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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Chapter - 46 Milk and Blood
‘Your cat has grown much since last me met you,’ said Mysingir, in an almost jocular way that yet could not conceal the insanity of his words. He shook his head sadly, as of one greatly pained. ‘'Tis a shame me have no milk for him. Him grown sooo big.’ He waved his free arm wildly in a grand gesture that caused Darkelfari to snort and stamp a hind leg. ‘But you see,’ went on the young lord unheeding, ‘milk has all run away. Yes, yes, it has. Run away before it got swallowed up.’ He nodded weakly, his chin sagging to his chest so that his unruly head remained downcast. ‘Like everything else gets swallowed up,’ he choked, suddenly panting like a dog. ‘Give me some milk, or I die!’ he said, hand uplifted imploringly.
Corin put down the weapons and made to rise, but Mysingir ranted, ‘You think I'm silly. Don't you? But I know. I know you have no milk. I told you. There is no milk for man or cat; for the living, or for the dead. The Dead know that too, don't you Dead? Well. Tell him. Wave your bones, your noddy heads. Tell him what being dead is like!’
Corin stood up and went to him. ‘What happened to you, to the others?’ he asked gently.
‘I told you,’ replied the other earnestly, ‘got swallowed up, or ran away: trickle, trickle, trickle.’ Mysingir shuddered. ‘That's how their blood sounded as it washed down the drains, overflowing the rain barrels, down the streets until they were awash with red milk! Oh, the sounds of the dying: the hacked things that were only pieces of flesh; people stubbling in the blood for their own hands. Screams from children at their mother's sides, cut up, cut down, cut atwain, cut, cut, cut!’ He threw himself onto the grass and lay there, thrashing about, his limbs unstrung from his brain.
Corin bent over him, splashing his twisted face with water from his leathern bag; laving his shoulders and hands to clean off the ingrained filth and exposing the foul wounds and fly-blown sores beneath Mysingir's torn vestments. And all the while, Mysingir writhed in a tortured fit; his eyes wide whilst words sprang from his lips as if eager to escape his wretched mind. ‘Lay me with the dead in their mounds, in the dark where milk and blood have no place, for I cannot bear the light of day and the things in my head. Shut my eyes and still see, cover my ears and nose; still hear, still smell, still taste the horror... They come! Goblins, swarms of them, killing each other to get to us. Trampling over the piled corpses, under the doors and walls: breaking, battering, burning...down the rivers of blood... Trolls ripping us apart, wolves tearing at the hanging...’
Mysingir's voice bubbled in his throat as the fit subsided and, mercifully, he fainted.
Then, after a little while he came to, opening haunted, hunted eyes and cowering into the long grass.
‘Come now,’ said Corin, taking his arm, ‘let me see if you can stand. We must leave this place and seek a safer. I will carry you before me on Darkelfari's back. He is my friend and I am sure he will bear us both if I bid him.’
Mysingir looked bewildered. ‘Horses drinking milk, cats carrying folk; the world has gone mad, upside to down!’
With Corin's aid he stood up, trembling and weak.
‘I have a place that is safe,’ he said with a kind of gleeful giggle. ‘I live there now. Follow and see for yourself. But you won't get your cat in. He's too big,’ he added in confidence, as he started off at a wobbly trot between the raised mounds and round barrows.
The warm sun beat brightly and the drone of an occasional fly was all that broke the silence as Corin, leading the horse, made after the staggering figure before them. They turned into a broad avenue, upon each side of which were raised long barrows of early times, and it was there, down that street of the dead, that Mysingir darted.
Corin caught a glimpse of him as he vanished amongst the high grass at the foot of a tump, to reappear a moment later, his face a comical, pathetic mask, as of one who keeps a secret, but is pleased to share it with any passer-by. Mysingir beckoned, and again vanished from sight.
After casting about for sign of danger, Corin led Darkelfari into the shadows of the green mounds and bade the horse stand guard whilst he searched for Mysingir's hiding place. Soon enough, Corin discovered a hollow, covered with turves, and drawing these aside, peered into a narrow, arched opening. ‘Mysingir, can you hear me. Are you in there?’
‘Nooo,’ returned the cracked voice of the youngest lord. ‘I went away. Only the dead live here. We don't need any milk today thankyou.’
With a little difficulty, Corin managed to squeeze inside; blocking out the sunlight as he did, so that he threw open his great-cloak, that the glow of lumallin might illuminate the chamber within. At once an odious smell assaulted his nostrils, and the sudden sight of bodies, not too long dead, met his gaze in the dimness. There were people, some of whose gaunt, stretched faces were familiar, propped about the ancient stone cists that were the resting places of elder folk from time gone by.
Corin froze, shocked. He had, of course, expected a tomb of the dead. But not of these, whom he had seen alive in the streets and Halls of Mendoth city when first he came there. Gasping, he drew breath in that noxious hole and peering about, located Mysingir, where he too sat, slumped amongst the corpses. With a sudden grin, Mysingir's wild eyes flew open. ‘Ha! My friends and me were all t'sleep. Aye, Brachy, Dolico and the rest. Meet them now, but don't expect them to nod. I had to put most of their heads back on for them.’ The youngest Lord stroked the crown of an ancient scull beside him.
Very quietly, Corin asked, ‘How did it happen? How long have you been here?’
For answer, Mysingir rattled the earth-filled skull. ‘How long...long...long...’ he whispered, his soiled hair and beard hanging lank around his pit-eyed face.
Searching for some explanation, Corin saw a large stone by the entrance and near it a timber ram to hold it shut, once in place, from within. Then, peering further into the gloom, he spied a dark hole at the rear of the chamber that seemed to have caved in, leaving only a narrow space, the width of a man's shoulders, at the top.
‘Where does that lead?’ he asked, pointing to the ruined tunnel.
‘Into the night,’ replied Mysingir tragically, yet with a hint of longing. ‘I was inside for a long time, without light, without water. It...it leads to Mendoth city...escape passage in time of siege.’ Then, again, he began to gibber, ‘Me was left last, all here went first...went to the goblins waiting outside...In the sun and under the moon they went. They...’ he sobbed, ‘the poor dear, dead folk, they fell off the table. Heads get broken, if you fall off the table. I had to mend them after I dug myself, inside, out.’ Mysingir's voice dropped to a private whisper again. ‘Me sent them first, by command, to awful doom. If the sky hadn't fallen around me, I would be with them now. For long, long time I lay in darkness; frightened, yea, too scared to move. No way back, blocks closed far behind me. Hole's earth around me. I was a mole then, no eyes to see inside the dark dark. Only nose to smell out dankness and rot. Only fingers turned to feelers, to claws, to scrabble about with. No sound but me breathing, crying...clawing. Only nose and claws. Nose and...claws. The air going; getting harder to breath, harder to dig. Only time passing with each scratch. Lost my way. Which way up, down, which way forward?’ Mysingir convulsed, coughing, as if, inside his head, still trapped. ‘I broke my sword and my claws, and my knife and my heart...and my mind. I know I did. I know I went mad. I'm not mad, you know.’ He said this, gazing earnestly at Corin for once. ‘I am not mad. I caught my head in the milk pail! I know it fell off the table, but the pail saved it...The pail saved me...’
Then, with a great effort, he said, ‘I dug out; like a mole groping, out I came. The light, the rush of air, the new life... I don't remember. I fell down. Me had to hold head on...’ He clutched at his ears, letting the dry skull fall with a rattle.
‘I crawled out. The people before, gone away. To the sunlight I made; and there, found them. But not before the goblins had. Dragged all back in, me did. Out of the long grass, now to where they belong. In here, in the dark; the new dead with the old... And me. That must be right. I should be their warder. The shepherd of the dead. After all, I sent them to the edge, the table's edge. I belong with them, people of my people. I belong to them. I am responsible for them. So here we dwell...’
He peered at Corin in a conspiratorial manner, ‘You may stay with us. In the night we will go out to the table's edge and get food: grass and dirt and tree-bark and dew off the flowers. I have lived on all that. But...’ and here he reached out imploringly to Corin, ‘you cannot have a cat! He is too big. He drinks too much from the pail. We mustn't lose the pail, else where shall our heads go?’
Corin felt tears creep into his eyes as he took Mysingir's ravaged hands in his own. He was about to speak, when softly came Darkelfari's low, insistent neigh. With only a small pressure, Corin pulled Mysingir to his ragged knees. ‘Come,’ he urged the lord, ‘there are many edges to the table, many tables, many dead to shepherd, pails to fill, cats who cry for milk. Your work here is over, and there is much for you to do beyond the dark.’
So saying he coaxed Mysingir from the hole to where Darkelfari awaited. But even as a crow, black as storm, floated, ‘carking’ through the stillness of morning's light, Corin's skin began to creep. The horse too, seemed anxious to be off, as if it also felt that somewhere near, lurked danger.
Without further ado, the threesome were away, their faces to the westerly sun, the great mounds and round barrows of Tol Maen falling behind.
Soon they came to a burbling stream where the sad fingers of many willows dangled into the flowing waters, and there forded it at a shallow place of sanded pebbles. Upon the far side the willows thinned, and mounting a sloping bank they were confronted by the massed eminence of a vast forest.
‘What is this place called?’ Corin asked, staring uneasily at the deep woods that marched off north and south. But all Mysingir would say was, ‘Trees, trees. Cats like trees. Can't fall off the table with a tree beneath.’
‘Is this Iahar Forest?’ Corin persisted, without any further response from Mysingir, who had begun to weep. So, after a moment's thought, Corin decided not to enter the crowded ranks of oak and instead turned south toward some distant hills that he guessed to be the beginnings of the ranges where he had first met Menkeepir. ‘Somewhere there,’ he reasoned to himself, ‘should be a road leading to the place men call The Cloven Fords, and driving west as well, to the village, or whatever it is, named Alder-Carr.’
Thus they went their way, keeping to the open, since it seemed of small use to venture within the forest where all kinds of peril might abound.
Sometimes, as they rode, Mysingir would cry out in despair or break into sad snatches of mean doggerel and garbled songs that meant little; and between these he fell into long silences, bent forward, his tears spilling over Darkelfari's mane.
By late noon they reached the deserted road and there halted. In two minds, Corin searched for some sign to guide them on their way. But there was nothing more than the road itself, meandering over the undulating ground toward the east-fading sun, the willow stream rising in the foothills, and far off beyond sight, the ruin of Mendoth citadel. In the opposite direction lay the forest, and the unknown.
‘Well,’ said Corin, more to himself than his two companions, ‘we must find fodder and water soon. We will chance it to Alder-Carr. Perhaps men still hold there; maybe some who escaped Mendoth. After all, where are Menkeepir and Mendor? Mysingir is proof that they arrived at their home, I guess. And I found them not amongst the rubble of the city. Were they taken away, I wonder, or did they escape? And if so, where to? Alder-Carr maybe, or Erilar in Dorthillion? That is difficult to rede; nay impossible. But we shall go to Alder-Carr anyway. For one thing, it is too far over the northern mountains to Erilar, even if I was certain of the road, and for another, you, my Lord Mysingir, I doubt could survive such journey. And there are my dear friends, the elves. To travel west will bring us nearer them, should they yet remain upon the coast. Glad would I be to be in their company once more, though caution must be heeded where the nugobluk are concerned. They may lie in waiting at any bend of the road. Ah, but now the day grows old.' He patted the horse's rump. ‘It is up to you, my noble friend. Bear us safe through Iahar, and perhaps something better than humble grass awaits ahead.’
With an eager leap forward, Darkelfari took to the road as the shadows lengthened before them, and soon the trio were surrounded by oak and ash upon either side.
Through the moonless night they galloped, with only the stars to guide them; but it was a clear, cloudless sky above and the wide way was white-chalked and pebbled, the trees thereabout set well back and spaced apart from each other, so that it was rather like riding in a spacious park-land, and Corin was thankful for this, since there seemed little chance of ambuscade. So they made good time, for even carrying the double load, Darkelfari ran without stint, and by dawn they were far within the Iahar Forest.
There at morning-tide the hills upon the left spread, sloping away and within, a huge man-made cleft rent them apart. ‘Tin or copper mines,’ thought Corin as they flew past the diggings. Still, no sign of life did they encounter as the forest again enclosed, excepting a single, white doe on the road when they rounded a sharp bend. At once she was off and long gone before they reached the spot, but Corin said aloud, ‘Creatures of the woods linger here still, and evil would send them away if it were present.’ And so he hoped on, whilst Mysingir croaked of winter's nights and warriors bold, and Darkelfari pounded tirelessly forward.
By late noon they drew close to the edge of the Iahar and halted at the sight of Alder-Carr's palisades. Nothing moved before them as they left the cover of the trees and rode the easy furlongs toward the timbered stronghold. Yet it was not long after, that Corin spied the outer defences: rows of sharp-tipped stakes hidden in the dips of the land and low stockades with sally-ports designed as fall-backs, one after another. Wary of pit-falls, Corin slowed the great horse to a trot as they approached the reared walls. Silence lay upon the battlements, though there was nothing to suggest that a disaster had struck. Merely, it appeared, the place was deserted.
At an arrow's flight distant, Corin bade Darkelfari halt. Over Mysingir's slumped shoulders he could see the deep ditches, dug about the ramps leading to tall gates, which stood open and unmanned. The ditches were cunningly devised, he observed, pitching sharply near the bottom to where stakes and ankle-trenches awaited. These were so designed to break the legs of any invaders, if they were not already impaled as they slid down the deceptive slopes. Indeed the ramps were likewise crafted, being wider at the beginnings than at the entrance ways, so that a jostling throng might actually throw many of their own number off. Clever minds had contrived such deadly traps; minds tempered no doubt by constant threat of attack. Mindful of this, Corin urged the horse forward between the impeding obstacles, and slowly up the oak-hewn grade of the nearest ramp.
Inside, the gravelled streets and lanes were empty; the vacant eyes of open windows seemingly staring at them as the trio advanced. The dwellers, it appeared, had long taken their leave, and there was no sign of pillage or destruction. There was still grain in the granaries and stale bread on carts, chaff in baskets, water in wells, and salted meat hanging from rafters. Dismounting, Corin led Darkelfari down the empty alleys and across a wide court, Mysingir laughing idiot-like and swaying in the saddle.
After a time of wandering, where the only living things encountered were mice and rats amongst the spilled contents in the store-houses, Corin chose to settle for the night in a small guardroom beside the east-facing gates, through which they had entered.
There was no doubt that Mysingir needed proper rest, and likewise Darkelfari, who at last was treated to a fair sup, notwithstanding the various rodent's attempts to make off with anything they could. Corin too, ate and drank of that which he had gathered and dressed the youngest lord in more fitting attire; discovered in various living quarters. Then, after the meal, Mysingir curled up in a corner and drifted into a disturbed sleep. Thoughtfully, Corin remained awake, sitting in the doorway, the sword and knife by his side. Beyond, he could make out the bulk of the horse standing still and silent under the stars. As to the mystery of the deserted, walled township, he pondered long without answer. He guessed that Alder-Carr had been abandoned voluntarily by its inhabitants, taking with them their live-stock and as much as they could carry; but where they had gone was uncertain. Dorthillion seemed a likely choice and he hoped, if that was so, that Menkeepir and Mendor were riding with them. It occurred to him that it was odd indeed to reside in such a place without ever knowing a single person who had lived, laboured, laughed and loved there, and a sadness crept over him at the thought.
In the morning, they departed with supplies of food and water, enough to keep them for several days, used sparingly. The sun was just rising in the far west, birds still calling from the Iahar trees, and this alone Corin took to be a goodly omen. With the growing light in their faces, they made off down the white road, leaving Alder-Carr, gaunt and empty, at their backs.
Now the going led downslope, the ground grew marshy and clumps of alders, the obvious namesake, rose up amongst the sodden land whilst day faded to starlight, then to dawn again and Corin realised that he was passing beyond the boundaries of any region ever described to him by the men of Indlebloom. And even though he carried with him one who might have told more, Mysingir remained as mute of helpful information as before, despite rest and nourishment.
The alder-ways prevailed, the road became slushy and boggish. It seemed to have fallen into disuse over recent times and Corin drew Darkelfari to a standstill, checked and thwarted by the seeping mire before them. Then, to the south-west, he glimpsed a narrow, but firmly winding path through the dull green, black-fissured trees that slanted in damp profusion. After a moment's consideration, Corin decided to press on. Mysingir hung limply before him, asleep or swooned, though Darkelfari snorted as if emboldened to dare the dim passage. So the threesome splashed between the trees, following a nigh lost and forgotten trail.
Onward to close upon noon the mighty horse strove, the path overgrown and waterlogged enough to force even his hooves into a slow plod.
Yet eventually they made firmer ground and in the afternoon broke free of the gloomy canopy and onto rising slopes that promised better tidings. Any fragment of track had, long since, vanished and all that now remained was growing grass and rolling hills, bending up in graceful curves toward the sky-line; welcome as the summer sun. To either side spread open downs, devoid of trees or shrubs, though wondrous dry and thistle-strewn after the drear of Alder-Carr. Expectantly, the horse and riders gained the crest of the heights; even Mysingir showing some vague interest in these new surroundings, and there, were halted at a sight made more horrendous, if that could possibly be so, by the gay, sunlit day.
Below, spread before them in jumbled disarray, lay the remains of a terrible conflict. Everywhere over the downward grades were strewn the victims of massed slaughter. Across the gentle fields, amongst the yellow daisies and amid the heather, there the fallen: fair, fair elf, and black, hard hob; frozen in death. Entwined, one with another, as if caught in the last dance-step of life. Down, down, toward the margins of a wide lake, and around, around, over and under its surface, the dead were captured; stilled in a final, tragic throe.
Above, the afternoon sky, blue as blue, and white with little flocks of cloud and filled by the manifest warmth of the sun, waxed serene. The wind stilled, and only the mournful 'cark, cark' of the gorcrows high above floated distantly in that sparkling, clean air.
On the hill, Corin and Mysingir sat, one behind the other, fixed, unmoving, unable to move. Here, they were witnessing the aftermath of an event so gruesome, so monumental, as to root them stock-still; just as the thousands dead, scattered, like the grains of the fields, over all that desolate panorama.
After a long time, and by no command of Corin's, Darkelfari began the slow descent; down toward the lake of the dead.
It behoves not to tell in lengthy detail of that which they encountered: of the nightmare images caressing their sight, as the nails of some carrion beast might caress the flesh of its prey. Even the heaps of goblin-kind, putrid in the light of day, were now become pitiable and pathetic; their grinning masks and stiffened claws stilled forever, never to do the tearing and rending of the loathsome, dark minds that, time ago, had driven them.
The dead elves lay mostly apart from these horrors. Like so many faded, autumn leaves were they; beautiful, though fallen. Near to life, yet no longer of it. Their eyes, unseeing, fixed upon the sky; perhaps the last sight before the gift departed them. Many died valorous, surrounded, overwhelmed. Many, with what appeared a joyous shout for life upon their lips.
To a knoll, little more than a faint rise close by the shore of the lake, Darkelfari trod his careful, gentle path. Some elvish pennons, splintered lance and spear, marked the place as the last hold of the defenders. It was there that Corin came to Elberl; King of the Elloræ of Elfame. There the King, and the remnant of his folk, had stood against a multitude foe. And there, hewn down, were they at last slain. About the rise, corpses of gark and ugush captains, by the score, littered the ravaged ground. All those dead, to buy the sight witnessed by Corin and his two companions.
Silently, Corin stepped down, and reaching Elberl's fragile figure, knelt and kissed the Elf King's dead cheek.
Then Corin began to weep, and the tears fell over the King's lifeless face; whilst behind, Mysingir, stirred maybe by some terrible memory, slid from the horse and with lunatic strength, attacked the unfeeling, unflinching bodies of the enemy: kicking and scratching and shouting in utter madness, until, heaving and wretched, he too fell to his knees and cried at Corin's side.
Darkelfari lowered his proud head, his wide eyes moistened, neck dipping low; and with his companions, mourned.
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