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Volume 1 - Escape
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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Chapter - 43 Many Fates and FortunesThe cold, black door opened in utter silence and yet the compacted snow, piled against it, did not fall in. Corin clambered over and through it, so that chunks fell and shattered upon the threshold. After a few moments he stood within, shaking the clinging icycles from his cloak. The door swung behind, as soundlessly as it had opened.
The hall in which he found himself was lit by a brazier, halfway down its long length. The ceiling, high above, was arched over; the stones of its construction leaned together like the finger-tips of one hand pressed against another. Only the tremendous, opposed weight checked the entire structure from collapsing inward. The chill floor was of naked stone and nowhere was there a rug or hanging or ornament to cheer all that vast, empty vestibule.
Patiently, Corin waited. He knew that someone would come, of that there was no doubt, for had he not been permitted to enter? Yet he found himself wondering about his supposed ability to open doors and gates at a touch. He was not to be kept long however. A voice, somewhere above, rang out in hollow tones that, momentarily, startled him. ‘Wait there,’ it commanded. ‘No harm shall befall you. Do not stray.’
Peering up, Corin glimpsed a figure at the edge of a parapet that ran some way above his head. Then the walkway was empty and nought more did he hear or see.
Outside, the dragon circled, high in the frigid air.
The company, clinging to his back, looked down upon the solitary structure that was the only landmark in a world of white. Sadly, they averted their eyes and, at Silval's signal, Pitrag tugged on Sgnarli's ear, causing the dragon to veer away southward, bearing with him the last of Corin's companions. Leaving their dear friend to a mysterious fate.
Yet the elves pledged themselves to return.
Within the fortress-like walls of the hermitage, a thick door fell back at the furthest end of the hall and through it, holding a brace of candles, appeared a black-garbed figure, yellow light playing across his bearded face. ‘So now we are ten, the final number decreed,’ he said, halting a few paces before Corin.
They stood so, regarding each other for a time, until at last Corin spoke, ‘You seem as if you had expected me, were awaiting my arrival.’
‘We have been, for long,’ replied the candle bearer, smiling through the grey whiskers that shrouded his face.
‘But how could you know of my coming? I myself knew not until a short time ago.’
For answer, the other beckoned. ‘Follow me, if you will,’ he said, making off down the hall and leaving Corin puzzled and not a little suspicious. Still, after a moment's hesitation, he did follow, his elvan-shod feet making no sound upon the floor.
Reaching the far door, the candle bearer flung it wide and stepped back to allow admittance. Fire-light flickered through the open portal and Corin, wary, entered. Inside lay a chamber built, it seemed, around a hearth, upon which there glowed and pulsed a great pile of coal. The room was rectangular and on either side of the fire sat eight black-robed figures. They sat on plain, low benches of stone, four to a side, with the flames rising between them. At the furthest wall ran a shelf cut into the masonry and on this were vessels, and platters piled with black bread. Over the fire dangled a huge cauldron suspended from an iron hook as thick as a man's thigh and filled to the brim with a heavy bubbling broth.
‘These people, like myself, are Hermit Mages,’ said the candle bearer at Corin's back. ‘We are folk who have chosen this solitary way of life in search of further wisdom and purity, as did those who came before us. We are simple folk and have few outside wants. Yet within our minds have we gathered wondrous treasure, a store of knowledge known to few others beyond these walls. The Founder, who set this stone to the mount, foreordained that our order should count but ten and you, traveller, are the tenth. You must be the one, for we observed your arrival upon that winged monster and your directness to our door. You came seeking us, that is plain, and we welcome you amongst us. Surely you must be a person of wisdom yourself; or at least a seeker of.’
Corin allowed himself a moment to cast a steady gaze at those who silently awaited his reply, then he said, ‘I do seek knowledge from the wise and I would join your company if that is what you wish.’
The eight about the fire bowed their cowled heads in assent and the candle bearer, too, nodded as he gestured Corin to a seat. ‘First,’ he said, ‘we must all give our names. Mine is Catoowig.’
Menkeepir heaved a long sigh. ‘You know, my Lady Qwilla, this is the second time within a short space of days that I must say farewell to this lovely land of yours. First north, and now westward do I travel. But let me tell you this, even though I and my company are soon off on the road to homeside, I shall miss this place. It is a wonder and a delight; and I say that, even though my own realm is fair to behold. Yet my land is rugged with mountains and wild-clothed in green tree garb, whilst here is all pasture and hedge and gentle slopes. The very air is alive with bee-drone and flower perfume.’ He sighed once more. ‘Yes, this is a tiny corner of the world; a corner somehow untouched, pure.’
The lady Qwilla, her arm wrapped around the straight trunk of a hornbeam, gazed out toward the distant woods that she called Greenshawe. Across the Drove road, sheep and goats milled in flocks, circled by the ever watchful dogs. Milking and fleecing time was nigh at the penfolds.
‘Ay,’ she said in a faraway voice, ‘yet I am wondrian. Yersel, ye said all kinds of things wæ afoot. I am moved to chill somehow. Come ænd go, I give my læve; though all is not as was afore.’
Menkeepir set his shod foot to the roots of the tree and nodded gravely, ‘I too have that feeling. I cannot say exactly what it is; in some way my thoughts seem just beyond my reach, almost as the first shoots are hidden beneath winter's mantle. But I tell you this also, and if I am wrong no harm will come of it, be ready. Be prepared for the unexpected. Something that we cannot foresee. Master Corin, even, could not guess it. Though he sensed change for the world, in the air, of that I am certain.’
Qwilla nodded as, absently, her hand strayed to Menkeepir's, where he caught it and held it in silence.
The wind came, chilling, into the eyes of the elves as the dragon laboured with leaden wing-flap, out of the north. The silent thoughts of the elves were passed, one to another, as swiftly as heartbeats.
All below was white and jagged. Rows of pinnacles and spires and peaks, in majestic, frozen haught, reared upward like a forest of mighty trees, snow-bound. The elves, the cat and the pixie, and even the dragon, were hoar-hung; their hair and ears and eyelids frosted. The earth sped beneath them and no sound was there, but for the rush of air and wings, until......
Out of the north-west there arose a racing, thundering, roaring gale. With elf-sight they saw it as a tiny ball of smoke and flame, growing whilst they watched. Soon it became a bellowing, fire-tongued tide that scorched nearer as it closed with Sgnarli. The young dragon hissed and, spouting, somersaulted in the air. Grimly those aboard him hung on. The fire-drake, for that was what the new-come creature was, bellowed an iron-melting challenge.
Sgnarli, zooming out of his loop, snorted and veered away toward a cloud bank that appeared frozen in the sky. Above them, a great jet of fire blew, shrank, and blew again. Then, bursting through it, exploded the hide-hardened bulk of the second dragon, talons screeching the wind, tail flailing, eyes blazing with malice and savagery. The gusts of its breath were such that Sgnarli and his burden were rolled and tossed, tumbling and spinning, until the clouds devoured them and they were hidden.
As the sound of the angry drone diminished, punctuated by thunderous fire-balls, Sgnarli fanned free of the woolly clouds and made again into the south.
South-west, now a speck, now a red burst, vanished their assailant.
‘You say I must be the tenth come of your hermit order,’ said Corin to Catoowig, where they stood beneath a narrow, arched opening, within which lay a shadowy cell that was to become Corin's hermitary. ‘Yet I am no mage. I seek knowledge. For that which I do have, seems, of little consequence to me now.’
Catoowig stroked his beard thoughtfully. ‘You have so far mentioned your knowledge of elves and their kin. It would seem to me that you are already widely travelled. Surely there is much to tell in that alone. And as for elves, why, our lore is scarce and we would welcome tell of them. Tell of sky-serpents too, since you are a dragon rider, and that in itself is a singular wonder; one in fact that would drive fear into many a brave heart. And you mentioned your companions: a ymp and an ogre, as if they were not hostile and solitary creatures, but useful at need. And what of the cat that converses with men in like tongue? These for certainty, are things of which we should wish to hear more.’
‘Well of course,’ said Corin. ‘I have become accustomed to very many things that are wondrous indeed. It will be my pleasure to tell of them, and please do not think that I belittle all such marvels. It is only that I am eager to learn more of the world, for a little knowledge only points to how much there is to find out and, as I have told already, I am but new here to this vast North World.’
Catoowig chuckled, nodding. ‘Be at ease master Corin. That will come to you all in good time. Patience is a part of the learning process, and remember,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘that all of us have gifts to share with each other. Each has a special talent: for one, it is trees and plants, their growth and nature and qualities. For another it is bird and beast kind, their habits and haunts.’ Catoowig smiled at Corin, ‘Do you not see? We give of ourselves and in turn receive. In that way learning, skills and crafts are exchanged for the education of our order, that one day will be put to use in the world outside.’
‘And what is your especial talent?’ asked Corin.
‘Mine,’ replied the hermit with a note of pride in his voice, ‘mine is the study of language; tongues both old and new.’ He paused in thought a moment, then said, ‘The Elvish speech, do you know it?’
‘Then you must teach me that much, if you will, and I shall put it down on vellum with quill; or better still, scribe it on tablet with stylus, that is longer lasting.’ He took a wrist-thick candle from the several that he held and placed it on a ledge within. ‘Now it is time for me to leave you. It is our practice to retire alone at whiles, that we might rest and meditate. Later, I, or another, will come for you. Perhaps you will take some sleep after your journey?’
‘Perhaps,’ Corin replied, ‘though I am eager to see everything of this, my new home, and begin my studies.’
‘And you shall, you shall this very eventide,’ answered Catoowig. ‘Yet bide here until called, and wander not; for many are the ways in this vast hermitage and it is simple to lose direction.’ He turned, bowing his cowled head, and went off along the corridor that led to the great entrance hall.
Corin sat down on a stone bench that was to serve as both seat and bed. A sack of straw and a burel blanket of coarse, woollen cloth were the only covering it boasted. ‘How much should I tell, how much should I trust these secretive folk?’ he wondered. ‘After all, what are they doing here in these deserted, wild reaches?’ For a fleeting catch, a shiver slid through him. ‘Are they as they appear to be?’ he thought. ‘And where shall I go, and how, when I leave?’ His eyes followed the slow movement of the candle-flame. ‘If I am allowed to leave.’
His eyes followed the slow-moving flame of the candle. He was reminded of the dank prison where once he had been kept. ‘How aged I feel,’ he thought. ‘As if I have lived through lifetime after lifetime. But then of course, in a way, I have. It is all such a confused jumble.’
For a moment, or as it seemed, his eyelids drooped. A pulsing of sounds: mutterings, sing-song voices and whisperings invaded the deepest corners of his wandering mind. Too many and confused were they, rising and lowering and merging until his hand slipped from his chin and he jerked awake. On that instant he felt as if eyes, steady and alarming, were boring into him.
Standing, he took a pace into the corridor; the shadows beyond his cell danced to the motion of the flame, though nought else stirred. After a heart-beat, he returned to his bed, but did not sleep.
Sgnarli bent away in a ponderous glide that changed to wing-flap. Ahead, a small column of riders loped across the wastes of the Edinu plain. This was the land of the Hiung-Nu, the fearful Dog-Face warriors who roamed from the outliers of Lang Shan, through the twisted paths of the Kisir-Oba, to the borders of Kutha-Kesh.
Above, the wary elves spiralled down, whilst below, Menkeepir and his company, alerted to their coming, watched. Some of the men began to raise a cheer, but Menkeepir silenced them. ‘This is no time for rowdiness,’ he cautioned. ‘If we are to survive this dreadful land we needs be silent.’
‘Yea,’ said Mysingir at his side, ‘though ears will not hear, eyes can still see.’
Menkeepir threw a look at his brother, ‘Can see easier, if provoked by unnecessary racket.’
The dragon hovered above the flat of the Edinu then, touching his hind claws to the sand, settled with a rough flap of furling wings and a tweak of the ear from squawking Pitrag. Midway between dragon and riders, Silval the elf and Menkeepir the man, met.
The fires roared and died as they were quenched, only to roar again as Mendor, brother to Menkeepir and Mysingir, ordered up more wood, water, wine, hammers, levers, beetles, wedges and splitters to cleave through the stone-choked gorges of the Colle-Oba. Fed with raw pitch and doused with vinegar, the rocks crumbled as they were assaulted with seam-splitting blows that left relays of strong-armed men exhausted and grimed with sweat from the heat and hard work. Still Mendor kept them at it, carving with fire and liquid ever deeper, whilst holding others posted to watch for the first sign of enemy intervention.
At whiles he was confused and perplexed by the cohort from Dorthillion, led by Minca; who were ever amongst the foremost with the cauldrons and mallets, yet he grudgingly welcomed their support, though his dislike of the self-styled Lorda had in no way lessened. But of more import, grew Mendor's concern for his city and peoples, now left Lordless, with only those trusted Captains remaining behind to defend them.
Disintar, loyal companion and liegeman to the three Lords of Indlebloom, rode patrol, flanked by Jaromir and Bayondir, each recovering from sustained wounds of the past battles. Through the towering pines pranced the ordered file of roans, white-maned and proud: Thithric, Lastardir and Norbirt, in good health, astride.
All appeared peaceful enough, the frightful enemy vanished away as if never been and yet Disintar, pessimist perhaps, remained suspicious. ‘I do not like the feel in my heart and gut,’ he muttered. ‘By Indoth, come, let us have for home!’ And with that cry, the riders kneed their mounts toward the city.
‘Halt and remain there!’ Diarmath the hermit cried, holding an open palm to the rich black horse that stood, nostrils quivering, before him. ‘And so!’ he said triumphantly, turning to Corin. ‘A horse will come, stay, depart; all at the Master's wish. Training alone is not the secret.’
Corin and the Horse-Master were standing in the stables, two levels below the door-hall of the hermitage.
‘Attend to me now,’ continued Diarmath. ‘To achieve such results requires a knowledge of Jading, that is to hold an animal unmoving. To Jade, an art in itself, may be accomplished at first by these means, make an ointment using dried stoat liver and mingle with red-gum resin, milk and vinegar. When the paste is prepared, smear some on your hand or forehead. A horse will be fear-filled at such odour, at once fascinated, as a rabbit to a snake.’ He peered at Corin, dark eyes glinting beneath the rim of his hood. ‘You understand this?’
Corin nodded in silence.
‘Now Drawing a steed needs tit-bits that a beast will relish: little scented cakes of flour and treacle, or gingerbread sprinkled with oils of cumin, fennel or vidgin. Rhodium, cinnamon, origanum and rosemary are useful also.’
‘Is that all there is to it? A simple trick or two,’ said Corin.
‘Not at all,’ replied Diarmath impatiently. ‘These simple tricks, as you call them, are but the animal's first knowledge of you. From that beginning it learns of your power, the power to have it do your will. In time the repulsions and inducements may be discarded and the horse, knowing only you, shall obey at once.’
The Horse-Master raised an arm to the shimmering-coated stallion before them so that it dipped its head and kneed the straw of the manger where Diarmath had set foot. ‘There now Shiner, you are my servant,’ said the hermit, guiding Corin toward a further stall. ‘Now on to another where I will demonstrate the points of manège, whereby they pace, trot, step or gallop on command.’
‘But what of Shiner? Surely you will not leave him so?’ Corin asked this, glancing back to where the horse remained in ungainly bow.
‘The creature shall be released presently, at my pleasure,’ replied the other, rather sharply. ‘Next there is much to tell of interest. Balance for instance, the binding of hocks, and the points where cords are used to urge the animal's head up and prance the legs. All for their good, mind, that they come swift to know a master. Pegs applied to croupe and withers do wonders, as a twist of rope to an ear...’
‘Elves at our service. What next?’ Mysingir laughed as the dragon veered away westward.
‘Aye, it is good that they may carry word of us to Mendor. I pray that he is still safe wherever, and news an incentive that carries him forward swiftly, and yet...’ Menkeepir halted, the sentence unfinished.
‘And yet what?’ Mysingir queried, searching the horizon with shaded eyes.
‘I am apprehensive,’ answered his brother. ‘I almost wish that there were more of those elvish folk about on their winged mounts.’
‘Nay me,’ laughed Mysingir again, slapping Menkeepir's back. ‘One is enough to endure of such serpent-kind. Why even the ogre is glad company today. And be minded of what the elf Silval warned, about being attacked by a mighty Fire-Drake that passed on into the south-west.’
Menkeepir scratched through the grey-white whiskers of his sprouting beard. ‘These are dangerous lands we travel, and far still is the Ziggurat of Orsokon. Sky-borne spies to guide us would be a blessing. Sooner or later, the Hiung-Nu will come.’
‘Then we had best be ready, and trust in the speed of our mounts,’ answered Mysingir thoughtfully.
Dolorous clouds of black smoke rolled upward from the twisted ravines of the Colle-Oba where, deep within, Mendor of Indlebloom and Minca of Dorthillion stood together surveying walls of stone before them. Behind these two leaders, impassively waited their peoples and beyond them, lay a trail of broken, scorched rubble.
‘Which way now, I wonder?’ Mendor muttered, fair perplexed.
‘Hey, you told me you knew these barren rocks!’ Minca protested, rounding on him.
‘I passed through long ago, in my early youth,’ sighed Mendor wearily. ‘Much has changed since then.’
‘Your memory included, I warrant,’ she mocked, hands to her hips.
Mendor was about to snap at her, when a faint sound caused him to halt, listening. ‘That whine of air has wings upon it,’ he whispered, scanning the ribbon of sky between the cliff tops. ‘There, there!’ he cried, gesturing toward the eastern heights. And through the sombre clouds loomed a form, grey-green, and upon it, figures riding. ‘It is that dragon creature, bearing the elves,’ murmured Mendor.
‘That it is a'right,’ rejoined Minca, somewhat awed. ‘Perhaps our fortune has changed!’ she added, grasping his arm.
‘Maybe,’ Mendor replied, shrugging her off, ‘but let us stay alert, fortunes oft' alter.’
Soon after, Sgnarli alighted on the rim of the cliffs above, there being no way for him to descend such narrow passage.
‘You must break a path before and a little leftward,’ came Silval's silvery voice. ‘After that Kutha-Kesh lies south-east across a flowing river. The water is fordable at a stony spit not far downstream.’
‘Have you found the Lords Mysingir and Menkeepir?’ Minca shouted, cupping her hands to her mouth.
‘That we have,’ Silval answered. ‘They and their party are leagues off in the east, eager for news of you. To them, we go now. Await them at Kurigaldur, the Ziggurat of Orsokon, where you will be made welcome.’ With that the dragon, bearing Silval, Elvra, Pitrag the imp, Dalen and Bim, took to the air with a whoosh, leaving those below to their task.
‘Forward here,’ ordered Mendor. ‘Break down this barrier, that we come soon to Kurigaldur in the land of Kutha-Kesh!’
‘Poisons and cure-alls: herbs, spices, dyes, foods, galls and poultices,’ rattled off Hereburgi, within a room atop a tower in the isolated hermitage; his lean fingers roaming over an array of vessels filling every nook and cranny of the round chamber where he and Corin stood. The hermit took up an earthenware container from amongst the many saying, ‘Poisons, ah yes. This is a composite of the most prevalent: berries of white bryony, woody nightshade, and deadly privet, holly and the spindle tree. Black bryony and black nightshade also. There is enough to kill an entire army within this single handful.’ Carefully sealing it, he set the pot back upon a shelf, then reached for a pile of yellowed parchments. ‘In these you will find my drawings of all the subjects I have noted. Study them well. And over here,’ he indicated a further table piled high with vellum and parchment, ‘these.’ He peered back at Corin from beneath his cowl, ‘They will tell you of hemlock and henbane, foxglove and mezereon. Did you know that bryony root, given in small amount, will spry up a weak horse? Or that the stem and roots of the stinging nettle give green and yellow dye when boiled, and their stalks be spun to rope?’ The hermit rubbed his hands together, warming at his work, as he passed on to a gurgling bowl above the embers of a fire. ‘This is the pulp of the feverfew, rub it on and it will relieve pain. And here, coltsfoot, burn it to break coughing.’ He strode to a nook where lay varied cuts of trees. ‘Much can be fashioned from wood, once the uses are known; alder and oak and larch are good for boats, yew for long bows, ash and birch for arrows. Elm for boat keels, since long and lasting in water is it, and aspen, because of its light weight, makes fine, uncrackable bucklers and shields; a timber not easily pierced.’ He beckoned Corin to follow. ‘Here, let me show you all the edible fungi and mushrooms, and the poisonous ones too. Then I will teach you how to cook Sawgeat and brew nettle wine...’
‘Look down there!’ Falnir cried from his perch behind Pitrag, but the others had seen for themselves, between Sgnarli's ears, ahead on the horizon, galloped Menkeepir's company with the ogre at their rear, turning at whiles to brandish his club in the direction of many pursuers, the full might of the Hiung-Nu tribesfolk.
‘Those men are in deadly peril,’ called Silval above the wind of the dragon's wings, ‘yet see yonder to the north, a further danger!’
Sure enough amongst the distant rock-strewn slopes swarmed a dark mass, like an invading army of ants.
‘Nugobluk!’ cried Elvra, loathing in her voice.
‘Yea, and soon all will meet, then what will hap?’ Dalen the pixie squeaked.
At Falnir's direction, Pitrag kneed Sgnarli into a long, slow curve, turning upon the southern-most flanks of the Dog-Face riders. Over the Hiung-Nu swooped the dragon, huffing smoke, wings raising the dust of the desert. As a wave rebounds from the shore, so the tribe's-folk of Etzela reeled away from such unexpected attack, their Tarpan ponies bucking and kicking in a headlong, blundering dash that carried them north toward another, waiting, savage enemy; lurking amidst the dunes.
In the meantime, Menkeepir's brave band rode on toward safety, relieved and cheered at the sudden arrival of the elves upon their frightening, yet welcome mount.
The men and the ogre were not to know that behind them a battle was nigh beginning; and amongst the milling Tarpan, yapping dogs and confusion of his peoples, even Etzela, feared chieftain who roamed at will from the borders of Kutha-Kesh to Lang-Shan, was to be hard oppressed.
The last stone cracked, sharding into fiery gledes where the hammers rendered it to rubble.
Through the breach in the barrier strode Mendor, third Lord of Indlebloom, whilst behind, crowded amid the defeated rocks, were his people and those of Dorthillion, Minca at their head. The greaves bound to Mendor's shins and his mail cuirass steamed with perspiration as he passed into the dust and smoke beyond. Then the gathered heard him raise a cheer, followed by the sound of splashing.
Soon packhorses, mounts and those afoot began to join Mendor, where he awaited them on the banks of a swift-flowing stream; the very same that Corin and Menkeepir's company had crossed, further up, with the aid of the ogre.
At this point however, as the elves foretold, the depth was such that crossing held no danger, and by nightfall Mendor and Minca's dual forces were firmly encamped on the other side, greatly to the lady's vexation, for she urged him to continue in all haste.
But Mendor would have none of that, and so they set pickets, hobbled horses, ate a scant meal and bent their heads to sleep.
By early morn of the following day they found themselves upon the threshold of the valley of Kutha-Kesh without mishap. Before them spread the waving, yellow crop that was life for the Kurigaldans.
Mendor rode cautiously forward into the tall grain-stalks, mindful of hidden danger. Recalling his journey as a boy, he bore slightly south of east, allowing Minca to send Rohilkhand and a band of her best men to scout ahead.
‘Hard ride should see us within sight of Kurigaldur before long,’ Mendor grudged, as the Lorda ranged up beside him.
‘Who, you ask, built this mighty hermitage? Who laid the corner-stone to its foundations?’ Catoowig stood, like some wing-shrouded bird, at the corner of a jutting parapet that overlooked the outside world.
Indeed, viewing the ramparts of white beyond their iron refuge, Corin found himself wondering if that world, as he remembered it, still existed.
‘Who?’ Catoowig repeated, owlish and distant. ‘Why, the First of our Order. He needs no name, but First. I knew Him not, nor Those who followed after. Some lie here yet, under stone, some ventured out and did not return. Then there were those left who called others hither. There have, you see, been many to our line. He, and Those that builded here, came long, long ago; maybe when the lands were not as now, when all this was green and welcoming... perhaps. And yet They left a mark of Their being, and that you will come to see and know in the Rooms of Record below our feet. But before you can do this for yourself, you need learn much of many tongues, and I am your best teacher.’
The hermit regarded Corin with steady, open eyes, his arms spread toward the chamber within that was lined and stacked, shelf and table, with tablets and rolled parchments. ‘Something I will tell you,’ he said, preceding Corin into the fire-lit room, away from the breathless vista, ‘and that is this much, soon you are to have a new friend. And be sure, you shall be pleased.’
The hermit drew down sheets of rough parchment and charcoals, and began to strike lines and curves across the surfaces. ‘Here are the signs of the Renish tongue, now compare them with the glyphs of Kurigaldur, and these runes used by the Pygmylos tribes, or these of wood-cut Ogham. Words, oft' times, have similar values and sounds, such like the Alharuna: deitha, our death, or deita and deit, or even det, from some minor folk I have met. Læf and lievf, meaning life, and mortor, morhtor, meaning death, or murder, are common to varied languages. Be instructed, and give in return; thus shall this new grouping of Hermit-Order pass on, leaving behind the wealth of our learnings to the next, they whom each of us shall singly recruit.’
‘Then you believe that I was recruited also,’ said Corin as he watched the sloping letters formed by Catoowig's restless hand.
‘Not by any single being, if what you have told us is all there is to tell. But then,’ added the hermit mage, looking up, ‘I am sure that will come to you as your long tale unfolds and becomes clear...’
Leagues and leagues away, south and eastward, a fierce and bloody battle was taking place between grim adversaries, the Dog-Face desert lords, and a strange admixture of goblindom: some were dwellers from the Cindered Mounts, whilst others, imps and ugush, were of greener regions westward. And there were gark and trolls from unknown wastes to the north, in company with short, compact wolves, sable-furred and vicious.
The conflict raged through day and night, such was the ferocity and desperation of the Hiung-Nu to hold their threatened land, yet the invaders were stronger.
Eventually the Dog-Face were routed, breaking away upon their Tarpans and spilling across the dunes, as if its very life-blood.
Behind, those unfortunates left alive, became the victims of a merciless foe.
Cauldrons and black pots filled with viscous liquids bubbled and grumbled in the dark recesses of Dirmyg's foundry. He was as he had informed Corin, a stean-smith: worker of iron and copper, artisan and aurifex of gold and other precious metals.
‘I am,’ he said with a smirk of pride, ‘one who knows much of the earth, its substances and compounds,’ and with a sly gesture he produced a skin bag, emptying the contents across a rough board.
Swift as they fell, he named them: ‘Amethyst, citrine, sapphire, emerald,’ his fingers ran through the stones and jagged objects. ‘Lazurite, tourmaline, amber, coral, serpentine, electrum. All are grist for Dirmyg's mill. I have discovered and wrought turquoise, malachite, carnelian and rock-crystal. Arian have I hammered, and plate of telluride, gold and silver, the bone sylvanite. Vanadium have I blended, to strengthen steel. Brass cut, melt, carved. Niello plaques have I inlaid!’ He stabbed at Corin with a grimy finger, ‘You will learn to emboss, filigree and chase.’ His beard and eyebrows bristled, whilst teeth and eyes flashed with zeal, ‘I, Dirmyg, will teach you...’
Sgnarli wheeled, circling high above the formidable Ziggurat of Kurigaldur, abode of the Wanax Orsokon.
As the elves watched, they saw below them the forces of Mendor and Minca riding up the west-facing ramp and in to welcome, whilst far away on the eastern horizon, out of the Kisir-Oba, came Menkeepir and Mysingir, and amongst their company of horsemen, running tireless as ever, the ogre Brôga.
‘We have fulfilled our promise,’ called Falnir above the flap of the dragon's wings. ‘Soon all will be reunited.’
Silval laid a hand to Falnir's shoulder, ‘Our task is done. Corin Avarhli asked no more. It is time we returned to our own.’
‘Hie, hie!’ cheered Dalen, ‘Homing we go to Pechtkin and Booca. King Elberl and my dear Prince Clovell must believe us lost by now. How glad I shall be to set eyes upon all those of our peoples again!’ Clapping his small hands together, the pixie almost overbalanced in his excitement.
Bim, licking at his claws, meowed in alarm as Elvra caught hold of both he and Dalen in a steadying grasp, whilst Falnir directed the imp to steer their dragon toward the Cindered Mountains, lying ashen in the west.
Later that same day, the weary roans of Menkeepir's company halted within view of Kurigaldur, and the riders were rewarded by the sight of many people lining the walls and terraces.
Soon the east doors were thrown open and down the wide ramp poured a tide of folk, led by Orsokon and his consort Semir-Ramis. And amongst the saffron robes of the Kurigaldans, there glinted the armour of Indlebloom and Dorthillion.
‘We-get-drink-for-hot-tired-folk?’ boomed the ogre, wiping his filthy brow with his club arm and pretending to be exhausted.
Mysingir groaned in mock protest, ‘Hardly arrived and that lump is thinking of wine already!’ Though even he, jovial after long ordeal, was eager for a glimpse of the lady Minca.
Menkeepir however, mindful of the stumbling horses, bade all dismount, before their steeds failed and fell in their tracks. As they trudged forward, a lithe, black-garbed figure detached from the crowd and ran down to meet them. It was indeed the Lorda Minca, and when she halted before them, breast heaving and hands knotted in concern, Mysingir thought that she had never looked more beautiful. She stared at him, her dark eyes glittering.
‘You have come back. Are you safe, unhurt?’ she queried, her full lips trembling.
Mysingir doffed his war-helm, dropping it into the dust. ‘I've come back. Yet I never dared dream that you would await, or care for my well-being.’ He reached out his hand to hers. Their fingers touched for a moment.
Then she whipped her hand away. ‘Well I don't care a fig!’ she answered with a sudden, fickle switch in her voice. ‘Not a scratch on you, hey? It couldn't have been much of an ordeal. Or did you let the others do your fighting!’ She spun on her heel, leaving him, mouth agape, hand still extended. ‘Well I am pleased that you are well. It makes things easier,’ she flung at him as she strode off. ‘After all, I only came this long road to tell you what I think of you, and it is plain to see that I was not mistaken!’
Mysingir began a choked response, but she cut him down, ‘Don't you come after me! Why, if your surly Brother there had not begged my aid, I should not be here at all. And now you know your suiting to be vain, I'll be on my way, hey!’ Loftily, she marched off, taking Rohilkhand and the rest of her followers in train.
Meanwhile, Menkeepir and Mendor embraced each other warmly, the latter's scarred face breaking into a broad smile. ‘So, the Brothers three are once again as one,’ he exclaimed, grasping Menkeepir's shoulders.
Menkeepir expelled a deep sigh, a mixture of relief, pride and concern. ‘Together again, with much owed to these folk,’ he indicated the Kurigaldans about them; silent, though smiling in their subdued manner.
Orsokon took up this lead, saying, ‘All you peoples, come from your homes in the far west, and returned from the dead sands, home of fiends, realm of Etzela my sworn enemy, are welcome.’ He peered over Menkeepir's followers, before continuing, ‘One, I see, has not returned. He-with-the-speaking-fur.’
‘They are not lost,’ answered Menkeepir. ‘We left them far away, safe.’
The fraction of a smile cornered Orsokon's mouth. ‘More will be spoken after bathing and rest, meat too, and clean linen, a man needs after faring the wilds. Wine also, that he may take before eating, and courteous silence, that he may tell his tale.’
The ogre pricked up his ears at this, and gulped audibly.
Then, to Menkeepir's surprise, Semir-Ramis held forth a clay goblet filled with crimson liquid, her silvery hair shimmering as she began to speak, ‘Jeh hadda Kurigald, Matep Men kepp ir, jeh nuhi pattu.’ And haltingly, she continued, ‘You wel come Kurigald, Lord Men kepp ir and you peo ples.’
Menkeepir sipped the wine and passed it on to Mysingir, who seemed so downcast that he gave it into Brôga's huge paw after barely a taste.
The ogre, mindful of his manners, tossed the lot down his throat at once, but did not burp, or even break the vessel.
Looking proud and well satisfied, Orsokon took his lady by the arm, saying, ‘My Semir-Ramis, I am teaching. Those are her first words of your tongue. But come now please. Enter within, since a doorstep is not the place for chatter amongst the mighty of nations, when dangers lurk even within our growing harvests.’
And so all there began to ascend the mighty ramp, only to be brought up sharply by the bellowing of the ogre.
‘Wot-happen-to-Brôga-now?’ he boomed. ‘Stay-outside-where-blood-wine?’ He bashed his club about, so that those nearest shrank back.
‘We both may as well remain outside,’ called Mysingir, defeat in his words. ‘Or share a hearth with the hounds.’
‘Wot-scare-harf!?’ demanded Brôga.
‘Never mind that now,’ Mysingir answered, returning to lead the seemingly reluctant ogre up the causeway to the doors of the Ziggurat, where the scheming hulk had reason to duck his head, grinning to himself at the thought of what lay within.
‘A winter's night in Dorthillion.
A winter's night, a winter's night.
The birds were in flight in Dorthillion,
in far-away Dorthallonæ...’
It was Mysingir's voice that swelled alone in the feasting hall of Kurigaldur, and it was the plaintive rat-tat of the cymbal-drum that he rapped to accompany his singing.
‘The sky was all dark with birds on the wing.
With birds on the wing, with birds on the wing.
And late in the eventide hark to them sing,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
Then deep in the night-tide a singing was heard.
A singing was heard, oh singing was heard.
From the lips of a beautiful lady-bird,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
She sang to the wind, she sang to the rain.
Again and again, she sang to the rain.
From the ledge of a balcony came her refrain,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
" I love now the snow where winter draws nigh.
I love now the cloud that shroudeth the sky."
She raised up her arms, and sang with a sigh,
In far-away Dorthallonæ.
"And we love you likewise," she heard the reply.
Though faint was the cry, she heard the reply.
It came on the breath of the breeze wafting by,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
"Now whither your way, and whither to stay?"
She ventured to say, she hurried to say.
But gusting and moaning, the wind blew away,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
The flocks beat on wildly, and she was alone.
Oh she was alone and danced on her own.
Till frost held her body, then prone did she lay,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
The rays of first light crept over the land.
And over cold hand, the rays of first light.
But heart had awayed with the birds in the night,
in far-away Dorthallonæ.
A winter's night in Dorthillion.
A winter's night, a winter's night.
The birds were all gone from Dorthillion...
From far-away Dorthallo...næ…’
Mysingir fell silent, and casting aside the instrument, took a long quaff from a rhyton at his elbow.
Meanwhile, at the furthest end of the hall, beside a blazing fire, reclining amongst heaps of saffron cushions, Brôga sucked down copious draughts of wine from a deep cask, provided with a spigot tap for his convenience.
After a time of imbibing, punctuated with belching, he yawned, cracking a fistful of nuts as he stretched, and settled back to snore, rhythmically, to the wailing sounds of Orsokon's musicians.
They, and most others in the hall, appeared relieved.
Not very far away, in a warm chamber prepared for her, and attended by two Kurigaldan handmaidens, Minca sulked in her attar bath.
Two days later, anxious to be home again, all the travellers were prepared for departure. Their animals, refreshed after rest, feed, grooming, and hobnobbing it with the Kurigaldan live-stock, were back to fettle, yet the coats of Menkeepir's roans could not conceal their gaunt frames.
Mendor, with foresight, had brought goods and gifts in plenty, unsure of the welcome in Kutha-Kesh, and these were received by Orsokon gladly, and returned in favour with provisions for the long journey home to Indlebloom and Dorthillion.
The Lorda Minca and her company were first assembled on that morning, and only Rohilkhand's counsel prevented her from setting forth, so that she awaited, sullen and impatient to be gone, whilst Menkeepir gave thanks to the Kurigaldan peoples.
‘Much is afoot in the world that we yet know ought of,’ he said. ‘But one thing seems sure, change is coming and times of war are upon us all.’ He waited whilst Orsokon translated his words, then continued, ‘Goblins stir in the east, attacking your enemies, the Dog-Face. When they are done there, if victory is theirs, I mark, they will come hence. Reap your crops, bar your doors, lest you be caught in the whirlwind. By now, the distant folk of Rî-mer-ri are cut from us; those far, peaceful peoples you know of only by our tales. Perhaps their land is already awash with blood. Yet know this also, our arm is your arm, our strength, yours. And so we go, as we must, to our own realms, for fear of what might have befallen there. Though be assured, if Indlebloom lies safe, we shall return here at need. As you have aided us, so will we aid you. This much I pledge for our friendship of old.’
So thus, in the early morning, did the companies of Indlebloom and Dorthillion take their leave, the ogre, huff and puff, swaying from the effects of his gorging, beside the last rider, Mysingir; deflated by rebuff, and heavy-headed from wine's embrace.
Soon, they were swallowed up in the west-rising day.
But Orsokon, atop his Ziggurat, watched the east, and the silken, sliding shadows that bred and mingled there.
Chapter 44 [next]
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