The Dragons of Noor Excerpt
When the Waytree bridges fall,
Roots die binding all to all.
Bone-white marble walls surrounded the meers’ school at the base of Mount Kalmeer, whose great forest grew in all directions from its snowcapped peak. The first High Meer had chosen to build his school on Othlore, for the lone isle in the western sea of Noor was a place deeply rooted in magic.
A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds as Miles left the western gate with his bearhound, Breal, and crossed the creaking footbridge leading to the forest. It was risky to sneak outside when he should be in Restoration Magic class, but he’d heard a call coming from the Othlore Wood. A magic beckoning, he was sure. The sound had haunted him all morning, though no one else seemed to notice, and so at last he’d come.
In the green canopy, pale light fell through the boughs, painting yellow circles on the forest floor. Already he and his dog were too far in to see the school. Apprentices from every land yearned to study magic here. Few students were accepted, and fewer still earned the right to be initiated as meers, with Othic symbols emblazoned on their palms. Miles was still proud to have been chosen. He would study hard, become a meer, and someday even become the High Meer. That was his secret desire. He’d never told another soul, though he’d almost let it slip once with Hanna.
Boughs swayed overhead, washing him in cold shadows as he crossed the spongy turf. He wished Hanna were with him. She’d understand the risk he might be taking by following the call. But Mother and Da hadn’t let her come. They still believed in backward island ways: girls were to be at home, not gone away to school, and no amount of argument on his or Hanna’s part had persuaded them otherwise. Even knowing she was a Dreamwalker, that she’d been the only one able to rescue him last year, hadn’t made them change their minds.
Beside him, Breal’s ears pricked.
“So you hear it, too.” Breal looked up, brown-eyed, panting, before trotting ahead, drawn by the summons. It was a sound past human hearing, but not past Breal’s, who knew the call of magic, having lived under a curse for many a long year, and not beyond Miles’s own hearing.
Miles hadn’t shape-shifted since leaving Enness Isle a year ago, but each animal shift had left him with a mark or gift. He bore an ugly scar on his neck from his first wolf change, and sharpened vision from his falcon shift, but the heightened hearing from his shift into the Shriker was the strongest of them all. He clenched his teeth, thinking of the Shriker: his giant bearlike body, his claws, his bloody fangs. The demon beast had killed many innocent folk on Enness Isle before he and Hanna had broken the curse.
When Miles first arrived on Othlore, he’d been relieved to learn that shape-shifting was forbidden at the meers’ school. The word meer meant “one who wields magic,” but the school taught discipline and was firmly against any misuse of power. Miles hadn’t been ready to handle the shape-shifting gift the Sylth Queen had bestowed on him so he could do her dirty work. He knew the Old Magic forbade those who lived in Oth to kill, and she’d had to choose a human boy to slay the Shriker for her.
Miles shivered, remembering how he’d become the beast to do the deed. In his Shriker’s form, he’d killed, relished in the killing, and nearly lost himself in a dark shape-shift in Oth. He was keenly aware that he’d come out of the beast form only with Hanna’s help, and with the faith his teacher, the Falconer, had shown in him.
Pine needles crunched beneath his boots. His skin itched with anticipation as he followed Breal through the bracken. No matter what or who was calling him into the woods now, he would not use his shape-shifting gift again until he learned how to handle such powerful magic.
Miles stopped for a moment to finger the tender, green needles. The pines in this part of the forest were too young to be Waytrees. But Othlore Wood had groves with Waytrees of many kinds. It was not so much the type of tree, but the tree’s age that mattered. A Waytree must be ancient, a deep-rooted tree large enough to house a deya spirit.
Miles felt himself expanding as he walked beneath the boughs. When he was not in class, or serving his Music Master, he would come to the forest often and in all weathers to play his silver ervay flute. The Falconer had given him his prized ervay before he died, and Miles kept it safely strapped to his side in a beaded leather pouch Hanna had sewn. The decorative beads were blue and green, the colors of his sister’s eyes.
Zabith, the Forest Meer, dwelled in this part of the forest, but she’d sailed away last winter. The meer had often seen him come and go, and she hadn’t seemed to mind his walks, for he always came alone.
The path led deeper into the grove. More noble Waytrees grew here in Othlore Wood than in any other place in Noor, with the exception of the azure forest in the east where the oldest descendants of the World Tree grew, deep-rooted trees so valuable that they were fiercely guarded by dragons.
Shadows darkened. Miles began to sense the deya spirits hidden in the massive trunks. He could almost feel their wakefulness as they nourished the Waytree roots that bound the broken worlds. As he followed Breal from pine to oak, birch to redwood, the haunting call deepened to a wind song, soft and slowly changing. He wanted to let down his guard, to tell himself the sound was only the breeze troubling the leaves. In Othlore Wood he could very nearly believe that. Still, he stopped in the birch grove where Breal circled round an elder tree, and sat thumping his tail against the soft earth.
Miles ran his hand along the white bark, paper smooth and cool against his palm, and heard the wind-blown notes like a mourner’s cry. “What’s troubling you?” he whispered. The tree stirred beneath his fingers. Miles stepped back.
He’d not meant to waken anyone by the question, but with a shudder, the deya stepped out from the heart of her tree. The tree spirit was twelve feet tall at least. Her body and gown were the white and black of a birch, the silver and green of living leaves, and she shimmered before Miles as leaves do when touched by wind and sun.
Miles bowed his dark head. He’d met deyas last year on Enness Isle when he’d been given his shape-shifting power. But he still felt awed in her presence.
“You honor us, Mileseryl,” the deya said, her voice a welcome breeze.
Miles touched his forehead. “And you me.”
She’d used his deya name, Mileseryl, and he waited to hear hers, but she gave him none.
He glanced at her brown roots extending from her silver gown. Breal came close as if to sniff them, then backed away to stand by Miles.
“You have brought us word,” she said, with such assurance that he glanced up again, startled to see how drawn her face looked. She wavered, insubstantial as a candle flame. He sensed that she was very ill, maybe even dying. His throat tightened.
“What word are you seeking?” he asked. He suddenly felt he would do anything to help her. The deya’s gown fluttered; her arms rose and fell again like wings. But she stayed close to the earth and to her Waytree.
“We few deyas who still remain await news from Meer Zabith.”
Miles knew last winter Meer Zabith had sailed to Jarrosh in the eastern lands of Noor, where dragons guarded the oldest Waytrees in the world. He’d carried her trunk down to Othlore Harbor and helped the old woman aboard her ship, but he hadn’t asked her why she was bound for Jarrosh. Meer Zabith was a seer and a recluse who kept counsel only with the High Meer himself.
“There’s no news from Meer Zabith that I know of,” he admitted.
The silver gray figure thinned like a parting mist. “We hear this, and we drink it into our roots now.” The Waytrees behind her seemed to shudder.
“The dragons must have flown. We fear the strongest Waytrees in Jarrosh have begun to fall. Our roots are not as deep as theirs. Without them we do not have the power to bind the worlds.”
Slowly she drew back. “I will tell the others,” she said.
He saw her fading as she leaned into the birch tree, and reached out, as if to pull her back. “Wait. Where have the dragons gone? Why do you think the Waytrees of Jarrosh are falling?” Breal stood alert, tail lowered, ears pressed back.
“Our roots die with the azure trees. We cannot stay.”
Hisss. A sound not made by wind or trees.
“But the Azures are far away in the east. Why do your roots here have to die? I
“Too late,” the deya said. “Soon we will be gone, and you will forget.”
“Forget what? Please tell me!” He reached for her, but she pulled back, into the tree. “You can’t leave,” he argued. “The deyas have lived in these Waytrees for thousands of years.”
The deya spirit was a ghostly wisp-woman now, her fading presence more a lingering fragrance than a vision.
“You will all forget,” she said again, and was gone.
Miles leaped forward. “Come back. I call you from your Waytree—” But Miles faltered. She had not given him her name.
A hissing sound sped through the wood from above and from below. A thick, dark line grew up the birch trunk. White bark peeled away like curling paper. A long black fissure suddenly split with a resounding crack!
Breal circled, barking. The birch tree shuddered, its branches raining down. The trunk split wider and toppled to the earth, just missing Miles.
Miles lurched back, stunned, then he flew forward to find the deya. “Are you hurt? Where are you?” Gripping the shattered trunk, he tugged with all his might. Breal dug about the base of the trunk as they both struggled against the heavy weight, but they could not budge the tree.
The forest floor rose and fell, as if heaving in a breath. Miles stumbled against Breal and fell backward on his hands. The birch to his right split open with another loud crack. Miles pushed himself up, trying to find his footing on the heaving path.
The trees swayed and buckled as if riding a stormy sea. Small black fissures grew on an oak trunk, splitting wider and wider.
“Watch out, Breal!”
Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh! The sound of voices knelling. Hissssss!
Branches rained down from all sides, from oak and birch and pine. Breal took off. Miles covered his head and raced behind his dog. His breath came hard as he sped down the trail, broke through the trees, and sprinted over the bridge. Across the river on the crest of the hill, he stopped at last and turned again. Hands on knees, he sucked in ragged breaths and gazed toward Othlore Wood, where a singular storm was raging.
The school gate had opened, and meers and apprentices flooded through. In the glade across the river more trunks darkened, thunderous sounds echoed down the foothills as trees buckled and hit the earth. Deep mist rose above the collapsing canopy, rolling in gray waves toward the center of the wood.
Miles stood in the blowing grass with all the others. The earth was still, the evening sky dark but clear. A light breeze crossed his skin. The Waytrees were not toppling in a wind, not falling in a quake, but in some raging magic beyond their ken. A flock of crows flew upward like a black cape tossed into the air. More birds abandoned the wild woods, screeching and twittering with terror as they darted past.
The Music Master, Meer Eason, began to sing the Kaynumba, and others joined him in the ending chant, knowing they could not battle a magic storm coming from the heart of the wood.
Miles’s head was filled with sound; he felt as if his bones were breaking. Centuries ago, the dragons had fought a war to protect the Waytrees. The birch deya said they’d flown. Where had they gone? Miles reached for a branch that had blown clear of the forest, leaning his full weight on the staff.
The birch branch was not yet blackened by the sickness that was taking Othlore Wood. Miles wrapped his fingers around it and felt skin to bark as if he held the hand of one who was dying. His granda’s hand had felt like this—dry, slender-boned, cool to the touch, just before he passed.
Kaynumba, eOwey, kaynumba. The ending comes, O Maker, the ending comes. Meers and students from every discipline sang as the trees passed away. Miles tugged his ervay from its leather bag. His fingers passed along the sylth silver as he played the Y-shaped flute along with the chanters.
On the topmost point of the hill, Meer Ellyer appeared, his russet cloak sweeping out behind him. The High Meer’s lips did not move, for silence was his offering, but his hands were held out to the storm so all could see his meer sign—the Othic symbol for wind-fire—dancing blue on his left palm.
Kaynumba. The ending comes.
Just before dawn the breaking was at an end. A few small saplings still stood, down by the shore and on the far side of the mountain, but the ancient trees lay flat and smoldering on the forest floor, all pointing inward to the place that was once the heart of the wood.