Read Dragonfire Online

Authors: Anne Forbes

Dragonfire

 

 

 

 

For my mother, who loved Edinburgh

Had you seen him striding determinedly across the
heather-clad
landscape you would probably have guessed that he was a wizard or magician of some sort, for there was something indefinably evil and oppressive about the tall figure. A
deep-brimmed
black hat hid his face, a black crow clung to his shoulder and a long, black cloak flapped and fluttered in the wind behind him as he took the slope of the hill in long, even strides. Darkness seemed to cling to him and black clouds gathered and swirled in the sky above for the terrible figure was, indeed, a magician — none other than Prince Kalman Meriden of Ardray, one of the most powerful wizards in Scotland.

From the hilltop, the prince gazed over a grim, lonely valley where snow lay thick on the ground and the black waters of a broad river ran deep. As his eyes lifted to the mountains beyond, he gave a nod of satisfaction. It was as he had expected; for before him lay a magic land, a land where the sun did not shine and the snows of countless winters drifted thick and deep over moor and mountain. Such was Jarishan, the home of his hated enemy, Lord Rothlan.

The magician pressed his lips together in a thin line as he thought of the dangerous task that lay ahead; for Jarishan would not, he knew, be unprotected. Lord Rothlan was no fool. His sharp-eyed eagles might well spot him and he knew that if he were caught, he’d be shown no mercy. It was a risk, however, that he was quite determined to take for, if the old woman had been telling the truth and the lost crown did, indeed, lie under the waters of Jarishan Loch, then he had to make sure that
he
was the one to find it. The thought of Rothlan stumbling on it by accident didn’t bear thinking about! Excitement coloured his voice as he thought
of the crown’s magic power. Despite the danger, he
had
to find it!

Looking at the mountains through narrowed eyes, he addressed the crow thoughtfully. “The magic shield is still in place, Kitor,” he said, addressing the crow. “A pity that I’ll have to break it to get into Jarishan, but there’s really no choice.” He paused to look
searchingly
across the deserted landscape. “But it will only be for a few minutes, after all. Once we’re inside, it can be restored immediately and then —
then
we can begin our search for the crown.”

Slowly the prince raised his arms, stiffened his fingers and chanted the words of a powerful spell. As he did so, a deafening crack of sound screamed through the high mountains on the far side of the river and for an instant they seemed to shiver and shake. The magician surveyed the scene through watchful eyes, for, as the mountains settled and stilled, an invisible hand seemed to sweep a grimy, grey film from their slopes, leaving the snowy peaks sharp and bright in the clear air. The magic shield that had surrounded Jarishan for centuries had been broken!

With a cruel smile on his lips he reached out his arm to cast another hex and although his voice was softer this time, the second spell was just as powerful as the first. Hardly had his words stopped echoing round the valley than there was a sinister rustling and tumbling in the heather around him and from among its tough, sinewy roots appeared hundreds of strange creatures: small, grey and shiny black. They glistened wetly in the mist, their dome-like heads pierced by round, red eyes, their mouths rubbery slits and their ears like the gills of fish. Such were the water goblins that Prince Kalman had called from the watery depths of Scotland’s lochs to do his bidding.

Once more the dark prince gazed across the valley to the cold mountain peaks that lay before him and cast a third spell; a spell that hid him and his water goblins from the eyes of the world of magic. Now, no crystal ball would see them moving downhill to the river; neither would they be seen crossing it.

Prince Kalman smiled in triumph. Jarishan was open to him at last.

However hard you try and however closely you look, you won’t find Jarishan on any map of Scotland. Jarishan is a magical place that lies, it is said, somewhere on the west coast among the heather-clad hills of Moidart. No one has seen Jarishan for many a long year, for it is a cold, icy place, the home of storms, mists and monsters.

It is also home to a magician, Lord Rothlan, who lives on an island in the middle of Jarishan Loch. His castle, tall and turreted, is surprisingly elegant and, in happier days when the sun was allowed to shine, was the envy of the less fortunate. Now its walls are dark, stained and cold; the golden days of summer but a memory. Lord Rothlan rarely thinks of them and, if he does, it is with anger and a desire for revenge; for over the years he has become dark and bitter. Yet he was not always so and there are those among the Lords of the North who still remember his charm and ready laughter.

His crime, however, had been unforgivable. Hundreds of years before, Rothlan had betrayed his fellow magicians and the ruling against him had been harsh. A magic shield had been placed around his lands; a shield that had kept him, and his people, prisoners within its invisible walls. He had not only been banned from the world of magic and magicians, but his domain had also been deprived of all seasons except winter. His once proud eagles shared his punishment and had been transformed into fearsome monsters, their feathers rank and foul. Rothlan felt his enforced loneliness severely and his anger had grown with the passing of the years until he had become a proud and vengeful lord.

Wrapped in robes of fur, he spent the days and years of his
exile perusing volume after volume of the dusty, ancient tomes that had accumulated in his library over the centuries. Many charms were already known to him, and all wizards, faeries and goblins can merge with humans, birds and animals but from the crabbed writing that covered the yellowing pages of his books, however, he gleaned many darker, long-forgotten spells and enchantments.

The years passed and by the dawn of the twenty-first century, Lord Rothlan was not only more vengeful but also a magician of considerable ability. He spent much of his time reading in his study; a grand, richly-furnished room dominated by a glittering crystal ball. For hundreds of years the ball had revealed nothing more than a white swirling mist that hid the world of magic from his sight, and so accustomed was he to its opaque emptiness that he had come to regard it as an ornament rather than a means of communication.

The crystal, however, still retained its magic power and as Prince Kalman broke the shield that surrounded Jarishan, he unwittingly brought it back to life.

Lord Rothlan lifted his head sharply from his book as he became aware of a low, but hauntingly familiar, humming noise. So long was it since he had last heard the sound that it took him a few seconds to place it, and when he did, the shock totally unnerved him. The globe was no longer dead but glowing with life and pulsating with energy.

Shaking with emotion, Lord Rothlan rose from his chair. With trembling fingers he drew close and, touching the crystal ball lightly, gasped as he felt the old, familiar surge of power run through him. Avidly he stared into the crystal as he had in times long past. It was clear … clear! No longer cloudy it glowed with a weird, unearthly light and in its depths he glimpsed fabulous jewels and vague figures. As he caught his breath in recognition they disappeared, blotted out by streaking, yellow and red flames, that for brief seconds curled round the inside of the glass. It was over in minutes. To his dismay the crystal started to fade
and as it dulled, the mist returned and the crystal clouded over once more.

“Amgarad!” called Lord Rothlan, striding up and down the room in his excitement. “Am – garad!”

His voice reached the topmost turret of the castle where Amgarad, captain of the eagles, had his nest. Hearing the unaccustomed urgency in his master’s voice, the bird lifted his head sharply from the protection of his nest and flinched as a bitter wind, laced with the promise of snow, struck his unprotected head. Although the turret commanded a superb view of the surrounding area, it was hardly the most desirable of residences. Open to the four winds, its slit windows had no glass and there was little protection from the biting cold that penetrated every corner of the tower.

“Amgarad!” the call came again, more urgently.

Suppressing a sigh, for he had just managed to settle himself in a comfortable position, the monstrous bird lifted one talon after another and, with a careful delicacy born of long practice, clawed his way out of the mountain of sticks and thorns that served as his nest. With a flap of wings, he landed on one of the stone windowsills, teetering on its brink for a few seconds before plunging into the void.

Amgarad appeared at his best when in flight. He was an impressive sight with huge, black wings feathered against the rising air currents that allowed him to soar and swoop effortlessly over loch and mountain. Seen close, however, there was little about him that was noble. Despite his strong, hooked beak, he was an object of disgust; an evil hag of a bird whose rank, fretted feathers hung about him like a foul cloak.

Seconds later, in a flurry of wings, he landed on the windowsill of Lord Rothlan’s study and swooped to a perch near his master’s chair. Rothlan closed the window behind him and turned, his lips tightening as he viewed the dreadful bird. Meeting his glance, Amgarad closed his eyes in shame and hung his head. He opened them to find his master standing
before him, his eyes understanding and blazing with a fire that he hadn’t seen in years.

His handsome face was, nevertheless, grim and angry. “I have never forgiven them for what they did to you, Amgarad. I suffer for you, believe me!” Striding over to the crystal, he stroked its smooth surface and his voice, when he spoke, was harsh and triumphant. “But it may well be, Amgarad, that our days in exile are coming to an end! And when I have my power back, how I shall make them all pay!”

“Master?” Amgarad’s voice trembled with hope. “How … how can that be?”

“The crystal, Amgarad! The crystal came to life this afternoon! Only for a short time but I saw in it those that I recognized!” He strode up and down the room trying to contain his excitement.

“Prince Kalman?” The great bird croaked horribly.

“No,” Rothlan frowned and shook his head at the mention of the name, “not Kalman Meriden. No, strangely enough, Amgarad, I saw the MacArthurs.” He shot the bird a keen glance. “You remember them? From Edinburgh?”

As Amgarad nodded, Rothlan spoke thoughtfully. “I saw the MacArthurs amid fire and flames. And I saw firestones lying on a heap of treasure.” He pursed his lips. “Could they be the stones that hold the magic shield in place around us?” He shook his head doubtfully. “Something is happening in the world outside our realm and whatever it is, it must be to our benefit; otherwise why would the crystal reveal it to me?”

He paced the floor and then stopped decisively in front of the bird. “I will consult with Hector and the rest of my captains, but first of all I must find out why my crystal has suddenly come to life. You must act as my eyes and ears, Amgarad. Something strange is going on and if the crystal doesn’t lie then it may well concern those in the hill at Holyrood. I am relying on you to find out.”

“Holyrood! You mean that I am to fly to Edinburgh, master?
But … but how can I …?”

“The crystal gave me power, Amgarad. Not a great deal, the time was too short, but I have enough to break the magic ring that surrounds us. Enough to let you through.”

Amgarad took a deep breath and drew himself up proudly. “Master, I will go. Only tell me who or what I must find and I shall do my best.”

Rothlan sat in his great chair and surveyed the bird sombrely. “Come, perch here on the arm of my chair. Your journey will be long and there is much that I must tell you before you leave Jarishan.”

Night fell and servants came in to mend the fire and light the candles long before Lord Rothlan had finished instructing Amgarad. The sight of master and bird deep in conversation caused them to exchange glances and it was not long before a new spirit of anticipation entered the castle as whispered words spread an air of optimism.

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