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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Chapter - 48 The Rout of the Elloræ
‘What is best to be done, do you think Master Corin?’ Farinmail asked this after a time had passed where none spoke.
‘Well,’ Corin replied, ‘I am sure Darkelfari and I could fly through their ranks swifter than your swiftest folk, during this night, if we were alone.’
The dwarf captain nodded. ‘That may be so. Yet if we were to create a diversion whilst you pierced the nugobluk lines, we should be annihilated ere you convince elves to aid us. Nay, we need join with them, not be stranded out here in these wastes.’
‘Mayhap I can distract those frightful creatures,’ said the wizard, who had remained silent till then. ‘I will need some time to make my preparations, but when the day dawns be at the ready.’ He shouldered his laden sack and began to stride off into the night. ‘You will know the right moment, and do not worry about me. Goodbye!’
‘Whatever the Mage has in his mind, we must trust to him,’ said Farinmail, watching the dark shape of the wizard recede. ‘He has never failed us. Let morning come, and be prepared to ride, and to fight.’
So the chill night eked away whilst the dwarves and Corin endured the savagery below, and dwelt upon the trial to follow.
At whiles they expected to be discovered and once, indeed, it seemed they were. From the midst of the goblin masses the dark bulk of a dragon shot skyward; rising like a fiery thunderbolt, its breath, flame in the night. With terrible speed it hurtled over the very ridge where they cowered. Then it swooped north, spouting red puffs as it hastened away. Yet there was no doubt that goblin creatures rode with it, clinging to the spines and needles of its arched neck.
‘A grim thing,’ muttered Corin, ‘the nugobluk are now in league with dragons. I wonder what other dread alliances have been made that we do not yet know about.’
Only one other incident occurred during the night; several dwarf scouts brought in the heads of two goblins caught skulking on the undulating slopes to the north-west. It seemed that the dwarves had no desire for the taking of prisoners, much to the silent approval of their kindred. Thus both Slaknof and Ratibor met their end before being able to tell their leaders what they had seen.
When the sun's faint glow stained the western horizon, the dwarves girded themselves, awaiting a sign from the wizard. It was not long in coming. From the still benighted east, there broke a sudden crack of sound that echoed across the miserable lands. A shock of light bloomed, followed by a further clap that grumbled away over the goblin-encamped plain. Soon, angry figures were boiling forth, the hollow thump of fresh explosions goading them toward the source. Weird illuminations shattered the shadows of the east: trailing arrows and spinning spears of flame, whiz-bangs and caratackings of noise and colour blistered the failing ceiling of night, coaxing forth more and more of that furious tide, so that much of the formidable nugobluk army streamed away in search of the source of the disturbance.
‘Now!’ Corin shouted, without hesitation as to whether he should take the lead. ‘Now! Forward to break their ranks and win through! Now, or never now again!’
The dwarves followed, Farinmail rousing them with strange-voiced exhortations; war-cries no doubt, so that they sprang forward, bounding down the ridge in a tightly wedged formation, attempting to keep pace with horse and rider, as Darkelfari unerringly found footage on the stony slopes.
‘Tael-kal! Herrak Kalat-kay, Horrok Ziraz!’ roared the dwarf army, descending as a living arrow-head, with Corin at the apex.
Those remaining of the nugobluk were taken by surprise, so intent were they on eastward events that Corin and the dwarves plunged into their midst before the goblins realised. The dwarves hewed down all that stood before them, whilst Darkelfari crashed an almost uncontested path. Then the rumour of these newcomers swept the enemy ranks, and they began to turn from their pursuit.
Soon, the striking arrow-head was foundering in an ever converging sea of foe. Dragon-squib melted heavy shield and mail as the dwarf warriors shrank back, squeezing together in a decreasing crush. Some dwarves fell, smote by spear and scimitar, or branded in death by flame of squib-breath. More, and more-on-more goblins rallied to the shouts and curses of those in the forefront, whilst the wicked press continued.
Corin and the dwarves about him were halted, thrashing for life in an ocean of death. Everywhere arose the clashing, rending, hacking of nugobluk bent on destruction. Voices: harsh, cruel, anguished and dying, lifted into such tumult as to drown all in the storm of battle. This deafening din became a maelstrom, wherein the dwarf army was the very eye round which the goblins swirled, beating with their iron hammers at ring-coats until the air rang like some giant anvil.
‘Despair not yet!’ shouted Corin to those closest him. ‘One last try, oh hardy folk. At least fall fighting forward, better that than standing back to back surrounded!’ And at that, he leapt Darkelfari over the heads of those before him, laying out with the elvan sword and bringing down several of the enemy. In the unexpected exchange, the goblins fell back whilst the dwarves surged on, their rearguard following. But then, through the milling crowd, there lumbered a huge troll, grasping an iron-linked leash from which strained a dragon-squib, its yellow eyes ablaze and jaws snapping. Crazed, it suddenly turned upon the troll, who cracked it across the snout with the chain, so that it contented itself by snatching up an imp instead. Then, with a roar from its grinding mouth, the squib hurled forward, dragging the troll behind. Yet as the tongues of flame licked, blasting toward Darkelfari where he reared, striking out with hooves that shone in the reflected fire, there came a mighty explosion and a blinding light of liquid colour that ran, soaring into the air! Straight through the midst of the goblins it poured, followed by a series of sharp reports so that many of their number were blown off their feet, making them dance in the air like maddened puppets until they fell, stone dead. A burst of twinkling things scattered about, piercing ugush and gark, and knocking the heads off imps, and one tremendous bang that killed both troll and squib outright. More whizzing things whizzed, streamers of vapour streamed, trailers trailed. Whole eruptions of smoke cascaded into the dawn. Goblins tumbled or fled. The nugobluk forces parted, split in twain from the seaward rear as a host of elves clove a path, their swords blue-glowing where they so clave. Wildly, horns and trumpets sounded: strident, clarion, silver-throated in the morning.
Hope, hope at darkest hour!
Corin stayed Darkelfari's plunging, urging the horse on toward the white steeds of the elves now closing swiftly with them, whilst the nugobluk were overborne, maced or rent with axe as the force led by Farinmail the dwarf, passed through. And there, amidst the turmoil, Corin rode to Silval's side, and together they clasped hands beneath the Dolphin banners of the Valdë and the Green Tree of the Nemorians.
Yet even elves could not hold off for long that multitude which threatened to close their retreat.
‘Haste!’ cried a voice that Corin knew well enough. It was Mysingir, Lord of lost Indlebloom, proudly mounted upon Ebolian, son of Cornarian, whom Silval rode.
‘Haste,’ he shouted once more, ‘time for greetings later. Ride now for life. We are few, they many. Ride, ride on, or yet die!’ And so crying, Mysingir struck down a menacing gark at Corin's back, then turned for safety. In a great rush, the dwarves and elves withdrew from the field, though not disorderly was it so much, for the elvish archers held the way till such time as retreat was done, and all were secure within the Elloræ lines.
It surely was no victory, but it was a signal feat.
Then, and only then did relief sweep over Corin like an immense wave. They were safe, for the time at least, and Darkelfari could find comfort and company amongst his own kind.
But where was the wizard? Corin was about to ask as much, fearing the his doom, when to his astonishment He'Remon appeared at the side of Galidor, who now wore upon his noble, young brow, the crown that was once Elberl's.
‘Our new King,’ said Silval, simply, dismounting and signing Corin do likewise, that their steeds be led off to fodder and rest.
But Galidor said, ‘There is no joy in this Kingship. Not when dear Elberl is gone to Elivagur. Still, he named me before his departure in pursuit of the enemy, to rule if he returned not, until such time as our peoples might make their choice. Come now, for we must speak together, since each has tale to tell, and that needs be done swiftly.’
So then, the new king proceeded the way to a place far from the lines of assault, beneath canopies of silken cloth, whilst He'Remon, silent and brooding, walked apart as if deep in thought, and the others attended behind.
There, amidst the elvish banners and tented halls, Galidor sat himself down and bade all else so to do. At his right hand Silval Birdwing took up station, his brow much troubled by past events and his eyes dimmed of light. Elvish wine, bubbling and clear as pure water was brought to them, along with cheeses, fruits and cakes of many kinds; yet for the most these remained untouched, except by Farinmail. The Dwarf leader contented himself in listening and eating, as if he had not a worry or concern, though Corin guessed that beneath his jaunty manner, there lay hidden a crafty and cunning mind.
‘Your followers are being well cared for.’ Galidor was saying in the tongue common to them all, known as Renish. ‘It is a curious thing indeed to have strange folk, Dwarves, come to the assistance of we Elves, especially since you could only have knowledge of us from Corin Avarhli. But there, perhaps I rede too much.’
Farinmail grunted as he downed a handful of dried fruits, munching and watching without giving more than a nod.
‘Enjoy our viands,’ continued the king, gracefully, ‘and we shall speak, when you are refreshed, of your purpose here.’ Turning to He'Remon, Galidor resumed, ‘Fortunate too, for both Elves and Dwarves, that you were come this way, oh mighty Wise One.’
‘Fortunate as well that Elves are far-sighted and swift to take action,’ returned the wizard in his deep-droned voice.
Galidor smiled. ‘On that behalf, Silval Birdwing, true and noble friend here, is to thank.’
‘Aye,’ said the Birdwing, ‘long did Lord Mysingir and myself wait and watch for your coming Avarhli,’ and here the elf bent to gather up a long, blue-shrouded bundle. With a sweep, he uncovered the scabbard and sword of Bel-Thalion which Elberl had given to Corin, and which in turn had been entrusted to him in the high mounts, before the door of the iron hermitage. This he gave back into Corin's hands saying, ‘You will have need of his gift, though he be not here to offer such again.’
Corin took the weapon, doffing that which girdled his waist, and buckling on the familiar weight. ‘This blade shall not pass from me without just reason,’ he said. ‘Not ever, unless I will it so.’ And he smiled, so that his eyes shone with the strange colours bequeathed him by Talba, lost High Elf, of lost High King. And for a brief moment, all was silent, and the memory and grief of them weighed heavy on the elvish hearts in those tented halls.
Then Silval continued, ‘When the sky lit up and dawn trembled, we were alerted. What was happening, at first we could not be sure, until I spied the black steed. At that, the alarm was sounded and we made haste to come to your aid.’
‘And there our folk, seeking the source of those mighty disturbances, happened upon yon Wise One; striding along as if walking at peace in the woods of kinder lands,’ said Galidor, gesturing toward the wizard. ‘And ere they guided him hither, much mischief had he dealt to the nugobluk with fire and thunder-lightning, so that none could stand against his power.’
‘I do not fear goblins and their kin,’ answered He'Remon, ‘they fear me!’ With a sudden lurch, he stood, the great staff held before him, so that he seemed to tower over all there, looming before them. ‘It was necessary to kill many and divert others, that they be held at bay until Elvan forces came forth. After that, a one named Filma escorted me here, nigh your daring flight through the aisles of bristling death.’ The wizard sat down, but as an afterthought added, ‘Still, that is over now. Though I suppose some of Farinmail's stout folk met their end.’
The dwarf swallowed a bulging mouthful of bread and cheese. ‘Some went to the arms of Lofar, yes,’ he gulped, ‘and sorely will they be missed. But he who fares over the wild fells heeds the risk, and beware the wolf. It is well that most have survived.’
Thus dismissing, without further comment, Farinmail returned to the food and wine, and Corin found himself wondering if the dwarf's paunch could accommodate all that he was shovelling in.
‘Perhaps now,’ suggested Galidor, ‘It is best to talk of what has befallen the Elloræ since coming to these northern shores.’ He turned to Silval, and with a wave of his slender hand, bade him say on.
‘Dear Elf-friend,’ began the Birdwing, addressing himself to Corin, ‘after Elvra, I and the others departed the mountain fastness where stood that lonely iron fortress, the dragon flew us homeward. Of what befell the men of Indlebloom and those folk of Dorthillion, we cannot say, having passed from the land of Kutha-Kesh when all were reunited there at Kurigaldur. Seeing them thus far, safe amongst friends, we were intent upon reaching our own kindred. Even the stirring's of evil in the realms overflown by us seemed of small import until we neared Aneurin's bay; where was the landfall of our fleets. There, in the outer regions, we spied vast bands of nugobluk roaming the barren country, and in haste came we to the Elloræ by the sea, who were much overjoyed at sight of us, even though riding upon a dragon. Then it was that we learned of events since our departure.’
Here, King Galidor stirred, saying, ‘Aye, labours and works were begun during the absence of ye travellers: at the bay of Aneurin, now named Vanora Lindo, which is White-wave Haven, the Foamhair raised a tower to watch both sea and landward. Tom-arnya-Ortha it is called, and since has been a beacon of guidance for wanderers and an eye against intruders. And further east,’ he continued, with a hint of joy tempered by wistful hindsight in his soft voice, ‘where the straits narrow, bending south between this North World's tall cliffs and those of the Raven, our learned ones: ocean-sounders, mariners, stone-workers and more, began the task of resurrection. For it was Elberl's desire to raise again the pylons that had once supported the mighty spans that, long ago, joined both realms by the ancient Æsire road over sea. And in his vision, Elberl saw that the Elloræ, like unto those before us, could again look out from the high mounts where yet are the mansions of the Æsires, into the ocean beyond, toward First-Home; now but the echoes of lost Elfame. And he foresaw that Elves and Men and any of the free folk might come and go as they pleased, which seemed in itself both worthy and good. And he gave name to the building, calling it Sarnyanora Æsire, White-bridge of the Æsires.’
The new king of elves stood, whilst those, familiar and unfamiliar with his tale, awaited as he made his way to a wide opening, thrown back by attendant folk of his kind and there, gazing out upon the day, he resumed. ‘To both Vanora Lindo and Sarnyanora, we came as peaceful folk, for these places were empty of others, so that we felt not usurpers nor invaders, but people who could heal the barren soil, where tree might leaf and water flow anew and the lands be filled again with creatures: bird and beast brought thither across the wide ocean from our own realm. Yet that was not to be. We were oppressed and harried by the nugobluk. At first no more than brigands and footpads, they later formed into fierce bands and woe to any elf caught alone, walking the desolate ways. Dragons were sighted in the sky, wolves and trolls stalked the far ridges. The bands of roaming enemy at last began to form into an army against us. Eventually, King Elberl marched out at the head of a large force, for there was little choice lest we fled out to sea; and so, many a fair elf was lost in his vainglorious stand upon the shores of a lake far inland.’
Galidor ceased his speech to speak with an elf-guard nearby, who at once hurried outside, then he went on, ‘Those of us who remained behind to hold here until his return, are now penned to the cliffs at our backs, with little hope of relief, since Aneurin Foamhair is away at war, beset by goblin vessels, unforeseen, that amount to a mighty armada enough to threaten even the Valdë.’
Breaking the ensuing silence of his king, Silval continued, ‘This much more can I tell. After our last meeting, Avarhli, when you gave up our departed King and the bodies of the two brothers Malva and Mîren, we flew hither. I foremost, to stand by Galidor, for I well knew him named by Elberl in his stead, if disaster ordained it so. Later, Elvra, Falnir, Dalen and ymp Pitrag rode astride Sgnarli dragon, bearing the fading bodies of our three dead and grief to those at Vanora Lindo, thence on to Sarnyanora, where Goldal, Sister to me, awaited word of her Lord Elberl.’ The elf paused, and turning to the new king, said, ‘That is unless harm has come to those beleaguered kindred in the east and they too are no more...’
Galidor, worn and sorrowed, returned to his seat beside Silval and clasped his hand. ‘As to that, we do not know. If they yet prevail, your Sister may no longer be Queen to Elberl, yet she will still be The Lady Goldal, and rule as such with me, until I seek a consort or...’ his tone lowered, ‘until we are no more...’
The words weighed heavy in the quiet of the lofty pavilion, until at last He'Remon observed, ‘It would seem that the fighting has ended for a time. Beyond these walls, I hark nothing but the toil of the day.’
‘Probably some new wickedness afoot in secret,’ muttered Mysingir, his eyes suspicious and wild, as during his madness.
‘Then we had best be swift with what is said here now,’ prompted Silval.
‘Perhaps you should all hear from my doughty companion, Farinmail of the Zwerge,’ suggested the wizard, with a broad flourish toward the dwarf.
Farinmail swallowed a last gulp of mellis and wiped his stubby hand across his mouth. ‘My tale, good folk, is short and urgent,’ he began. ‘I, and these Zwerge left alive, come seeking aid. Aid from any who abide the wilder lands beyond our country, for we have a mutual enemy. He opened his arms expansively. ‘They who coop you here, camp at our very doorstep, and though we Zwerge have long dwelt in the west regions, never before has such thing happened. Not in all the time since our ancestors first reached the mountains of the Ramabad, from out of the north, and gave name to those mighty ranges and to each peak: Zangarh, Onderbor, Sagarmat, and the fearsome, storm-shrouded Rontalandor.’ He winked slyly. ‘Those names, at least, will I tell you, even if my people have others.’ Then, for a fraction, he hesitated, as if what he was about to say next came as a labour to him. ‘We are a proud folk and it is no easy matter to beg assistance from strangers, yet grim war between the Zwerge and those vile creatures has meant that we need swallow our pride, though not without reward do we ask such boon. Elbegast, King of the Ramabad Zwerge, bade me offer Aur in golden amount: silver Argent, Vanadium, gems of unequalled quality, and... Orichalc.’
His gruff voice dropped to a whisper as he uttered the last word, and his wily eyes narrowed.
‘Orichalc, the Fire-Metal,’ repeated Corin, with interest.
‘Ah, Orichalc,’ went on the dwarf, a simpering tone creeping into his manner of speech. ‘Far below Zwerge Drysfa, beneath Onderbor, in the pits of Agendor-Taran, the Thunder-Chasm and outhra, south that is, under Rontalandor, minute traces have we mined. That, in great part, is why my peoples abide those queer mountains where they stand reflected in the Tjärnwash at their feet. There, in that broad lake, named also the Mälar, mirrored in winter's night, can be seen the twenty and one stars that crust the sky. And there now, our ancient halls are besieged by the enemy, who foul those waters with their rubbish and filth. Vast is their number, too vast for we alone to vanquish. So the doors of Zwergedom are shut against them and our folk bide within, unable to walk abroad for fear of their lives.’ Here, the dwarf looked from Galidor to the others, finally turning to Corin. ‘You have not forgotten your pledge at our first meeting I trust,’ said Farinmail.
‘No, I have not forgotten,’ he replied. ‘I will plead your cause, yet it is plain enough that for the time nought can be done until we free ourselves from this perilous situation.’ Corin paused a moment considering the dwarf's mention of Orichalc and the twenty-one stars; then, making up his mind, began to relate the events of his stay at the abode of the hermits, and especially his chance reading of The Stone of Remorse.
When he had finished, he saw that the others regarded him with speechless awe, until Galidor questioned, ‘Are we to believe that you, alone of all in the world, have the powers and knowledge to seek out this Earth-Mouth and open its doors?’
Corin shook his head doubtfully. ‘I did not say that I had any powers. If they are there, I am unaware of them. As to knowledge, perhaps I am yet to acquire such, I do not know. Though I have learned more than I ever dreamed.’
He'Remon, brooding silent, leaned forward on his staff, twirling it back and forth between his lean fingers. ‘It is long that your tale covers, told briefly by you when we first came amongst the hardy dwarves, of wanderings and discoveries, but it seems to me that there is some plan or scheme to it. You were meant to travel the roads that you have, I guess; meant to seek a fulfilment, whatever that might be, unto the end of this mysterious, hidden quest.’
Then Farinmail, who had been scratching at his beard in a distracted manner, looked up. ‘The stars,’ he said, a far-away stare in his eyes, ‘as Master Corin described them from The Stone; thrice seven in the south, winter's ten upon the centre-most where west sun and east moon are seen, and in the north the seven that we Zwerge name the Rime Jewels!’
‘You know of them?’ Corin asked, a tremor in his voice.
‘Aye, I have seen them all, time ago,’ replied the dwarf. ‘I was far from Zwerge-Home on an errand to the gnomes of the north. To Gwireb-Home, a lonely mountain where the Stonegnomes dwelt, solitary and aloof, I went at King Elbegast's bidding, there to seek advice and help, as I now do of noble elves.’ His round face creased into a grin. ‘Elves, you see, I have met before. Mayhap some still live north and east of here, though that was many turnings of the sun, when I was but a stoneling. On the time I speak, elves were only memory, when I strode away to Gnome-Home, a force of Zwerge at my back. We were wary as we travelled, since even then, dwarves were to be found, murdered in the wilds. Only the large caravans to and from the western mines beyond the mountains gave some measure of safety, but at last those mines were abandoned to the nugobluk, who were gathering in ever greater numbers.’ The dwarf paused, as if collecting his thoughts. ‘When we reached the abode of the Gwireb, we found it deserted. Perhaps they had been disturbed by the nugobluk and driven out, I cannot say, though you have made mention of them in the lands eastward, Master Corin, and probably that is where they all went. Be that as it may, night was upon us as I gazed out from the pinnacle of their abandoned home, awaiting the day, to begin our return journey, and there saw I the ten stars reflected in Gwireb Lake and gazing north, seven more, and knew them as the Rime Jewels spoken of by our forefathers. And away in the south, the Thrice Seven, like welcoming lamps beckoning us to make haste for the Ramabad. When the sun showed its westward glow, my companions and I made ready to depart. Then it was that I saw the moon, faint, faint, hanging in the east.’
Farinmail held out his palms in gesture of explanation. ‘So you see, I saw them all: stars, moon and sun, just as Master Corin related from the Stone.’
‘It seems an unusual thing to me that dwarves spend so much time under the earth, and yet are thus observant of the sky,’ said Silval, giving the dwarf a piercing look.
Farinmail checked a sharp reply and answered instead, ‘Master elf, for one newcome to these shores, you claim to know much of our ways. Let me tell you this, though the Zwerge do love their halls and mines and treasures too, they will at times gaze upward to the roof of their domains. And what be the night sky, if not the vast, diamond-studded roof of all the world, for dwarf or elf or any? Would you alone own the sky, denying others its splendour?’
Silval was about to make further comment, but at that moment Filma appeared and hastily spoke with king Galidor, before hurrying away.
The king stood up. ‘We must leave off this discussion. Events are moving swiftly. Come, follow me.’ And so saying, he strode out of the canopied hall.
Without, the party made their way to a low knoll overlooking the empty sea and thence, climbing it, cast their eyes landward beyond the elvan barriers and defences to where the enemy disported themselves. And what they saw there caused them to shiver in fear and in wonder. The massy battalions of nugobluk surrounding them on every landward side were now augmented by a further army that rose out of the north-east like a sea of migrating ants. Over the rim of a far distant ridge they marched in orderly lines, many score abreast. These oncoming ranks seemed unending, whilst their foremost assembled on the plain. Black were their long pikes and spears, and black were their banners, red wolf's heads emblazoned on them. It was to be seen that these regiments were no mere rabble, but goblin soldiers: gark, attagark and ugush, all battle trained. To their northward flank, lines of wolves kept pace, imps and their gark masters astride them. Above cloud-like, stormed crows of the gore, buzzards, vultures and other carrion birds; flying, prying, spying. Soon, upon the ridge crest itself, rows of imp and goblin gathered either side, whilst the army marched through. And here began the first distant thrum and throb of the nugobluk chant. At first it was no more than a chill murmur, yet as more and more joined those standing at the sky-line, so the sound grew and grew. Imps were beating on jaw-bones and skulls, ugush on great black drums, stretched over by hide and skin. Gark sawed at rib-cage frames strung with the sinew and gut and membrane of dead creatures, whilst others blew down thigh-bones, or rattled skeletal remains hung on hair plaits. A dreadful wailing and moaning and howling shrieked across the lowlands, rising, rising, as a hundred score, and a hundred score again joined the ranks of those fear-mongers. On the stony plain, the encamped took up the growing pulse of their song, bone whistles pitched and shrilled. Drums, imp tom-toms and those the height of the goblins who pounded them, rolled and rumbled, thunderous. Imps whirled and danced into frightful fury. Prisoners were brought out, tortured, beheaded, dismembered. Eyes were squeezed, tongues torn, hearts and heads flung about in abandonment. And still the great goblin army filed in: a black river bristling with scythes and poleaxes and hammers, lances by the thousands, hones, jagged saw-tooth swords, long iron daggers, tongs and pincers and pliers and wicked scimitars. And all this river emptying into the vast basin, filling it with a lake of living horrors.
‘We cannot defend ourselves against such multitudes!’ Mysingir cried in anguish. Though outwardly his eyes were steady enough as he watched.
‘Then we must take to the sea,’ said Silval, his gaze likewise fixed.
Galidor nodded. ‘That is the wisest course, for we are but the remnant of Elberl's host, the reserves of his army that set out, never to return hither. We cannot long stand against them. These new-come arrivals, I fear what that portends. They hurry from the east, and that way lies Vanora Lindo. Has Aneurin's harbour fallen, I wonder?’ For a moment, the new king of the Elfame elves stood pondering, then he said, ‘We must put as many of our skilled to work as we can spare. At least we have not been totally idle in our time here. There are already some light craft fashioned, and more in the making. Haste, we needs make haste in the building of ships to sail the sea, though scant be the material to do so!’
The others about him agreed, yet they were well aware of his thoughts. Some few might survive, but most of them would perish at the hands of the nugobluk, for Elberl's army had travelled overland, bearing no sea-going vessels, and even the Valdë could not survive forever, swimming the open waters. True, the elves were still many, and they had the mercenary dwarves and the Wizard with them, but they knew that to be of little avail. Soon, they would be overrun, driven into the ocean by sheer weight of numbers, and there drowned for lack of craft to carry them off.
Late in the afternoon, the goblins halted their incoming hordes, though not because all had arrived. Still beyond the ridges more were gathered and gathering and now, on every rise east and west were they, and the din and the stench and the fear of them was unspeakable. The Elloræ, those few of the Valdë, or those others skilled of the sea, worked ceaselessly, building frail coracles out of anything available. The others could do ought else but wait.
At one time, Farinmail came to Galidor and the other high elves and made a speech on behalf of his dwarf kin. He said, ‘Oh noble King of Elves, I see our doom is nigh. My folk are pledged to die with me, since we will not fall into the enemy's hands. We dwarves are a stone-hard race, and our ways seem strange to others. Perhaps we are too greedy, too solitary, too proud. Perhaps they are all faults. But at the end, pride is all left to us. We will go to Lofar's Halls when He bids us, and we will go with valour and pride. I, Dalfin Farinmail know this, as I know that the very boats your kin are building will sail only some away. They will be, no doubt, your most high and important. This, I understand. One boon then would I beg of you, if any should survive, might they carry the tale of the Dwarves of Farinmail to my King, Elbegast of the Ramabad, and not speak lowly of them.’
This speech, coming from the hard and crafty dwarf, touched Corin and the others so much so that tears welled up in their eyes, whilst Galidor gave his solemn word. Then king Galidor said, ‘You and your folk are strange to us, dour and cunning too, but more noble than appearances can tell. And you are right in what you have said. It falls my lot to choose who shall go, and who shall stay. And only those will I choose most useful to the Elloræ. In this, can there be no doubt. And yet I will not decide, until the last moment comes.’
Unknowingly, one from each other, Corin, Silval and Mysingir had each made up their minds. Corin would not be parted from Darkelfari, nor Silval from Cornarian and Corin. Mysingir stood with Corin. After all, as he reasoned, he had followed him over countless leagues and had passed, himself, through madness, and close by death. He prepared to keep nearby, but if it should fall that Corin be chosen to sail without him, then Mysingir resigned himself to fight alongside the elves until the end.
The sky was darkening, the goblin chant waxing louder than ever. None of the besieged could guess if the enemy would come that night, or delay, feasting on dead flesh and toying with their intended victims. The baying of wolves and the constant wild, inexorable thundering of drums went on and on, never letting up. Fires sprang out of the gloom and soon all the plain was ablaze with the light of the foe. Perhaps that is why the enemy saw not a sailing, dark form, gliding, gliding from the south-east, with nary wing-flap nor sound but a slight rustle, a swish of air, unheard above the nugobluk racket. Then it touched the seaward cliffs, caught them with clutching claws and settled, there to hang upon the very edge.
Silval and Corin were first to it.
But the dragon was alone.
And by the hooded glow of an elf lamp, they saw that he was hurt and near sapped of strength. Steam, in slow hiss, issued from his clenched jaws, ‘Shhh-tooove!’ was the sound that emerged. Scales, here and there, were missing and the folds of his wings were tattered. Down the dragon's flank, by the tail-joint, were three long rents, and his tail was singed and held the smell of burnt leather.
‘What has befallen you, and where are those who rode with you: Elvra, Falnir and the imp?’ inquired Corin, urgently into the dragon's ear. But Sgnarli gave back only a baleful stare and a single grunt, ‘Hooomph!’ The plate-shingled neck bent and the head lowered to the cushioning of stone. The dragon's eyes were yet open, though Sgnarli slept, exhausted it seemed.
Black sky, masked with ominous cloud, pulsed under the onslaught of goblin cacophony. Menacing, rode the red of nugobluk fire, reflected from that vaulted roof. No moon or star was to be seen anywhere in all that bounded region. The stars, it seemed, had turned to glowing embers and fallen to earth, there to litter a dune-rolled plain and the ridges beyond.
This then, was the night-sight that confronted those beleaguered as they looked out, expectant and hushed. Already, working silently, and aided only by the light of lumallin, the Elloræ had fathomed the sea-washed cliffs. There, on marline, they lowered their mustered craft, frail and few that they were. And there, as completed, did they add to their pitiful fleet. But even as it grew, could it not contain more than a tenth of their number. The night wore by, whilst pavilions and canopies fell, to be re-wrought on frames of pole and spear; the spars and riggings and rudders of small boats.
Then, without warning or break in the goblin revelry, their first wave broke upon the elvish defences. Only Elloræ sense and sight saved them from being overrun at that single assault. Out of gloomy corners leapt imps, with gark hard on their tails, lashing them on. Trolls battered and rammed with mighty hammers and massive, iron shafts. Through the air, unseen, hardly heard, flew deadly darts, to pierce and kill. Goblins, as black rain, vaulted the thrown up ramparts. Huge ugush warriors, mounted on stilts, strode over them. Yet under Silval and Filma and other Ellor captains, they were hurled to doom. The drums beyond hastened in their tempo, thundering faster; beating down the will to fight against them, suffocating resistance. At a signal, the elves fell back, giving ground beyond the first of the breastworks, and in moments the goblins were pouring over and through, tearing them down with maddened strength, rending them to rubble and firewood.
Even so, they were shot and died where they stood, as elvish bows sang the song of death and spears flew flock-wise to probe goblin bellies and hard troll necks.
Still they came, the stilted ugush toppling, tripped by unseen marline raised to impede those long-striders. The dragon-squib were fire-doused in deep, hidden pits filled with sea water, their troll keepers drowning, sinking like stones to the bottom. Water, the bane it seemed of imps, sprayed in deluge from barrels tipped from off the second string of redoubt defences. Howling, they reeled and fled away, their fire-brands quenched, but many were sought and found by the blue, glowing bolts of the elves.
As the attack began, so did it cease. Soon, only guttering fires and the dark forms of bodies littered the broad space between the ditch works.
Corin, Galidor, Farinmail and the Wizard watched silently whilst the elves below their vantage point set about the task of repairing the mischief made by their enemies. Mysingir, bow in hand, glistening with sweat, joined them, but seeing their mood, said nothing.
At last, above the din of drums, Galidor was moved to speak, ‘For this time, they have tested us. The next time they will all come, I deem. And those who fall shall fill the pits to the tops, and others will die to serve as ramps over which their kindred will run these roads of death. By morning, perhaps, it shall be over.’
Mysingir nodded, his eyes hollow in his head, ‘I know,’ he said simply, ‘but I am a man, and I would see the sunrise one last time.’
At this, most about him took heart, for though they were elf or dwarf or other, and some long-lived almost unto forever, they could still be killed, as humankind in frailty could wither and die of age alone; and so a bond was formed. For here, vulnerable and too short-lived amongst them, stood ready a noble man, denying impassable odds to win through till the morn, and drink yet the draught of one more day.
Galidor, the Elloræ king, came and stood before Mysingir, the man. ‘And so it shall be, oh Man without peer in such moment as this. For truly, in the face of death, can none be more equal to the final test than he who shall fight it to the end, and yet is reconciled to such end.’ The king reached out his slight hand and touched it to the man's brow. Briefly was it done, and then he turned away to business pressing; but they there, including Mysingir himself, knew that he had been doomed never to sail with those of the elvish refugees.
The great drumming hammered on. The night gripped like an ever tightening vice around the besieged.
Feverishly toiled the elves, the dwarves their equal, If not in number, than in heart. And yet all there knew that the dwarves laboured not for themselves, since the little coracles they helped fashion were meant to carry elves, whilst they, alongside other elves, would fight and die on the cliffs above the wide ocean, where none could avail, nor come to aid. Carefully, and with much deliberation through that night, Galidor chose those who were to go. Along the lines of labouring folk he walked, with but a pale elf-lamp held aloft in his right hand. With his left, here and there he sought those to take the boats away, signing to them. The rest knew their deaths were nigh, and made ready as they could.
Towards dawn, when the drums fell suddenly silent, but no enemy attack eventuated, Galidor gathered to him all who were precious and there, about the knoll that overlooked both land and sea, cast his final pronouncement. ‘My brethren, Elloræ Lords, Silval Birdwing, Filma, Ælroth, Timbrion, Ladimar, Ellion. My newcome allies, the dwarves and their doughty leader Farinmail. He'Remon, Wizard of the world, of Varlar. You, courageous Lord of Men, Mysingir of Indlebloom. And lastly, you, Master Corin, my companion in past adventures. Hear me now, hear the judgements I bear you for those who are to live or to die. I would save us all, though that is not possible. Therefore, I must send away the dearest of elves to me, and those most able and strong and valiant. They must survive, if the Elloræ are to survive. I say, send away, for I, your new King, shall stay.’ He lifted his hands before any could make protest. ‘I can do no less than die with those whom I command so do. That is my decree. And my further desire is that another be risen in my stead, Silval Birdwing, and I bid him go, to lead the chosen.’
All, around Galidor, were aghast, for they saw that nought they might say would avail against the king's will. Then, he went on, ‘Only two more, other than elves, shall go. Both, I pray, for elvedom's succour, and the good of Varlar. They are He'Remon, the Unafraid, and Corin Avarhli.’ He turned his eyes to them, saying, ‘Nay, do not speak words of objection. I guess that of everyone here, you two will have bearing on much that is to come of worldly events. You must sail.’
Then Corin spoke. ‘Perhaps you are right, and have right as King to decide such matters, yet I am not an elf, and do not consider myself wholly bound to you. Further, I will not be parted from Mysingir and the horse Darkelfari in such manner.’
But the king said, ‘I know this. Of your mind, have I divined. Still my command as Elloræ King apart, your choice is thus, forsake everything, world and life. Die, if you must, the black horse and the man to comfort you with their own deaths, whilst you forego any obligation. Or, live. Live and go on. To death alone, later, maybe. Yet others have need of you now. They, still, may you aid. In death, you may aid none.’
At this He'Remon approached Corin, lifted an arm to comfort him. Then let it fall, as if in sign of resignation. ‘You are torn between duty and love; duty to others, and love of friends. Both goals cannot, it seems, be achieved. Stay, and both shall be lost. Go, and one, maybe, will be granted. Do not give up your quest.’
After a few dreadful moments, Corin struggled away, choking. ‘I know,’ he wept, ‘though before, my mind was made up. But why should I be thus forced? Now, am I swayed, unsure. Leave me, leave me be. I need think alone.’
With that, without taking leave, he staggered off, reeling as if in pain until he came to the area where the elvish horses and Darkelfari were picketed. There, with gentle words to his nodding friend, Corin cried out his tears, stroking the sleek, black nose before him. And the tall horse filled his own huge eyes with tears, and they rolled down his shining, veined face, and he spoke, deep within Corin's tortured mind.
‘I weep, not for myself, dear friend. I weep only for you, at our parting. I weep for your sorrow. Yet still you can achieve things, and I no longer can. Only, dear Master, grant me one wish, my wish, for none other here shall I abide. Before you depart, slay me, quick and sweet, that I may feel just your cool touch. Grant me this much, that the evil ones not capture me. My time was short. You were my Master, and my friend. You loved me with all your heart. For reasons far and beyond all that you can know, I love you likewise.’
Dawn so near, that the first hint dwindled, then swelled to a faint rose-bloom. There, in the far west, a twinkle of colour seeped the night sky. Elf boats, coracles and skiffs and rafts, washed silently from the land, until the last, hastily contrived, were left to bear away those few not destined to die.
Corin, the Wizard, Silval, Galidor, Mysingir and Farinmail stood together on a vantage point that overlooked the black sea and the angry, knotted land. Nearby, in Filma's keeping, the elvish horses waited by their proud leader Cornarian and his son and seed, Ebolian. And in the midst of those wondrous-fine animals, all greysome in the shadows of retreating night, was Darkelfari, his blackness shining so that he seemed to reflect their white in his ebony coat.
Corin's eyes misted over, his hand fingered a double-edged blade; the finest, the keenest blade that the Elloræ could contrive, so soft of touch as to go unnoticed even as it dealt death. ‘Here,’ he heard his own thoughts say, ‘are six free folk of the world; three soon to die, the others to flee and live, and remember. And ere I go, I have a last deed to do. I must murder this dear horse.’ In horror at the thought, he drew his hand from the weapon, stifling a cry. ‘It is no use. I cannot do it,’ he said aloud.
But even as he spoke, Elloræ horns were winded, alarm sounding. Rivers of fire were racing toward the elvan lines like swift and silent snakes. Thousands of the nugobluk were pouring down from the ridges, bearing flame and fear in their onrush. And they came hushed; whole armies of them, with but the thud of spiked boots and the rattling of iron and the crackling of fire. This would be the last attack and there would be no stemming of that tide.
Then the elvan trumps rang out again, pure and bracing, transcending the nightmarish advance. But soon they too were drowned.
The drums rumbled across the wastes, over the jostling ranks of the enemy and beyond, and the blow, as the sound reached the elves, was as of a real blow, sent them by unrelenting enemies. A mighty bellow issued from the goblins and they clashed their weapons as they charged, and their harsh laughter and strident screams chilled the very marrow.
Elves raised their bent bows, sending flocks of arrows into the faint-lit sky, to fall like rain-shower amidst the foe, yet even the myriad drops of deathly cloud-burst could not dampen all that host.
‘Flee, whilst you may!’ cried Galidor as he leapt down amidst his brave companions, preparing all to fight till they fell.
‘Farewell Master Corin,’ Mysingir shouted. ‘Tell my Brothers that I loved them to the last and bid goodbye to Minca. Perhaps she might love me in death, if not in life!’
A moment later Farinmail the dwarf, his face hardened in the blue of elf-flame, followed; the battle-cry of his people roaring from his lips.
Then, from behind those left upon the knoll, there came a sudden gust of air. Turning, Corin saw that it was the dragon. Sgnarli had awakened from his exhausted slumber, and could be seen in outline on the cliff edge, fanning his wings as if to test them.
‘Quickly Filma, the dragon knows elves. See if he can fly and will take some with him!’ shouted Corin as he made his way to the horses, with Silval fast by his side. ‘At least we may yet save a few more from this massacre!’
Amongst the tumult and clamour of strife, the drums, screams, bugles and voices, Corin came to Darkelfari. He raised the elvan blade...
The black horse bowed his maned head...
And was caught hold by a handful of flowing mane!
Then Corin was up, swinging onto the broad and powerful back. ‘I will not, cannot harm you, dear friend. Gallop to the sea, find that watery way. Maybe you can swim far enough to save us both!’ Corin turned and lifted his voice, ‘Others take my place on boat or dragon. We, together live or die!’
Silval, now mounted on Cornarian, shouted, ‘I am with you Avarhli!’
And with that, the entire company of elvish horses swung about, to run for the sea.
And then a thing happened.
Amidst all that was happening: the battle now joined by nugobluk and Elloræ, and lost already to the overwhelming goblins, the dragon arousing, Corin and Silval making for the greening ocean, there came a massive star-burst that brought the last lingers of night to day, followed by a mighty explosion of sound that faltered the enemy fighters in their tracks. To those blasted and blown, came a light that blazed in every direction. It issued from the risen ground of the knoll. And on that eminence was He'Remon the Wizard, his staff extended toward the south.
His voice soared for a brief moment above all else, ‘Look, look ye to the south, the south sea! There rides new hope; ships, ships on the horizon!’
Chapter 49 [next]
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