher. “Perhaps. And perhaps not.”

“But you saw that happened.”

“I did indeed.
With my very own sight: Find the light, find the light
!” He brushed back some graying hair. “And I saw you never had a chance to play. You were interrupted by Urnalda before you—or the strings—could make any music. We don’t know what might have happened if you had been allowed to finish.”

I glanced at the gnarled roots of the great rowan tree, where I had worked for so many months to make the psaltery. And at the tools, of so many shapes and purposes, that I had finally learned to wield. “But now we’ll never find out. You said yourself, I’ll never get another chance.”

Slowly, he nodded. “To make a magical instrument, yes. But it’s just possible, though very unlikely, that your chance to play this one may not yet be over.”

“He could be right, you know,” said Rhia, stepping through the fallen leaves. “There’s always a possibility.”

I scowled at her. “You can’t make music out of a burned ember!”

“How do you know?” replied Cairpré. “You may have powers you don’t yet comprehend.”

“Powers I’ll never get to use—dragon or no dragon!” Angrily, I snatched the psaltery string from his hand. “Look at this, will you? You know as well as I do that unless a young wizard can make music flow from his instrument, his growth—his chance to become, well,
whatever
he might have become—is ended.”

The poet’s soulful eyes regarded me for a long moment. “Yes, my boy, that’s true. Yet there is much about all this that we—most certainly I—don’t understand.”

“Remember all the leaves?” asked Rhia. “Even before you started to play, you were attracting things from all over. Not just the leaves, but magical things, too. Even Urnalda! Maybe the psaltery was already starting to show its power.”

“That’s right,” added Cairpré. “And who can tell? Perhaps that power drawing all the leaves, all the magic, was also drawing something else. Something that hasn’t yet arrived, that’s on its way to you even now.”

Skeptically, I studied the contorted string and what was left of the bridge. “I don’t believe there is anything left in this. I just don’t. But . . . I suppose there’s no harm in keeping it for a while.”

As I slipped the remains into my satchel, I cast a glance toward my mother, standing in silence by the rowan’s trunk. “What I really need is something strong—very strong. To help me against Valdearg.”

Cairpré touched my arm. “I understand, my boy. Believe me, I do.”

Suddenly, Rhia pointed skyward. “What’s that?”

The poet looked up—then hunched, as if struck by an invisible club. Like the rest of us, he gazed at a pair of dark, jagged wings emerging from a cloud. And the bloodred mouth baring enormous teeth. Or fangs. As the shape circled high above us, we shrank toward the trunk of the old rowan.

“Not the dragon,” prayed my mother, stepping over a massive root. Then, seeing the shape bank sharply to one side, she shook her head. “No, no, look! It’s not big enough. It’s more like a gigantic bat. What in Dagda’s name is it?”

Cairpré made a choking noise. “It can’t be! The last of them died ages ago.” He rubbed his hand against the rowan’s ragged bark. “Stay close to the tree, all of you! Don’t move, lest it see us.”

“What is it?” I grabbed his arm. “And why do I feel such fear, down inside? For more than our lives.”

“Because, Merlin, that thing has come not for our lives, though it could easily take them. It has come . . . for your powers.”

Before he could say anything more, a high, piercing shriek echoed across the wooded hills. It jabbed at me, slicing at my chest like a sword of sound. Then, as a wintry gust slapped the rowan, branches flailed, moaning and creaking, while more leaves and berries scattered across the knoll. In that instant, the winged beast wheeled sharply in the air. Downward it plunged, straight at us.

Rhia gasped. “It’s seen us!”

“What is it?” I demanded.

Cairpré squinted to see through the waving branches. “A kreelix! Feeds on the powers—the magic—of others.”

He tried to place himself in front of Elen, wedging her into a crevasse in the trunk. But she pushed him away. “Forget about me!” she cried. “Protect
him.”

Cairpré’s eyes stayed fixed on the bat-like creature. “Those fangs . . .”

Aghast, I stared at the dark shape descending, drawing closer by the second. Already I could see the three gleaming fangs. And the hooked claws jutting from the leading edges of the wings. I could almost feel them tearing at my flesh, my ribs, my thundering heart.

At least I could draw the beast away from the others! I glanced down at my sword, half buried by leaves at the base of the tree, then suddenly remembered a more powerful weapon. My staff! I tore it free from my belt.

Cairpré seized my arm. “No, Merlin.”

I wrenched free. Clutching the staff, I leaped clear of the knot of roots.

The shriek of the kreelix cut through the air, drowning the poet’s own shout. At the same instant, its enormous, hook-winged shadow fell across the rowan. The beast skimmed the very top of the tree, shearing off dozens of smaller branches as it passed. Debris showered me.

BOOK: The Raging Fires
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