I strained, throwing all my strength into the task, but my shadow refused to move. Again I tried. Still, the stubborn shadow would not budge. Closing my eyes-a meaningless gesture, since they couldn't see anyway, having been replaced by my second sight over three years ago-I tried my best to concentrate. To perceive nothing but my shadow. That was not easy, on a bright summer day like this, though it still seemed easier than my task. All right, then. Clearing my mind, I pushed aside the sound of rustling grasses on this alpine meadow, and of splattering streamwater nearby. No smells of springmint, or lavender, or pepperwort-almost strong enough to make me sneeze. No boulder, roughened by yellow lichens, resting beneath me; no mountains of Varigal, streaked with snow even in summer, rising above me. No wondering about whether I might encounter my old friend, the giant Shim, in these hills so near his home. And, most difficult of all, no drifting into thoughts about Hallia. Just my shadow. Starting from the bottom, I traced the shadow's outline on the grass. There were my boots, leather straps dangling, planted firmly on top of the boulder. Then my legs, hips, and chest, looking less scrawny than usual because of my billowing tunic. Protruding from one side, my leather satchel-and from the other, my sword. Next, my arms, bent with hands resting on hips. And my head, turned sideways just enough to show the tip of my nose, which, much to my consternation, had started to hook downward in recent months. Already more beak than nose, it reminded me of the hawk who had inspired my name. Then, of course, came my hair: even blacker than my shadow. And, I grumbled to myself, just as unruly. Move, I commanded silently, all the while keeping my own body motionless. No response. Lift yourself, I intoned, focusing all my thoughts on the shadow's right arm. Still no response. I released a growl. Already I had wasted the entire morning trying to coax it to move independently. So what if shadow-working was a skill reserved only for the eldest wizards-true mages? I never was much good at waiting. I drew a long, slow breath. Lift. Lift, I say. For a long moment, I stared, exasperated, at the dark form. Then ... something started to change. Slowly, very slowly, the shadow's outline started to quiver. The edges of its shoulders grew blurry, while its arms quaked so violently they seemed to swell in size. Better. Much better. I forced myself not to move, not even to brush away the bothersome drops of perspiration rolling down my temples. Now, right arm. Lift yourself. With a sharp jerk, the shadow's arm straightened. And lifted-all the way above the head. Though I held my own body fixed, a thrill raced through me-a mixture of excitement, and discovery, and pride in my growing powers. At last, I had done it! Worked my own shadow! I could hardly wait to show Hallia. Though I felt as if I could fly off the boulder, I kept myself still. Only my widening grin betrayed my feelings. Returning my attention to the shadow, its arm still raised, I savored my success. To think that I, barely fifteen years of age, could move my shadow's- Left arm? My whole chest constricted. It should have moved the right, not the left! With a roar, I stomped my boots and waved my own arms angrily. The shadow, as if in spite, did the same back at me. "You foolish shadow! I'll teach you some obedience!" "And when will that be?" asked a resonant voice behind me. I spun around to face Hallia. Stepping as lightly as a doe, she seemed more supple than the summer grass. Yet I knew that, even in her young woman's form, she was ever alert to any possible danger-ready to run like the deer she could become in an instant. As the sunlight glinted on her auburn braid, her immense brown eyes watched me with humor. "Obedience, if I recall, isn't one of your strong points." "Not me, my shadow!" Her eyes sparkled mischievously. "Where leaps the stag, so leaps his shadow." "But-but I ..." My cheeks grew hotter as I stammered. "Why do you have to appear right now? Just when I've botched everything?" She stroked her long chin. "If I didn't know better, I might think you had been hoping to impress me." "Not at all." I clenched my fists, then shook them at my shadow. Seeing it wave its own fists back at me only made me angrier. "Fool shadow! I just want to make it do what it should." Hallia bent to study a sprig of lupine, as deep purple as her robe. "And I just want to keep you a little humble." She sniffed the tower of petals. "That's usually Rhia's responsibility, but since she's off learning the speech of the canyon eagles-" "With my horse to carry her," I grumbled, trying to stretch my stiff shoulders. "True enough." She glanced up and smiled, more with her eyes than with her lips. "She can't, after all, run like a deer." Something about her words, her tone, her smile, made my anger vanish like mist in the morning sun. Even my shoulders seemed to relax. How, I couldn't begin to explain. Yet all at once, I recalled the secrets she had shown me of transforming myself into a deer, as well as the joys of running beside her-with hooves instead of feet, four legs instead of two; with keen sight, and keener smell; with the ability to hear not just through my ears, but through my very bones. "It's ... well, it's-ahhh ...," I stammered. "Nice, I suppose. To be here. With you, I mean. Just-well, just you." Her doelike eyes, suddenly shy, turned aside. Emboldened, I climbed down from the rock. "Even in these days, these weeks, we've been traveling together, we haven't had much time alone." Tentatively, I reached for her hand. "If it hasn't been one of your deer people, or some old friend, it's been-" She jerked her hand away. "So you haven't liked what I've shown you?" "No. I mean yes. That's ... oh, that's not what I'm saying! You know how much I've loved being here-seeing your people's Summer Lands: those high meadows, the birthing hollow, all the hidden trails through the trees. It's just that, well, the best part has been ..." As my voice faltered, she cocked her head. "Yes?" I glanced her way, meeting her gaze for barely an instant. But it was enough to make me forget what I had wanted to say. "Yes?" she coaxed. "Tell me, young hawk." "It's, well, been ... Fumblefeathers, I don't know!" My brow furrowed. "Sometimes I envy old Cairpri, tossing off poems whenever he likes." She half grinned. "These days, it's mostly love poems to your mother." More flustered than ever, I exclaimed, "That's not what I meant!" Then, seeing her face fall, I realized my gaffe. "I mean ... when I said that, what I meant was-not, well, not what I meant to say." She merely shook her head. Again, I stretched my hand toward her. "Please, Hallia. Don't judge me by my words." "Hmfff," she grunted. "Then how should I judge you?" "By something else." "Like what?" A sudden inspiration seized me. I grasped her hand, pulling her across the grass. Together we ran, our feet pounding in unison. As we neared the edge of the stream, our backs lowered, our necks lengthened, our arms stretched down to the ground. The bright green reeds by the water's edge, glistening with dew, bent before us. In one motion, one body it seemed, we sprang into the air, flowing as smoothly as the stream below us. We landed on the opposite bank, fully transformed into deer. Swinging about, I reared back on my haunches and drew a deep breath, filling my nostrils with the rich aromas of the meadow-and the full-hearted freedom of a stag. Hallia's foreleg brushed against my own; I replied with a stroke of an antler along her graceful neck. An instant later we were bounding together through the grass, prancing with hooves high, listening to the whispering reeds and the many secret murmurs of the meadow. For a time measured not in minutes but in magic, we cavorted. When, at last, we stopped, our tan coats shone with sweat. We trotted to the stream, browsed for a while on the shoots by the bank, then stepped lightly into the shallows. As we walked upstream, our backs lifted higher, our heads taller. Soon we were no longer wading with our hooves, but with our feet-mine booted, Hallia's bare. In silence, we clambered up the muddy bank and stepped through the rushes. When we reached the boulder, scene of my unsuccessful shadow-working, Hallia faced me, her doe's eyes still alight. "I have something to tell you, young hawk. Something important." I watched her, my heart pounding like a great hoof within my chest. She started to speak, then caught herself. "It's-oh, it's so hard to put into words." "I understand, believe me." Gently, I ran my finger down her arm. "Later perhaps." Hesitantly, she tried again. "No, now. I've been wanting to say this for a while. And the feeling has grown stronger with every day we've spent in the Summer Lands." "Yes?" I paused, trying to swallow. "What is it?" She edged a bit closer. "I want you to, to ... know something, young hawk." "Know what?" "That I ... no, that you-" Suddenly a heavy object rammed into me, knocking me over backward. I rolled across the grass, stopping only at the edge of the stream. After untangling myself from my tunic, which had somehow wrapped itself around my head and shoulders, I leaped to my feet with a spray of mud. Grimacing, I grasped the hilt of my sword and faced my attacker. But instead of lunging forward, I groaned. "Not you. Not now." A young dragon, her purple and scarlet scales aglow, sat beside us. She was tucking her leathery wings, still quivering from flight, against her back. Her immense, gangly form obscured the boulder, as well as a fair portion of the meadow, which is why she had sent me sprawling when she landed. Only Hallia's quick instincts had spared her the same fate. The dragon drew a deep, ponderous breath. Her head, nearly as large as my entire body, hung remorsefully from her huge shoulders. Even her wings drooped sadly, as did one of her blue, bannerlike ears. The other ear, as always, stuck straight out from the side of her head-looking less like an ear than a misplaced horn. Hallia, seeing my angry expression, moved protectively to the dragon's side. She placed her hand on the end of the protruding ear. "Gwynnia's sorry, can't you see? She didn't mean any harm." The dragon scrunched her nose and gave a deep, throaty whimper. Hallia peered into her orange, triangular eyes. "She's only just learned to fly. Her landings are still a little clumsy." "Little clumsy!" I fumed. "She might have killed me!" I paced over to my staff, lying on the grass, and brandished it before the dragon's face. "You're as bad as a drunken giant. No, worse! At least he'd pass out eventually. You just keep getting bigger and clumsier by the day." Gwynnia's eyes, glowing like lava, narrowed slightly. From deep within her chest, a rumble gathered, swelling steadily. The dragon suddenly stiffened and cocked her head, as if puzzled by the sound. Then, as the rumble faded away, she opened her gargantuan, teeth-studded jaws in a prolonged yawn. "Be glad she hasn't learned yet how to breathe fire," cautioned Hallia. Quickly, she added, "Though I'm sure she'd never use it on a friend." She scratched the edge of the rebellious ear. "Would you, Gwynnia?" The dragon gave a loud snort. Then, from the other end of the meadow, the barbed end of her tail lifted, curled, and moved swiftly closer. With the grace of a butterfly, the remotest tip of the tail alighted on Hallia's shoulder. There it rested, purple scales upon purple cloth, squeezing her gently. Brushing some of the mud from my tunic, I gave an exasperated sigh. "It's hard to stay angry at either of you for long." I gazed into one of the dragon's bright eyes. "Forgive me, will you? I forgot-just for a moment-that you're never far from Hallia's side." The young woman turned toward me. "For just a moment," she said softly, "I, too, forgot." I nodded sadly. "It's no fault of yours." "Oh, but it is." She stroked the golden scales of the barbed tail. "When I started singing to her in the evenings, all those songs I learned as a child, I had no idea she would grow so attached." "Or so large." Hallia nearly smiled. "I suppose we should never have let Cairpri give her such a weighty name, out of ancient dragon-lore, unless we expected her to live up to it someday." "That's right-the name of the first queen of the dragons, mother of all their race." I chewed my lip, recalling the old legend. "The one who risked her own life to swallow the fire from a great lava mountain, so that she, and all her descendants, might also breathe flames." At that, Gwynnia opened wide her jaws and gave another yawn, this time so loud that we both had to cover our ears. When at last the yawn ended, I observed, "Seems like the queen may need a nap." In a hopeful whisper, I added, "We may get to finish our conversation yet." Hallia nodded, even as she shifted uneasily. But before she could say anything, a new sound sliced through the air. It was a high, mournful keening-the kind of sound that could only come from someone in the throes of death. Or, more accurately, someone for whom death itself would be a reprieve.
Excerpted from The Mirror of Merlin by T. A. Barron Copyright © 2006 by T. A. Barron. Excerpted by permission.
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