Vol. 1 Escape
The Dolphin Ship
By Kenneth Mulholland
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Copyright 2002 Kenneth Mulholland
Song floated across the waters, the song of glad throats pitched together like bird-call, as the glassy craft drew nearer. Corin stared in amazement at the vessel, since he had never seen anything of its like before.
Majestic, the banked oars rippled the sea a last time, then swept back to come to rest dripping with light, for they too seemed wrought of crystal.
There were faces, numerous and fair, lining the deck, peering down in welcome, or scurrying aloft amongst the billowing shrouds and banners of ocean blue.
Soon, willing hands drew Corin above and laid him upon a creamy sheet of flax, whilst his companions spoke, earnestly, it seemed, in some melodious language; strange yet pleasing to his ear, though he had no way of knowing what was said.
After a few moments those gathered around him lifted the sheet and bore him to a canopied pavilion.
He was given a cup of silver, raised to his lips by the maiden who had travelled in the coracle, and upon taking a small amount of the liquid therein, Corin began to drift into a gentle, soothing sleep.
His last fading sight, was of distant cliffs: white and shining, far off northward.
On waking, however long after, he found his filthy raiment gone. Instead he was clothed in a flowing gown of white, clasped at the waist by a broad belt of green.
His limbs and body had been laved clean of sweat and grime and tingled with the feel of sweet smelling potions.
He blinked in the bright light of day, and the bracing chill of sea-cold air numbed his head so that his vision swirled.
When his eyes cleared he found three figures standing before him. They were dressed in robes of pale blue, and Corin knew them at once as those whom he had encountered within the Tumberimber mounts of Ravenmoor.
‘You are rested and comfortable?’ enquired the maiden, seating herself beside him.
‘Ah!’ She laughed. ‘You do understand me, I see it in your eyes. You must forgive us our silence up till now, though that was of need before. And too, we seldom use the archaic tongues of other lands. We are come from the Ęsaldian peoples: Ellorę of Elfame Isle. Elves, you might call us, if that is simplest.’
She shook her dark brown locks and Corin noticed, once again, her sharply pointed ears. ‘You are quiet. Are you fearful of us?’ she asked, concerned.
‘No,’ he managed a smile, ‘I am entranced. The Voices called to me, though I had scant thought to such destination as this. ‘
‘Voices?’ queried the younger standing.
Corin almost laughed: thus was his relief and joy after pursuit and peril. ‘Of that, would need some time to tell. And I wonder then,’ he pondered, ‘if you might believe me.’
‘There will be time enough to hear your tale, oh ye from Men's realm,’ said the third, the white haired one whom Corin had dragged free from the clutches of the monster and the black things. ‘But for now, since it is plain that you require rest and ease from your ordeal and wounds, let it suffice that we give our names: mine is Morgan, and also Sea Wanderer. And that too is a tale for later.’
‘I am Silval Birdwing,’ said the younger, his pale hand resting on the maiden's shoulder. ‘And this is Elvra, fairest lady of the Nemorian folk.’
‘My name is Corin,’ he answered, staring up at them in wonder and exhaustion. ‘Yet once I was Mylor, a name I have forsaken, when I was a Prince amongst those of Ravenmoor. That land from which we have now fled.’
‘A Prince indeed,’ said Morgan smiling, ‘and come from that wild place of men and evil beneath the mounts. That is curious. There is much that you could tell us of Ravenmoor, I feel certain. However we will leave you in peace for this while. Yet be assured, master Corin, that I owe you more than my own life. You have been of great service, unwittingly perhaps, to the Ellorę, and that shall not be overlooked by myself, or by others of the High.’
The three departed, and Corin was left to drift, and think, and dream; cradled in the pale sun where it bent away eastward, toward the coming of night.
The Voices rolled over him, through him: mystic and plaintive.
‘Deeper, deeper. Sleep thou sleeper.
Crying, crying. Lonely lying.
In dark of night: thy paddle plying.
Lest a great one, spell untying.…’
He slept, and the ocean heaved away beneath him, bearing the Dolphin Ship and those aboard out into the wastes of open sea; sailing swift beneath the stars.
In the days that followed, Corin was attended by many of the elf folk as they passed his couch on various errands, their silvery voices piping in unknown speech, and he began a slow recovery from the hurts sustained and the trials of his long flight.
Elvra came often, bringing both food and cordials strange to his taste, yet pleasant and satisfying.
Corin was well treated during that voyage. Potions were given him and bracing unguents applied to his aching body, so that a little strength trickled into his limbs and he began to wish that he might rise from his bed and explore the wonders of the great ship.
But Elvra and Silval too, cautioned him to rest; and so he remained, weak, curious, and puzzled.
As the days and nights turned, he pondered the adventures of Ravenmoor, and wondered what would have befallen him had he not encountered the elves within the terrible Tumberimber Mountains.
And he thought of the things therein: the monstrous dog-creature that had almost crushed him and the blurred vision of fearsome figures scuttling in the shadows beyond it.
At such moments, he shuddered and shut his eyes, for it was all too clear why so many had not returned from the Forbidding Forest: the evil had lived, brooding in the caverns and swamps over long, long while. Perhaps since before the first men and their Boy-King had set foot in Ravenmoor, and when any had dared to venture into the regions of the forest or the mounts beyond, they were snapped up, never to be seen again.
And what of those who dwelt so perilously close on the borders of the forest?
‘At last I am free to follow The Voices,’ he thought, ‘wherever They call me. Yet there are good folk left behind. How shall they fare? Have I forsaken them and duties there?'
He could find no answer, though the visions of Spiggot and his daughter, the Jug and Kettle Man, and the woodsfolk haunted him. Still, it was too late. He, self-named Corin, was being taken ever further from the place of his birth, and the past.
The elves sailed by moon and sun and stars, and sometimes it seemed to Corin that the ship floated above the flume of wave, instead riding through mists where the waters lapped faintly below, whilst the banks of oars, turned by many slender hands, sent it onward.
On a day, when the air was sharp and the light glistened on the waters, Elvra and Silval drew him from his couch, and betwixt them, took him to the rail, that he take a first look at the vastness surrounding.
The ocean stretched away on all sides, humming with a life of its own. And upon the sweep of horizon, where sea met clouded sky, there was nothing else.
The Dolphin Ship sailed alone.
Momentarily a spasm of fear choked in Corin's throat. Never before had he been on a vessel, let alone beyond sight of land. The elves at his side seemed to sense his apprehension and Silval said, ‘Do not be afraid, for though the oceans of Varlar are wide and lonely, we elves have roamed them long and know much of the mystery of them. Come now, there are those who desire to speak with you, now that you are fit enough to heed them.’
Gently, the pair helped Corin walk the long deck to where opened a gangway leading below. Down this they took him, and thence into a broad cabin filled with many folk, most unknown to him by name or face. And yet it was their faces that held him as he swayed with the motion of the ship and his own unsteady legs. A gallery of eyes followed his every move, whilst Elvra and Silval lowered him to the softness of cushioned seating.
Words were spoken then, and answered by the elves at Corin's side, though he knew not what was said, until one arose out of the dim shadows beyond the lamps. This was Morgan, he whom Corin had saved under the mounts of Ravenmoor. And this time he spoke directly to Corin, saying, ‘We are well pleased with you, Corin of the realm of men. I have made it my business to tell your part in the peril beneath the mountains of your homeland to the master of this ship, Aneurin Foamhair.’
A figure loomed beyond that of Morgan's: tall and shrouded in a great, blue sea-cloak that rippled like the wind on water as he came into the lantern light. His golden hair hung about his shoulders, framing features dominated by brilliant blue eyes that riveted Corin with their gaze. The regal face would have been softer perhaps, if not hardened and weathered by time and travel; the extent of which Corin could only guess. In his hands, Aneurin held an object coated in filth; the same mucked rod that Morgan had so prized in the caverns of evil beneath the Tumberimber, and which had near cost him his life.
‘I am puzzled by you,’ said the Master of the Dolphin Ship.
‘Why was it that you were there, deep amidst those foul pits, and why did you so aid folk far beyond your knowledge and endeavour?’
Corin began a stammered answer, but the Master of the Dolphin Ship continued, ‘you are a stranger to me, and yet... and yet there is a something about you: something unlike those of your kind, those wild and desperate peoples of men whose paths we have crossed and endured. You are not alike to them.’
‘I am not,’ ventured Corin, defensively, ‘alike to them; though I am come from them, and that I cannot change: even it be that I yearn to flee the land of my kindred because... well because I do not fit.
Things were demanded of me, duties that I could not fulfil.
And so I was outcast and became a fugitive, hunted by my own folk.
The only hope left to me was escape into the remote regions of the realm, where none dared follow... And there were The Voices...'
‘Yes,’ Aneurin nodded, ‘Morgan has spoken to us of these Voices. Do you hear Them now?’
‘Well...No.’ Corin answered. ‘They come to me from time to time, ever since I was a little child. And none but I could hear them; yet always. They called me, beckoned me away into the far regions of the north.’
‘That is why you were outcast by your own kind?’ Aneurin asked, a gentleness creeping into his speech; and Corin noticed how the words, though plain enough, seemed each to have a peculiar intonation, a ring, almost as of a long unused tongue.
‘In part,’ he said, then hastened on, ‘but my tale is a long and sorry one...’
‘Then save it for now,’ said Morgan, lifting his hand. ‘It is plain to us that you are still much distressed from past adventures, and yet need rest before you are fully recovered. Best keep your story until we reach our destination, that you tell it before The High of our land.’
‘Your land,’ murmured Corin. ‘I am to see your land then?’
‘That is whither we are bound in haste,’ smiled Morgan, ‘for we have found a thing long lost: a sign for which we have sought over many turnings of sun and moon, and in some way,’ he added, ‘it seems that you are caught up with such. Be patient and spend your time studying the ways of the Ellorę whilst you can, for there is a great deal to learn that will benefit you.’
The brief meeting at an end, Elvra and Silval escorted Corin back on deck and sat him in the sunlight where other elves busied themselves mending silken sails with long, curved needles, or fashioned ropes out of twisted line that glistened between their quick fingers.
‘I am glad not to have started upon the tale of my life,’ he muttered, feeling suddenly feverish, ‘I do not know that I should have been up to telling it all.’
‘That is certain to see,’ said Elvra. ‘You are far from well yet, and must be confused and concerned for the future; though you may be assured, you are in safe company. Besides,’ she laughed lightly, ‘a story half told is worse than not told at all. And a story twice told wears the listeners at retelling. We of the Ellorę are a patient people, for our lives span many times over those of mortals.
A death comes to us, of a kind unlike to that of others who dwell in Varlar; for it merely changes our being and sends us elsewhere, out there,’ she gestured toward the sky, and Corin followed her hand to where sun and cloud and blue mingled.
‘Ah!’ Elvra knelt before him, ‘see, already begins the opening of the door of learning, as Morgan so desired.’
Corin rubbed at his eyes, and his brow was damp beneath his fingers.
‘Aye, there is a lot for me to learn that is sure. And I have many questions of you. But I will leave them awhile until my mind is fit to take in such wondrous things. Instead, may I rest in your company here and watch the great world?’
‘Of course, of course,’ smiled Silval. ‘We have still a far way to sail ere our haven is reached. Take your ease and observe, as you will, for Varlar's seas and sky are ever changing.’
Onward sped the Dolphin Ship by night and day through strange waters, and of land or life there was never a sight.
Into the south and east they bore, and at dusk of each eve the ship's shadow grew long upon the ocean beyond as the orb of the sun sank on the eastern rim of the world.
Corin spent much of his time with Elvra, and others who made themselves known to him when they visited his pavilion by night, or worked and sang around him on the open decks during the shorter days. Away to the north, autumn was dying, and winter fast closing on the land he had left behind: and even in the southern climes there was a noticeable change.
Two sea-elves, especially, came often; they were brothers, and together with Elvra, began the task of teaching Corin the first beginnings of their language.
Malva and Mīren Yellowmorn were their names, and they were alike as twins: both tall for elves, lithe and quick of hand and eye, and clear of voice, so that Corin was pleasured at each word they spoke. For such was the tongue of the Ellorę that even one word carried the lilt of song and was captured in meaning almost straightway.
There was, he discovered, a single high language of the elves that most used, but also there were various dialects that belonged to certain groups; though mostly they kept him with the common, so that he would not become confused.
Learning to master such musical speech came easily enough to Corin, since there was little more to do than observe, listen and remember.
And when the Valdė, the sea-elves, sang there was scant difference between that and speech; so beautiful was the rhythm and the melody of their harp-like voices.
‘That is well done!’ Silval Birdwing exclaimed, clapping Corin lightly on the shoulder after hearing his rather wooden attempt at Ellorę words and phrases.
‘You are making progress. Why soon we shall have no secrets from you at all,’ he smiled; and then, as if some dark thought had passed deep within, the elf turned away to the railings.
‘What is it?’ Corin asked, looking from Silval to Elvra and the others where they sat about him.
‘Have I done something wrong... said something?’
‘Nay,’ whispered Elvra, the new risen sun glinting on her hair. ‘It is only that, well, we of the Ellorę find a sadness in the world at whiles; a sadness, and sweetness, all at once difficult to explain.’
‘It is not you, Corin of men, but about your kind,’ said Malva gently, the twine of net twisting from his weaving hands. ‘There is little in Varlar that goes on forever; flowers and trees and the birds that fly o'er, all pass into eternal winter: wither and die. Sooner or later, thus it is with most, their lives ending much too swiftly, come and gone as a bright day. The creatures and the growing things of the world are born in morning mists, to burn bravely, gaily; thence to sink into a purple and golden twilight, then gone.’
The sea-elf paused, his fingers stilled from their work. ‘Only the oceans and the lands between shall go on for longer than anything else; but even then I guess will there be an ending, as once was there a beginning to Varlar.’
There was a silence amongst them until Corin broke it. ‘Is that what Elvra meant when she spoke of mortals?’
‘Mortals, aye,’ nodded Mīren Yellowmorn, leaning closer from his perch amongst some coils of knotty rope. ‘The Growers of Old Age we name them, all that crawl and swim, fly or walk or spring from earth and sea. All, but for us, for we are of other kind. We of the Ellorę are come of another stock, the Ęsaldian: The Timeless Ones: The Immortals.
The death you know belongs not to us, as Elvra told you. We are so long lived by the count of men as to be almost never-dying, and when a time comes, after many stars of the pathways beyond have flickered out, that we pass from Varlar, it is to another life; an extension of this life, here in the world. We cannot truly die...’
‘Then why does that sadden you?’ gulped Corin, at a loss to know why he too suddenly felt a catch in his throat.
‘Only in this much,’ murmured Silval where he stood, his eyes bent to the sea, and Elvra now at his side. ‘We elves have little pattern of death or birth. Indeed birth is hailed and celebrated, as is the final ending of our kindred mourned; so seldom do either come to us. We do not fall ill as others; we are slow, so very slow to come to life, and likewise loathe to depart this Varlar of ours. We are like a great tree covered in leaves that are made from the sinews and flesh and blood of the world, and as the tree's leaf falls, so the entire tree grieves. And thus do we have a sorrow that is beyond us. For it is of the world outside our domain. There is, you see much that we have come to love which flourishes and dies away too soon.
And in the dying away from us of a bird, a blade of grass, a creature even unto that of man, our sorrow grows the greater, longing for the swift lost.
Therefore, in the long ago, our peoples kept much to themselves, seeking not the paths, nor the company of mortals; for their roads are too short, and ours go on.’
It was Malva then, who took Corin's attention, as he sighed whilst the morning sun played across his fair face and his glistening eyes, and he went on, ‘That is why we sorrow, for in our home of Elfame, and in the ocean there, we have tarried long.
There, there is little of such mortal toil, where the breakers roll to Elvermore, and our hearts have long been freed of worldly cares.’
The elf shook his head, bowed, and then lifted it to Corin.
‘Can you understand, oh Corin come of men; such is why we are, in part, as we are: glad and joyous, sombre and sad.
We have entered the outside world, touched it and felt its warmth and peril, and we grieve for it and love it both at once.
Is that not anguish altogether enough?’
Corin felt hot tears ebbing, and they burst out of some long locked corner of his inner depths, welling up to spill across his cheeks before he could stem them.
It was as if he knew, had always known, those bitter-sweet truths, and he was both confounded and condemned; for he was not of those who carried him away.
As the elves had told, he was only a mortal.
And yet, there were The Voices.
He closed his eyes to shut off the tears and blot out the day and the stinging truths of the beautiful, lonely elves, and there, as if from the very beating of his heart, he heard Them. Voices, faint and failing, drifting ever further away.
‘Oh, my Corin...Come to me...Come into the wild places of the north...Come, oh Corin...’
‘Deeper, deeper. Sleep. Oh sleeper.
Sighing, sighing; ply thy ship in night forever, lest a Great One, spell untying...’
‘Come, hither. To the north: into the north.
Come, to where awaits...’
Corin blinked, and the light flashed between his throbbing eyelids.
And it was a light all mixed with bright beams of colour, and the yellow streaks of sun through mists, like drifts of rain seen against rolling clouds where fleeted the green of earth and the blue of sea.
Elves were gathering at the railings, their cries of delight summoning him with an urgency of anticipation. And as his steadied gaze swept the ship he saw Aneurin Seamaster standing, proud and tall, the great sea-cloak billowing on the wind, and with him in the bows, Morgan Seawanderer; white hair tossed and tumbled, arms risen to the rainbows that danced across a wash of sky.
With an effort, Corin managed to stand and join the others where they lined the decks, and there, down in the waters, he spied the first creatures beyond the Dolphin Ship since they had taken sail. And they were dolphins: whole schools of them, twisting and sporting in and out of the waves, their jaws drawn open in smiles of greeting.
‘The Valdė Emar!’ cried Malva at his side. ‘Seahorse. Dolphin! We are home! After long away, we are home!’
Awed, Corin watched as the sea creatures surged ahead into the veil beyond.
‘We are home,’ he thought, elated for a moment, caught up with the exultant elves, and then realised. ‘No-They, are home. I am only a fugitive, a runaway... I have no home.’
But his dwellings were cast off as the mists thinned and there came a fragrance, blown from unseen shores that shimmered, yet hidden: though ever nearer.
Vague shapes, tall and jutting, swirled through the fogs of dewy haze and a curious silence befell the ship as the elves ceased their singing to strain forward, eagerly awaiting first sight of the haven.
The breeze faded and the oar-elves plied their crystal sweeps with gentler motion so that the craft slid through the mists and the soft-lapping waters.
A ray of sun shafted across the gloom, and at that very moment Corin heard a single bell tinkling somewhere ahead.
Soon it was joined by another, then louder, others that rang and pealed out across the harbour whilst the Dolphin Ship broke into the light of day, where rainbows shone from the green hills of Elfame and voices were lifted in welcome by those who thronged the shores.