And one more before the holiday starts. Remember those who have died well in war, and do not let their sacrifice fall short. Remember also those who did not die, but came home older than their sums of years, harder than the stones at home, more broken than the mill of work can grind…
11 November 2017
As always, this is my own work. Enjoy it and link to it but do not sell it as yours. Print it if you’d like, but do not post the text elsewhere. Thank you.
Continued from Chapter Three:
Iago led the party slowly, carefully up the rockslide to where the mountain road emerged again on the north side of it, winding its way precariously along chinks and crevices and behind the boulders to lose itself far up the rock face. Furn and Scroop had no experience with mountains, and followed him with difficulty. But even a greenhorn gnome is hearty compared to a man. Olaf of Durn slipped and stumbled along in the rear, his longer limbs alone allowing him to keep pace with them. First his shoelace broke, then the stones he was crossing gave way, and then a blister rose. He called out to his companions:
“Wait a bit, wouldn’t you. I’ve a nasty blister on my toe, and I’d like to go and look at it. If you don’t mind it, of course,” and he took off his shoe. That shoe had followed him on many trips, and he was loth to part with it. He looked at it again, noticing how worn it was, how battered it had become since he first drank at the hidden tavern in the forest. Turning his attention again to the blister, he drew his knife and sacrificed the corner of the shoe’s tongue to fit a piece around the blister. He slid it into his shoe, and when it was properly installed, he hurried to catch up with the gnomes.
They came at last to a high cavern overlooking the forest. Narrow stairs were the only approach from below, and a narrow ledge at its mouth afforded a view of the entire countryside. The shadow of the mountain in the setting sun rendered it thoroughly invisible, but for the light of a great and roaring fire which someone had prepared inside the doorway. The wood was from the forest below, apparently brought up through the cave, since the size of many of the logs left no other option. All this Olaf saw as they pulled themselves the last few feet. They stepped up onto the shelf at the threshold, and he saw the people.
They were in large part gnomes, his own hosts with the rest. There seemed to be three distinct clans represented. There were taller nut-brown wood gnomes like Furn and Iago, fair gnomes who plied the ferries on the Old River, compact dark gnomes whose mines cut deep into the mountains—and then there was Scroop, who didn’t quite fit into any of the clans. He was just Scroop, the Innkeeper.
Another contingent sat behind the fire. Gil and Gion, dwarves from Scorpion Pass, were rapporting with the black gnomes about their mutual trade as Olaf entered. And from beyond the fire, he heard a man’s voice speaking.
“I’m quite well, really I am. I don’t think—well, this is a first. I’m not quite used to associating wine and firelight to my work underground. But then, this whole world is underground, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it would be, for you at least. To us, you came from the Great Mountains, apparently from the headwaters of the Old River. There are many strange stories about those caverns. What did you do in your world, Jans?”
“I am, or was, an educator of youth in my country. I learned of the past and the men of the past, and shared what I learned with my pupils. In fact, I was studying the old ways of my country when I found the Door.”
“Quite a discovery, my friend,” said the second speaker. “Will this not be a tale to awaken the minds of the youths in your care? What will they ask you, do you suppose?”
“In all honesty, the majority would not believe it, Mr. Lucullus. In my world men burn leaves of toxic plants and inhale the smoke to cloud the mind, and that is what they’d suspect me of. But I do not blame them.”
“Nor I. What will our fauns think when they hear that I talked with an Outsider? Of course, Olin’s men at Durn are outsiders, and so are their kin in the Western Forest. But they’ve been here for ages, whereas you—and I think our other Outsider is here.”
Scroop tugged on Olaf’s sleeve, and pointed to the two tall figures in the rear of the cave. The first speaker was the Professor, whom he had not seen before. (So this is the man that all of that fuss was about? he thought to himself.) The other was at first glance an old man, strong and strapping as a youth, but tough as hickory, and the hair which had once been russet brown was now far silvered. He was naked to the waist, and his clean-shaven chin belied his hairy chest. His legs were covered in what appeared to be goatskin breeches, but they were the wrong shape. The more Olaf thought about it, the more goatlike they became. The old fellow caught him staring, and then he laughed, an untamed, primitive laugh, almost a bleat at the end. Then with a smile, Lucullus parted his silvery hair on one side and revealed a small brown horn a bit above his temple. When he dropped the hair again, its twin emerged on the other side, and he laughed again. His long silken tail whose tuft was like a fine sable brush twitched slowly in the firelight.
Olaf was surprised and delighted, nervous and amazed all at once, like someone who opens up a mechanical butterfly and sees the delicate weights and springs within. Satyrs still lived on in the glens of the deep forests. Anything was possible.
But not just anything happened. The full number was there, and so the council could commence. The satyr struck an iron rod against the rock, thus sounded, the gong called the meeting to order. There were seven gnomes altogether, plus the others already mentioned, and a quiet young peasant from the village of Durn whom Olaf had not seen before. He sat on Lucullus’ right, opposite the professor.
“My friends, guests, neighbors, jokebrunts, et cetera, et cetera, I have asked you to come because things are happening,” said the satyr. “The wandering moon which men call Dioth has eclipsed the war star. This only happens once every six centuries. When it last happened, the first of these Vikings had just come through from the Outside, and their prophets took it as an omen of great conquest. That is when they spread out their holdings by force across the lower lands from the mountains of Durn. I see no reason for the stars to rule the lives of men, but they do, and what I want to know is, what is going to happen this time.”
“I don’t think anyone knows, old one,” said a lean gnome with fair hair, pale skin, and a thin pointed nose. “As chief of the gnomes, I have jurisdiction over all the forest around Durn, and many of the house of Andvari also trade up and down the river, hearing news from many parts. But recently, what we’ve heard has been quite disturbing. Folk say that the Old Kindred, with whom my people have had a history of much dispute, are back in the west from the exile into which we rightly sent them. In fact, one of the boatmen, not remembering our honor point, carried one across the river, and described him to me later—that some few have illegally come back, at least, there can be no doubt.”
“I thought merely that they had taken up service with the king at Carrach-On-Lake, which is hardly an exile,” sail Gion, the elder of the dwarves.
“What is this Carrach? I have heard little enough about it in Durn,” said the peasant. “All I know is that all our old wars seem to have been against them, and the old wars seem to be more popular to talk about these days than before. But nobody knows anything.”
“The wars of the last eclipse were against Carrach. But for the last five and a half centuries, our libraries tell of nothing but peace between the king and the Vikings of Durn. I know very little about this Old Kindred of which you complain, Andvari, but they may yet be important.” Lucullus scratched his chin in thought.
“We always called them the Lost Kindred,” said Furn, the youngest of the gnomes. “They were supposed to be great fighters and blacksmiths—a tribe of the wood-kindred who had learned from the dwarves how to forge iron. They were slim and ruddy, and wore hornéd helms upon their heads.” The looks of the company caused him to lapse into silence. “Did I get it wrong?” he asked.
“You were thinking of the Lost Race of the gnomes,” said Andvari. We speak of the Old Kindred. The gryffin-tamers.”
“Are there then gryffins, as well?” Furn asked.
“Yes, good Furn, and one day I hope that you will see them,” Lucullus said, smiling.
* * * * *
In the middle of the night I rolled onto a tree root and awoke with a lump between my shoulders. The fire had died; Father and his steward were rolled in their blankets on the other side of the tree. The horses were picketed across the coals from us. I stood up carefully and stretched my sore limbs. The night was warm and gusty, and high clouds chased the stars. I stepped out from under the trees into the silvery moonlight. Far away in the woods to the south, I heard the sweet wild music of panpipes, and the whole of that sylvan night took on a wild, faërie air. I trod lightly in my bare feet, picking my way through the darkening forest, setting out after the source of that haunting refrain.
As I approached, I saw light from a clearing ahead, and seven tall figures dancing to the songs of wild pipes. They were the strangest people I had ever seen. Their legs were like those of goats, with tiny hooves and short tails, while their arms and chests were like a man’s. Their heads were like men’s, with small horns protruding from among their curling locks. I gaped at them, not believing what I saw, although there was little way around it. The moonlight flashed from the silver pipes and glanced on my shirt as they danced. I remembered enough of my reading to know that I was seeing satyrs. A little cautiously, I stepped into the clearing.
All of a sudden, a flash of lightning split the sky apart, and with a clap of thunder the wild music was silenced, and the revelers were gone. I stumbled blindly in the ensuing dark, as the rain returned in full force. I did not remember the direction in which the camp lay, and I wandered in circles until I heard carnivorous growls and snarls in the thickets near at hand. I lumbered forward, fearing the worst. As the lightening split the sky again, I came out upon a disaster. A band of large and ragged skunks had invaded the camp and were well on their way to demolishing the last remains of our saddlebags. They had stampeded the horses and torn into the food supply, ruining what was left for the remainder of the journey.
I picked up a rock and slung it at the largest of them, striking him squarely between the eyes. The skunk looked up from the side of smoked bacon he was eating, and snapped angrily at me through the rain. Others stood up too, their piebald faces and black muzzles still trailing strings of burlap from the saddlebags or dropping crumbs of cheese or bread in the darkness. Their amber eyes glowed, and at these I aimed, sending a shower of stones through the rain in their direction.
A chorus of squeals told me that many had met their mark, and the animals made a timely retreat. I gathered what I could of our saddlebags and their contents through groping in the mud, and piled them together at the base of a tree. I made my way to my bed again, peeling off my wet clothes. As I did so, a slight noise and a grunt told me that the sour-faced steward had awakened. Not knowing how much he’d seen, I lay down without a word in my own place. I knew I ought to go find the horses, but I fell asleep almost immediately.
We arose the next morning to find it still raining. Our campsite had flooded during the night, leaving us in a good handbreadth of standing water. From the branches of the oak tree a constant drip splashed onto Father’s face, and put him in an unusually surly mood. The horses were still missing.
He demanded angrily of his steward to give an account for the animals, but the servant replied “Let the young prince do it. After all, it was not I who was prowling the woods last night when the moon came out, only returning when the weather did.” He nodded in my direction.
Father bellowed with rage and swung his fist upward as though to burst the sky. He knocked a hole in the overhanging foliage instead, and a torrent of large cold drops rained down upon his head and red beard. I was about to burst with laughter, but I pulled on my waterlogged clothing and went after the horses. They were grazing under the trees in a secluded glade not far from the road, heedless of the driving rain. The clearing, as I said, was not too far away, but I would have missed it had it not been for the nickering of the horses, who heard me coming over the downpour. As it was, I had difficulty getting into the clearing and to the horses, for the clearing was surrounded by a dense hedge of thorns, but for a narrow gap at the far end. I discovered all of this the hard way.
After struggling through the hedge to its interior, when there was only half a fathom of thorns between the clearing and myself I caught a glimpse of the horses. They were unhurt, but seemed to have spent a miserable night, and I was all the more anxious to reach them. So I parted the bushes with my arms and, not hesitating for an instant, plunged into the clearing. There was a large branch across my line of travel, however, at the leading edge of the thorn-brake, and I did plunge in. I fell headlong onto the sodden ground.
I picked myself up carefully and looked to see what I had stumbled on. I saw the branch then, and beside it, under the thorns, lay wineskins. Full wineskins that would well replace those which the polecats had gotten to last night. I grabbed the branch, and pulled it away—it was a long stout cherry-wood staff. I did not know who had left these things, but I knew that I could find a use for them and so I picked them up and brought them along. It was a very good staff I’d found, and the wine, though yet untried, at least filled the skins. I made short work of tying these things to the rump of my horse, once I caught hold of him, and when the other two recognized me, they came forward through the rain, but staying always just out of arms’ reach. In the end, I took the staff and was able by its reach to catch the loops of their reigns, one at a time, and bring them to myself. They were quite tame horses, really—just a little bit flighty. On the ground at my feet I saw something shining in the rain. It was a syrinx—a set of panpipes—cast in silver and finely detailed. An intricate arabesque of leaves and stems and flower petals twisted its way around each reed. So I hadn’t been dreaming. I tucked the pipes into my belt and returned with the horses to camp.
I had not tarried over-long, and my father was delighted to see the wineskins I had brought. To my relief, he did not ask too many questions about them. We now had beverage, but no meat, for the remainder of our journey. There was still a full day’s ride ahead of us, and I was weighing the detriment of hunger against our better speed without the weight of food. There was no game about in this weather at any rate, so we loaded what we had upon the horses again, and continued the journey to Febold’s hall.
The rain did not let up that morning, and by noon I was sick of it. Water ran off my hair, down my forehead, over my temples, and dripped from my chin. It spilled off my scalp, chilling the back of my neck before going down my shirt and dripping from the hem to further pester my poor horse. Rivulets trickled over my shoulders, going in at the collar and out at the sleeve, dripping from my elbows onto the muddy road. Water droplets plunked from the end of my nose with the regularity of a metronome. The water got into my pants and into my blankets. I could see that the others were none too happy, either; as my father blew steam and pushed his unruly wet bangs out of his eyes for the twelfth time. We had long since left the cover of the trees, and with them our higher spirits. Around mid-afternoon, as the horses walked on down the slimy road, and I sniffed and shivered in misery, not looking at anything but my horse’s shattered reflection in the puddles we passed, the road made a sudden sharp bend to the left. The sound of rushing water was close at hand, and the smell of the air changed. We were coming to a river. Secretly I nourished a hope that we could turn back now, to somewhere with dry beds and hot food over a warm fire. But Father was determined to press on. The steward said nothing as he rode ahead to the ford. When he returned is face was set harder and grimmer than before, if such a ting is possible. The river had overflowed its banks, and the ford was washed out.
“There’s an old stone bridge, upstream by a mile or more,” the steward shouted over the roaring flood. “It might be little more than a ruin by now, but it’s our best chance.”
“I know this bridge—the Jotunsgap Arc—from coming here as a boy. The ford was built and the road moved because it’s unfit to travel,” my father answered at a yell. “I don’t see any other choice, though!” So we turned upstream. There was no visible trail to follow, and the steep banks were overgrown so with briars and nettles, and at points our way was cut across by steep gullies or streams, though with the runoff of the storm and their topographic similitude, it did not matter which was what, so long as we passed them. Many times this task took us out of sight of the river altogether, and we only kept straight by the sound of her roaring off to our right. As nightfall approached, we came out upon an overgrown track through the trees, level enough that the water puddled more than it flowed here. But for the milestone protruding from the vines across the way, we would not have known it for a road. We turned again toward the river, and found the old bridge directly before us.
It lay like a giant crown on the brows of the cliffs above the torrent. It had indeed fallen into serious disrepair, and so we determined to camp for the night, and challenge the ruined bridge in the morning. New hope ever cometh with the dawn, and with hope cometh courage. And so we established our camp.
I was bored, so, with nothing to do and less than that to eat, I drew out the belt buckle. I wondered how I could have forgotten so much of my life in to little time. It had only been a little while, I was certain, since I left the hotel, but already it seemed to be far away, like a half-forgotten dream upon waking. I felt I needed something to remember my other home by; even my girlfriend, my highschool sweetheart, was only a vague memory now. I saw a dim and distant face, a beautiful face, – but just a face was all I remembered of her. I decided to occupy my hands, so I sat down in a puddle under a tree(everything was soaked: there wasn’t a single dry spot for miles) and untied and removed my belt. Taking out my knife, I studied the leather strap and the buckle, and made a hole in the middle of the strap, one inch from the end, driving the knife through into one of the tree’s gnarled roots. I notched the edges about an inch down from the hole I had made, and feeding the pierced end of the belt through the eye on the back of the metal buckle, I drew the length of the leather through the hole in the end, until the notches caught on the hole – and the buckle was firmly in place. All that was necessary now was for me to punch the fastening holes.
In the meantime, though, I stood and stretched my legs, and took another pull at that wineskin. My father declared it again to be the sweetest wine on the earth, but it was somewhat strong, I thought. The Steward did not seem to mid the taste one way or another, but was unrolling our tanned-hide bedrolls across the stones beside the bridge. It was rather good wine, for all of that.
After I wet my whistle, I returned to my seat by the tree to finish the belt. Unfortunately, I had left my belt at the tree, and so I was required to hold my pants up with my hands, and wasn’t doing a good job of it, either. Before I had advanced five yards, I stumbled on the left cuff of my breeches and sprawled into the mud, my pants around my knees. My father laughed, as I gritted my teeth, spat the grit from between them, and picked myself – and my pants – up. The thunder was nearer now than it had been, and I wished, in my subsober state of mind, to get my mind off of this miserable storm, so I promptly sat down and started punching those adjustment holes as best I could from my memories of them in the sodden leather.
“Yeeaugh! Did that hurt!”
I bellowed in pain as blood ran from the cut in my thumb. It was not a serious cut, but it still needed tending, so I got up and walked over to the wineskins, pinching the injured thumb to reduce the bleeding. I took off my breeches, as I couldn’t hold them up, and kicked them over beside the knife, belt, and panpipe in a pile not far from my tree. I then hurried to the wineskins and splashed wine into the cut. It burned with pain when I did this, but I knew that it would heal. I swallowed some more myself and turned to look at the others. They had already rolled out the hides and were sleeping between them on the wet rocks beside the bridge on the far side of the road. I had smiled at them, and turned to collect my pants, et cetera, when lightening struck, and a cacophony of light and thunder rocked the atmosphere. The big tree snapped, and, mighty oak that it was, it fell to the ground, leaving a tall and jagged stump where it had once stood so majestically on the mead beside the bridge. It fell across the very spot where I had sat, and had I been there, I would have been crushed in its ruin. I was glad, now, for my cut hand. I crawled around the ruin and gathered my things, putting the pants back in their proper place. I tried out the belt – it worked, and for something made while I was a little drunk, it worked well. I stuffed the pipes and the knife into it and it still worked. I crawled in between the others in the oxhide spread across the rocks, and was a sleep quickly despite the foul weather. When the day came, it was still raining, and the alloy of my earring had started to rust, causing the ear to become even more inflamed. I rubbed wine into it, and swallowed some for my headache; the steward also drank. Father declined, but cursed the lack of the ale he preferred. We mounted our horses and rode to the threshold of the bridge.
Our way was hindered by the fallen oak, the top of which covered the approach. We could not go around, either, because the parapet of the bridge and the rising water prevented it. And more water was surging downstream to meet us. A wall of water as high as a man’s knee swept down toward the bridge. It caught the rotten trunk and outlying limbs of the tree, and swept the once-proud giant under the bridge past us and away downstream toward the ford. As it swept past, my father, whose magic armband was chafing now and had lost its heartbeat, flung the worthless treasure into the river, but it hung on the tree, and remained there. I could have sworn, I thought, that some small animal was clinging to the upper branches of the tree as it hurried away downstream. The bridge was clear, though, and we passed over uneventfully, (although I did get motion sickness staring at the muddy whirlpools from above, on horseback). On the other side of the river the bank was higher, and it was more wooded, so that the eaves of the forest there kept much of the rain off. I even saw dry places to camp beneath those trees! This was a pleasant interlude, and as all such things are, it was much too brief, for soon we returned to the main road.
The road came down to the ford through a cutting in the bank, which had now become a swirling eddy. When we descended from the hills, however, we saw that the ford was further blocked by that same great oak which had stood by the bridge only yesterday. Carried downstream on the flood, it had been caught by the eddy and the shallows and lodged there, its great boughs wedged firmly against the banks of the cutting. And from amidst the weary branches a plaintive cry escaped. A small animal no larger than a young cat (though not a cat itself) was struggling feebly to free itself, and I climbed down to lend a hand. The kitten’s head was snagged to a twig by Father’s armband, which having itself died was ill content to die alone. I broke the twig easily, and drew out the orphan, twig, collar and all. As I did so, I saw a large, heavy shape wash out through the bottom of the hollow trunk and glide away downstream, followed by another like the one in my arms. They were cyngs, between dogs and badgers, and the orphan I held was the last of the litter. I looked at the frightened youngster again, who would depend on me, now, if it was to live, and I smiled as I removed the deadly armband. I dropped the armband into my shirt, and handed the animal to the steward. He looked at it thoroughly as I waded back to my horse, pushing the water out of its eyes. When he passed the animal back to me, he (the cyng kit, not the steward) was mewling hungrily. It searched the front of my shirt for teats of milk and I, as thirsty as the baby was, took a wineskin and poured some down my throat. I was careful to spill some onto my shirt front for Phelin, as I called him, and though he lapped it greedily at first, the flavor was not to his liking and he screamed, then bit my chest through Mother’s homespun cotton. Apparently my blood was more to his taste than the satyrs’ wine. After two or three swallows I lowered the wineskin and re-slung it behind me on the saddle, and holding the infant to my chest, I remounted and we picked our way across the ford, not without some difficulty for the horses. The infant was shivering, so I tucked him inside my shirt for warmth. He dug his tiny claws into my skin, and clung there tenaciously. It did not hurt as much as his bite had (and still did), but it tickled a lot, as he climbed upward and over to my left armpit. Well, at least he would be warm, I thought, as that tiny ball of piebald fur wormed its way into my sleeve. Must be a male, I decided. Apparently does not mind the smell in there. At that moment, a furry head with closed eyes pushed out through a hole in my sleeve. It was not long after the head withdrew that the infant, despite the rain and the weather, was snoring softly.
The road through the wood was not much better than the road across the meadows. Although the trees cut the wind, the rain still found its way in through the ragged canopy. The road turned suddenly, too, and we found ourselves facing the wind, which blew colder as the day wore on. I moved little Phelin from my armpit and held him close against my chest where he could hear my heartbeat better. A delightful liquid warmth spread down my torso. I realized its import quickly and forgave him. It smelled a little funny, but so did he. I let him sleep. The wind chilled me thoroughly, but the road made another jog and we were soon out of it again. Rain dripped endlessly from the trees, and I heard a stomach growling. I don’t know if it was the horse’s or my own. I wasn’t that hungry, really, but Phelin woke up again, and he was. The little fellow squirmed in my shirt, and started whining and crying for food. I spilled him a little more wine, and this time he did not bite me. He sucked it from my shirt and went back to sleep again.
We continued for the rest of the day. Sometimes the wind was in our faces and sometimes at our backs, and sometimes we were out of its reach altogether, but the rain was ever present. It poured down today like it did yesterday, and I wrapped my traveling cloak around my shoulders and held it tight across my chest. Phelin turned over inside my shirt when the thunder crashed, but otherwise slept soundly. Father cursed the rain, but the steward was as silent as ever. For my part I was as silent as the steward, but I agreed as a son should with Father. The horses kept walking, or picked up to a steady jog for a mile or two when coaxed, but then they would walk again. Evening was coming on apace, and the eternal dusk of the rain faded to the dark of a starless wet night. Lightening rent the sky from time to time, but the light was less pleasant than the darkness.
Quite abruptly, then, the wood ended, and we were out in the open. The wind and rain pounded us more fiercely than ever, and we were anxious to reach our destination. We came over a high ridge where the wind lashed us like a slaver’s whip, and from the top of it we saw the lights of the hall and by the glare of the lightening its roof. It was no more than a league below us down the ridgeline. Rejoicing in the sight, we spurred our horses down the hill, mocking the rain that stung our skin. If the road had not been also the swiftest way to the door, we would not have held it, and when the ridge bent away to the south, we left it entirely, for the hall was built not on but below the ridge’s back, just across two meadows. As we galloped past the lee side of a barn our horses’ hooves sent a flock of chickens scattering in every direction, and the mud of the farmyard and the lane splashed over our feet. We soon regained the hard road a furlong from the gates of a tall and imposing palace of timbers and stone. As we drew up for shelter in the shadow of the gate, Father pounded the gatekeeper’s shutter with his fist until it popped its latch and swung free. Peering through the hole we saw lights in the hall but an empty courtyard. In the present weather, who could blame them for taking cover? My father did, though…
To be continued…
It seems I’m missing the rest of the MS. beyond this point. When I find it, I’ll continue the tale…