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Authors: T. A. Barron

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BOOK: The Raging Fires
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She gladly accepted the invitation—more gently this time. “How?” she blurted. “How did you do it? I’ve never heard of a living stone releasing anyone it’s caught.”

Despite my sore cheeks, I grinned. “Most people don’t taste as bad as I do.”

She released me, her laughter echoing across the swamp. Then, for a long moment, she observed me. “There must be something in you that even a living stone couldn’t crush.”

“My thick head, perhaps.”

“More likely, your magic.”

Although my ribs throbbed, I drew a deep breath. “As little as there is, I suppose you could say it’s my core. Essential—and undigestable.”

With her leafy forearm, she brushed some chips of stone off my shoulder. “Well now, look at you! Your tunic is ripped, and there’s so much dust in your hair that it’s more gray than black.” She smiled. “But you’re alive.”

“How long was I in there?”

“Two or three hours, I’d guess. The sun came up just before you returned.”

Warily, I gazed up at the enormous boulder that had ejected me. I stepped slowly toward it, my heart pounding. Rhia tried to hold me back, but I waved her away. Placing a tentative hand on a flat, mossy spot, I whispered, “Thank you, great stone. One day, when I am stronger, I should like to hear more of your stories.”

Though I could not be sure, I felt the rock beneath my fingers shiver ever so slightly. Removing my hand, I bent to retrieve my staff, still lying on the ground. The shadow of the living stone did not diminish the wood’s lustrous sheen. I grasped the gnarled top—which, as always, fit my hand perfectly. For a few seconds, the scent of hemlock pushed aside the reeking smells of the swamp.

Rhia gasped. “Your sword! It’s gone.”

I started. Indeed, my sword, scabbard, and belt had vanished. They must have remained inside the living stone!

Whirling around, I pleaded, “My sword, great stone! I need it! For Valdearg.”

The stone did not stir.

“Please . . . oh, please, hear me! That sword is part of me now. And it has magic of its own. Yes! I’ve been entrusted to bear it—until the day, far in the future, when I shall give It to a boy. A boy born to be king. A boy of great power. So great that he will pull that very sword from a scabbard of stone.”

The boulder remained motionless.

“It’s true! The sword will be held—not by you, not by a living stone, but by a stone that will guard it, awaiting that very moment.”

No response.

My nostrils flared. “Give it back.”

Still, no response.

“Give it back!” I demanded. Grasping the shaft of my staff, I raised it to strike the living stone. Then, noticing my thumb on top of the carved image of a sword—symbol of the power of Naming—I halted. The name! The sword’s name! Which, like all true names, held a magic of its own. Perhaps, just perhaps . . . I leaned toward the stone.

Abruptly, I caught myself. I had not used any magic since—since plucking my psaltery. If I called on my powers again, would another kreelix attack? And succeed where the other one had not? I cringed, remembering the gaping red mouth, the jagged wings, the ruinous fangs. Yet . . . if I let the elemental fear of another attack rule my actions, then what was I? A coward. Or worse. Whether or not another kreelix appeared, it would have already robbed me of my powers.

I gritted my teeth and bent closer to the stone. Mist, rank with decay, blew off the marsh, shrouding us completely. The swamp’s eerie gasping, hooting, and wailing pressed closer. I could hardly hear my own thoughts for the noise.

Concentrating, I cupped my hands over my mouth. So that no one, not even Rhia, might hear the sword’s true name, I spoke it softly. Then, with my full voice, I added: “Come to me, from the depths of stone. Wherever you are, I summon you.”

Glancing nervously over my shoulder, I saw nothing but the curling trails of mist. Suddenly I heard a rumbling, growing louder by the second. It swelled steadily, like an approaching wind, until it obscured even the sounds of the swamp.

The living stone suddenly wrenched. Chips of rock broke loose, along with flakes of yellowish moss. Small cracks appeared all over its weathered surface. The whole stone rocked from side to side, as if struck by a violent tremor. An instant later, the surface split open, pursed, then spat out my sword and scabbard. They thudded on the ground.

I lunged for the prize, even as the living stone rolled to cover it. Rhia shouted, leaping aside. Together we ran across the island. As we reached the shore, vines squelched and popped under our boots. The mist grew thinner, shredding rapidly, revealing again the swamp.

Before plunging into the mire once more, I quickly strapped on the sword’s leather belt. Then I gazed back at the living stone, rocking sullenly on the ground, and called to it. “Do not be angry, great stone! This sword would be difficult for you to digest. No less than its master! Someday, perhaps, you and I shall meet again.”

With a deep rumble, the boulder started rolling toward us. Not wanting to wait to learn more about its mood, Rhia and I splashed into the putrid waters of the swamp. Yet as the ooze seeped into my boots, splattered my legs, and assaulted my nose, I felt somehow grateful even as I felt repulsed. Grateful to smell and hear again. And grateful to move freely—my legs pushing through bog grasses, my arms swinging by my side.

For most of that morning, we slogged northward through the marsh. Except for the pool of quicksand that tried to tear my staff from my hand, we had no great difficulties. Still, our hearts leaped when we reached drier ground at last. Eagerly, we shook the mud off our boots. An old apple tree, springing from the side of a low hill, offered us the remains of its autumn harvest. Withered and small as they were, the apples burst with flavor. We ate all we could hold. Nearby, Rhia found a clear, cold stream where we washed away the lingering odor of the swamp.

Continuing north, we trekked rapidly toward the realm of the dwarves. The land rose gradually in a series of grassy plains, lifting like stairs to the high plateau where the River Unceasing bubbled out of the ground. There, I knew well, we would enter the dwarves’ terrain. Valdearg’s terrain. If only I could find Urnalda before the wrathful dragon found me! Maybe I really could help her somehow. And maybe . . . she could also help me.

In midafternoon, we paused to feast on some shaggy gray mushrooms sprouting among the roots of a leaning elm. And to take advantage, for a moment at least, of the chance to sit down. Wiping the perspiration off my brow, I stretched my legs and surveyed the grassy plains surrounding us. While the River Unceasing flowed well to the east, my second sight could still make out the twisting corridor of mist that marked its channel.

I knew well the river’s path: After gathering in these plains, it grew steadily wider and stronger, surging straight through the heart of Fincayra. Along most of that way, steep banks and pounding rapids made crossings difficult. In fact, between the headwaters and the Shore of the Speaking Shells far to the south, I had found only one reliable place to cross—a shallow stretch marked by nine rounded boulders. We couldn’t be far from that spot now. For some inexplicable reason, I felt a gnawing urge to go there again.

After tossing another mushroom to Rhia (which she popped right into her mouth), I pointed toward the mist. “What about crossing the river over there? At the place with the boulders.”

Still chewing, she shook her head. “I’ve had enough of boulders for one day! Besides, the shortest route is to keep going due north, up the plateaus, until we meet the headwaters. Crossing there won’t be difficult, especially at this time of year when the waters are low.”

Though I knew she was right, I continued to stare at the snaking mist. “I don’t know why, but I feel drawn to that crossing.”

“Whatever for?” She eyed me skeptically. “That would cost us half a day. As it is, the light will only last another couple of hours.” She sprang to her feet. “Let’s go”

“You’re right. Haste is everything.” With a final glance at the misty corridor, I followed her through the tall grasses.

A large flock of geese passed overhead, so close we could hear the rhythmic creaking of their wings. Like all the other birds we had seen that day, they were traveling in the opposite direction from us. After them came what looked, at first, like a spinning knot of dust—until we heard the buzzing and realized it was, in truth, an immense swarm of bees. Following close behind came a wide-winged heron, a pair of tattered gulls, a sandpiper, several swallows, and an elderly raven, flapping arduously. Then, hidden by the grass, a family of foxes nearly charged straight into us. Seeing their wide eyes glowing with terror, Rhia shot me a worried glance. Though we continued to ascend the terraced meadows, her pace slackened a little.

As late afternoon light brushed the grasses with gold, we reached the lip of another plateau. Both of us halted, struck by the same sight. The sky ahead of us loomed unusually dark. A heavy veil draped over the horizon . . . yet it seemed thinner, flatter than any thundercloud. Could it be a shadow caused by the lowering sun? At that moment, a gust of wind fluttered my tunic. I caught the first whiff of a scent that smote me like a broadsword.

Smoke.

I released a groan. The sky ahead had been darkened not by clouds, nor by shadows, but by Valdearg.

Rhia turned to me. Her face, usually so bright, looked utterly grim. “Until now, Merlin, I’ve been able to push aside my doubts. Because I thought it was right to help you. But now . . . I’m not so sure. Look there! The land burns, like Valdearg’s angry heart. It seems so—well,
foolhardy
to walk right into his mouth like this.”

“Have faith,” I countered bravely. But my croaking voice betrayed how little faith I had myself. I shook my head. “Foolhardy it is, I admit. What else can I do, though? The longer I wait to confront Valdearg, the more he’s sure to destroy. My only hope is to reach Urnalda soon. Perhaps she knows something useful. She might even know what the prophecy meant by
a power still higher.”

Rhia set her clenched fists upon her hips. “All I remember about that prophecy is that, even if you do somehow slay this dragon, you’re going to die with him! So either he kills you and survives, or kills you and dies himself. Either way, I lose a brother.”

With my staff, I jabbed at a mound of grass. “Don’t you think I know that already? Look. Here we are, at the very edge of the dwarves’ realm, and what weapons can I really count on? My staff, my sword—and whatever magical powers, still unformed and untrained, that I carry inside me. Put together, they don’t amount to a single scale on Valdearg’s tail.”

I scanned the smoky horizon. “And that’s not the worst of it.”

She cocked her head. “Meaning?”

“Meaning I just can’t rid myself of the idea that Valdearg isn’t all I need to worry about.”

Incredulous, she stared at me. “Wings of Fire himself isn’t enough? What are you talking about—the kreelix? Or whoever might have secretly raised it?”

“No. Though they might also be part of this, for all I know.”

“Who, then?”

My voice lowered. “Someone who longs to take Fincayra in his hand. To squeeze it like a gemstone. To make it his own.”

For an instant, Rhia’s face went as white as birch bark. “Not . . . Rhita Gawr? What makes you think he’s involved?”

“I, well . . . I’m not really sure. It’s vague. But I wonder why the dragon woke up now, after sleeping for so many years. And who might know enough about magic—or
negatus mysterium
—to have caused such a thing. I don’t know whether it’s Rhita Gawr or someone else . . . or if I’m just imagining things. Yet I can’t help wondering.”

She scowled at me. “You’re hopeless, really! Listen, Merlin. Rhita Gawr has not set foot on this island since the Dance of the Giants routed him and his forces over a year ago! You’d be better off worrying about the enemies you know—rather than creating any more for yourself.”

I twisted my staff into the turf. “All right, all right. You speak wisely, I’m sure. It’s just that . . . well, forget it. Here, what do you say we stop talking about enemies—of all kinds—for just a moment. Let’s dine on some of these astral flowers.”

“Before Valdearg dines on you?”

Ignoring her comment, I picked a fistful of the yellow, star-shaped flowers speckling the grass. As she looked on glumly, I rolled them into a compact mass that produced a sharp, tangy aroma. “I remember when you first showed me how to eat these. You called them
a trekker’s sustenance.”

“Now I’ll call them my brother’s last meal.”

Tearing the mass in half, I handed one part to her. “None of us will eat many more meals unless Valdearg is stopped.”

She nodded, her curls ignited by the golden light. “True.” She took a bite of the astral flowers, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed. “That’s why I’m coming with you.”

“You are not!”

“You will need help.” Her eyes bored into me. “I don’t care if Urnalda wants you to come alone! I’ve saved your skin before.”

I fingered my staff. “That you have. This time, though, we’re talking about Wings of Fire. He could wipe out every single life we know.” Wrapping my forefinger around hers, I added gently, “Including our mother’s. She is the one who needs you most, Rhia. She is the one you must protect. Not me.”

Her head bowed.

“Remember, you promised her that you would come back. That you would take me no farther than the dwarves’ borderlands.”

Rhia lifted her head slowly. “At least . . . let me give you something.” She reached for the Orb of Fire at her side.

“Not the Orb. That’s yours to keep.”

“But I don’t know how to use it!”

I squeezed her finger. “You will, someday.”

Releasing me, she deftly unwove a bit of vine from her sleeve. Then, without a word, she tied the bracelet of vibrant green around my wrist.

“There,” she said at last. “This will remind you of all the life around you, and the life within yourself.” She studied me sternly, though I could see the clouds in her eyes. “What it won’t do is help you stay out of trouble.”

Now it was my turn to bow my head. “Nothing can do that, I’m afraid.”

BOOK: The Raging Fires
13.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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