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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Chapter - 28 Menkeepir
At once, Corin was struck by this man's noble bearing and more so by the timbre of his voice. His face was that of a man embracing his prime, clean-shaven and open, with lines about the eyes and mouth that seemed to denote concern and the labours of life, rather than old age. His hair was silver and gold and framed the broad brow beneath like a kingly crown.
But mostly Corin was drawn to his eyes, even as Menkeepir's lips formed words, for they were far-grey; paled with a searching look of long ago, an anguish maybe that spoke of yearning and sadness and a fear of finding much, too much, truth.
In those eyes there lay a plea and a denial, for fulfilment.
He spoke. ‘Are you the one, I wonder? Are you the traveller from distant lands whom I have awaited all this long time? He who has disturbed my waking thoughts and sleeping dreams? Speak then. Tell me. For I have spent much of my life desiring to know the answers.’
Corin felt a tremble of excitement rise in his heart, as his own quavering words ventured, ‘Are you then, Lord Menkeepir, the sender of The Voices that have beckoned me hither? Are you he whom I am meant to meet?’
Menkeepir's gaze turned to a puzzled frown, yet before he could reply, Mysingir said, ‘Lord and Brother, there is no time for this now. Wolf-riders follow fast. Who knows how far behind us are our pursuers? Let us turn for home, there to speak within the harbour of our own walls, where all may be made plain without the risks run here.’
‘Mysingir speaks with wisdom,’ agreed Mendor. ‘Besides, Jaromir here is goblin-struck and failing. Before the worst, safety first.’ He cast a swift glance over his shoulder, standing in the stirrups as he did.
Menkeepir nodded. ‘Very well. You, my Brothers, are both wise and wary; and a hurt man needs healing speed. Waste no more words in my convincing. Mendor, lead the way if you will. I shall follow behind, with Disintar and these strangers.’
He wheeled his steed into those of the others, as Mendor set off at a sharp gallop, whilst Corin was swept on before he could protest or break away.
They travelled at double pace now, the horses seemingly eager for stall and manger; the men eager for the security of haven and rest from dangers in the wilds.
Through the morning, they rode further into the mountains that rose in verdant beauty on every side and at whiles Disintar, or one of the others, would give a cry of delight as they came upon a place well favoured.
At last they drew up atop a highland ridge and there, through a break in the trees, Corin caught his first sight of the city. It was perched upon a hill that sprang, tree-clustered almost to the summit; the twin of a second wooded peak. The citadel was many spired: red and white and blue and gold. Beyond it, stood formidable mountains, layered in yellow and pink. Before it, golden sun's rays mottled the crimson-leafed branches where huge butterflies and moths paraded themselves.
It was near mid-day.
A lark call, faint and far, came to their ears. The horses stamped and blew.
A faint breeze trembled the trees.
‘The shimmering leaves,’ murmured Mysingir, ‘are moving on the wind's breath. Mark them yellow-bright and green, turning in the brilliant day: three and five pronged stars, clustering together so merry. So distinct of shape, so keen and bright, so different each from another that they stand out, even from afar.’
And Menkeepir, who had drawn level with Corin, said to him, ‘Here is the Vale of Indlebloom. The Valley of the Blue Flowers we name Indle. And there lies Village Hill. The Orenburg, as some once called it. Mendoth city, as we now name it.’
And even as he spoke, a bell sounded from across the valley.
‘Tla, tla, tla.’
And Corin was stirred with a great desire to see what might lie within the boundaries of such a place. For a brief moment all thought of his friends left him as he stared with delight at this city of men.
Then Bim, like a living reminder, stirred upon his shoulder and Corin said, ‘Lord Menkeepir, even from afar, your abode seems wondrous fair to behold and within its walls would I gladly enter, there to talk with you of my travels. But I have left behind me elvish folk; dear friends and true. And I fear greatly for them. Please grant myself and my companion cat our freedom, that we may first seek them. I give my word that we shall return once that is done.’
Several of the men about them laughed openly at this, though Menkeepir's face remained calm and thoughtful. ‘You are either extremely foolhardy, or wise in ways we cannot know.’
‘Or loyal to the death,’ said Mendor.
‘Yes, or that,’ granted Menkeepir, then he shook his head. ‘Even if I were to give you freedom, horse and provision, and watch you ride away, do you honestly think you would live to return? These very mountains at our backs are fraught with dangers: bent-wolves, goblins, tree-trolls and imps, serpents and dragons that squirm the earth or fly the air. There are too many enemies; any of which could rend you and leave your remains to the carrion birds, or worse, take you alive.’
Corin made as if to speak but the Lord Menkeepir held up his hand. ‘I have not waited and watched, this long while, for the coming of a wayfarer from the wilds, only to let him depart without some further explanation. No, you may not take your leave. Yet I shall not make you captive overlong. And I give you this promise; as soon as we reach Mendoth preparation will commence, that a larger force be sent upon the morrow, to search for your friends and to return with them, or at least some news of their farings.’
Corin lowered his eyes. ‘I suppose, for the moment then, I must do your bidding and be your prisoner. I can only hope that your people are wise to the ways of Elves.’
Then, to Corin's surprise, Mysingir said, ‘We do have a scant knowledge of those folk, though it be mostly a memory now.’
And Menkeepir went on, ‘Very well. That is settled. Now I ask that you surrender your weapons, lest the thought take you to be tempted. For this, I apologise. However I have my people to consider.’
As Corin relinquished his bow and the sword of Bel-Thalion, Bim indignantly whispered, ‘Brrr, what an outrrage Masterrr. Nexxt they will be wanting my claws and teeth!’
Overhearing this, Menkeepir looked upon the cat anew, saying, ‘Be at ease, oh creature of speech. What marvel is this! That you can talk? Or does your Master have the talent of altering his voice and placing it within your mouth?’
‘My meowth I own,’ replied the cat flatly, as if to insinuate that all else had been taken from them.
At this, Menkeepir broke into a wide smile. ‘And you shall keep your mouth and your claws, for now, my reticent guest.’
They rode on in single file, winding along the ridge that men called the Icknaldir Chain. On either side the land sloped away, so that Corin and Bim beheld breath-taking views that swept down into deep valleys and up again to distant mountains, haze shrouded.
In mid-afternoon they left the ridge-way and descended a broader path that took them beneath the shelter of overhanging birch and rowan.
After a time, they came to a junction in the road and taking the right-hand fork, they passed swiftly through many stands of pines. And so on down to the flat, thence rising again until they reached an open space where the hill had been cut clear of growth in a wide band that appeared to circle it.
Evening was nigh as they cantered through the empty clearing and pressed on into the thick mask of trees above.
Suddenly, out of the gloom, lights sprang. Torches blazed near and far, illuminating the way, or flickering in the distance.
‘Who are they?’ exclaimed Corin, unsure.
‘Our folk, of course,’ laughed Disintar. ‘They are the Swathe-watchers, who mark the boundaries of Orenburg. No one, no thing, slips across the Swathe without their spying, day or night. They are our early warning of danger. Now, am I relieved, for we are really safe for the first time since setting forth from Mendoth.’
The winding road led upward and ever, as they rode, fires kindled to show the way.
At nightfall, they came to the walls of the citadel. These were of polished stone that shone in the firelight, reflecting the images of trees that close-ringed them. The gateway was thrown open as the party approached and numerous folk: men, women and children, crowded out from within. Their faces were glad and curious and a murmur ran, swift, through their ranks upon sighting Corin and Bim. Some, old folk especially and children lifted on high, reached out to the Lords of Mendoth, and the three in turn, responded alike, touching, embracing, clasping hands and kissing. Many were the words of fond endearment and acclaim for them and many were their words of encouragement in return. It was a homecoming of loved ones from out of the wilderness.
There were questions too.
‘Who are yon stranger and that cat-creature upon his shoulder?’
‘Whither came they?’
‘Are they foe or friend?’
‘Is he a prisoner? See, he bears no weapons.’
‘He has a goodly face. Surely he could not have done much mischief.’
‘The Lords know best. All will be made plain in time.’
‘Meals, meals, proper fare for the weary. That's what they need.’
‘There, I told you. Two riderless mounts and Jaromir wounded. Badly too by his looks.’
‘That be at least two men lost and bound not to return.’
There were muffled sobs as several womenfolk, eager for a sight of their men, turned away, and wails from children, at their mothers' distress.
The Lords and their company entered within. And behind, the stone doors; thicker than the road's width, ground shut.
‘Was it worth it I ask myself? Was it worth the loss of four good men? Perhaps the loss of us all but for the intervention of Master Corin and his companions.’ It was Mendor who spoke thus, and as he did he bit his lip with concern. ‘If they had not chosen to intervene, there might well have been only one Lord of Mendoth City, instead of three.’ He threw himself onto a low couch furnished with scattered cushions and downed a long draught of amber wine from a goblet set to hand.
Nearby, Mysingir strummed softly at the strings of a gilded lyre, whilst Menkeepir sat, without ceremony, upon a four-legged stool of plain, square-hewn timber. One elbow rested on his knee, the hand cupping his chin; his eyes shaded in the torch light of the hall.
They had gathered there after riding the narrow, building-lined streets to stables below, thence on foot up a lane of numerous steps that led to a side entrance of the Lord's Hall.
Corin stood in silence, with his back turned to one of the many charcoal braziers that lined the walls. Bim sat, alert and still, at his feet.
Menkeepir looked up and his face seemed to mirror his tiredness. ‘I should have been with you. I blame myself for this. When we are finished here, I shall speak with the families of those concerned and offer them some recompense and condolence.’
‘Recompense is of little use to those who have lost husband or father,’ replied Mendor, with a shake of his head. ‘Maybe we should look toward drawing in our boundaries, rather than attempting to hold them against our foes unneedfully.’
‘Unneedfully, say you,’ replied Menkeepir, looking all the while at Corin. ‘That we will see, after we have spoken with our...’ he paused, ‘ah, guests.’ Then he lifted an arm toward Corin. ‘But I have not forgotten my promise. In the morning I shall set out with a force to seek these elves you speak of, and our own missing.’
‘No,’ said Mendor earnestly, whilst Mysingir, leaving off his music, rose, saying, ‘We have had this out before.’
‘That we have,’ agreed Mendor. ‘I will go. I have thought it out a'ready. You are the eldest brother. And my Lord, your responsibility lies here.’
‘I have many responsibilities, here and there,’ retorted Menkeepir coming to his feet with some effort.
Mendor smiled, saying, ‘Dear Brother, need I remind you of duty, or of conversations of the past? "A time will come," you have said yourself, "when all will be made plain and then no fetters shall bind me, or stay me from my task."’
Menkeepir waved his hand in objection, but Mendor went on, ‘Those were your words. And if the time is nigh, as you believe, do not ignore such on an errand that others may fulfil without...’
He was interrupted by the opening of the central doors and the appearance of Disintar, striding full measure, down the polished floor.
At once Menkeepir went to meet the man, saying, ‘How fares Jaromir? Has Cyon Bone-Setter been?’
Disintar nodded wearily. ‘The Physician thinks he has him. The wound was deep and festering, but not with Black-Spread or other dread infection. Jaromir rests now, still fevered, yet responding.’
‘That is a relief to us all,’ cried Mysingir. ‘Now come and have some grape wine, do. You deserve it, if for nothing else than this goodly news.’
Disintar hesitated. ‘Well, yes, thankyou my Lord. However, first I should tell you that the people have gathered outside to wish...’
He could continue no further, for at that moment the doors were flung wide and a host of folk, carrying vessels of steaming broth and platters piled high with pies and cakes and puddings, burst into the hall. They surged forward, whilst about their feet, bounded huge dogs: muscled and jawed for the hunt. A rowdy burst of music from pipe and fiddle filled the wide hall and many cheered and sang.
At all this, Bim sprang into Corin's arms, bristling and hissing; then arched himself into his usual place about his master's neck. Corin himself, hung back, preferring the shadows of the walls behind, as the three Brother-Lords were engulfed by their people.
Finally, in the midst of this tumult, Mysingir rose, standing head above most, and quelled them with raised arms. ‘Our thanks and more for your well wishes, kith of Mendoth. We three, the Sons of Elmeth, still remain whole and hale; though we have had sore loss. As you already know, four good men have not returned this day. The wilds are dangerous and even the best and strongest fall there. It is fearsome sad, sad and sorry. Yet two things are we glad of: the first is that Jaromir is mending, so Disintar told us this moment. And secondly, we have brought with us from the far ways, two beyond our knowledge, though not beyond Menkeepir's seeing. Master Corin and his kit-cat are come hither and make you no mistake, there is more to them than first appearance. Hold the hounds now!’
He appealed to several of the men nearby, for the dogs had drawn the scent of cat from amongst food, folk and fire.
‘I am not sure though that he needs protection, for yon Bim, as he is so named, might even best them with only his tongue and quick wit!’ Mysingir laughed aloud. ‘Yes, a wonder! The cat speaks and knows our Ren language.’
He paused, whilst the people ceased their thronging, to fall back in surprise; then he went on, ‘I have heard myself, as maybe shall you. Truly, we have amongst us two folk from the wilds who are more than they seem at first sight. From them we may learn much that will be of aid, or so the Lord Menkeepir hopes. But for now, as is your wont, shall we not first merry-make; drink the perry cider and beesting curd? We have the homing. Awhy not? Blow the pipes and hit the harp for this short time, till off to bed downing we take ourselves.’
And whilst the people stood goggling at Corin and Bim, Mysingir turned his lyre upon his knee and began,
‘They return to the hall, and all are waiting.
Fire sings a song along the wood in the grating.
Outside, glide nightbirds crying,
Yet here inside the homely halls folk dance,
and sighing pines whine along the darkened roads.
and meet them and greet them with smiling faces.
Perchance a cup of wine they offer,
and food they suffer them to eat.
But their heart's meat is not in food.
It is in them, the hearth friends, the heart's friends.
Let the flames roar.
Let the dogs gnaw on their bones.
The traveller's eyes widen with delight.
For the peace of their homecoming is upon them.
And may it be upon us all,
since halls are homes wherein are friends.’
His song ended and the people cheered and laughed and made merry, dancing about the fires that sprang up in the grates around the hall.
And after all had supped and their children had been bounced upon Mysingir's knees, both Mendor and Menkeepir sought out those bereaved by loss, speaking long and comfortingly to them. And there was a weeping, not only from those whose loved ones were lost, but also from their Lords.
Corin and Bim; both quiet in the background, watched and were made aware of the genuine concern of these, their captors for their people. And they were touched.
Then, slowly and reluctantly, the common folk withdrew. For the night was wearing toward its mid. Women kissed the hands of the three, men clapped their shoulders in gestures that held no insolence, but were instead, sure signs of praise and confidence; wishing them the best and fairest that simple folk can.
At last, the great chamber lay empty of the crowd and only the three Lords, Disintar, Corin and Bim, remained. They fell silent as the hall doors were closed and nought but the fires, humming in their iron pens, gave sound.
‘Well,’ said Mendor at last, swinging his arms and stretching, ‘I must be off to bed. Cock-crow sees me away to seek and perchance to find.’ He smiled at Corin. ‘Do not despair. I will find them, you may be certain.’ He made his goodnights and strode off, with Disintar in his wake.
Mysingir laid aside his lyre saying, ‘The morrow brings another day and much to do. My leave also I take, for slumber calls me.’ He inclined his head toward Corin. ‘May I show our guests to their quarters for this night?’
‘Are we to be locked in then?’ asked Corin, with the dread memory of past imprisonment.
‘That will not be necessary,’ answered Menkeepir, weary. ‘I have no desire to shut you in.' He waved a hand at his brother. 'Guards will watch over our guests, that they do not stray, though both are free to roam the boundaries of our halls.’ He turned again to Corin, addressing him, ‘But first, will you not talk with me awhile?’
Corin nodded. ‘That I will, for I have little yearning for sleep and if my companion does, it will be in my arms.’
‘Very well,’ said Mysingir, yawning. And approaching his brother he added, ‘Do not stay awake too long, or you shall not rise in time to say farewell.’
But here, Menkeepir firmly replied, ‘Not this time Mysingir. Mendor shall go and with him shall ride Disintar. And you will stay. I want you with me for a change. In any case, there is nothing that you can avail, going away once more. Mendor is capable to do this task and I will not risk you both where it is not needed.’
Mysingir made as if to argue the point then shrugged and nodded, ‘So will it be, for I can see that you are quite set to have your way with me. And after all, you are the eldest.’
Standing, Menkeepir clapped him soundly on the shoulder. ‘And you are the youngest, and I love you. Bide with me and who knows what will come of it? I may well have need of you for more important errands than even Mendors'.’
Mysingir grinned good-naturedly, then his mood seemed to alter, ‘You know where my heart would take me,’ he murmured. Then, turning upon his heel, he strolled from the hall, humming a soft tune to himself.
As the doors closed behind him, Corin observed several guards entering from another port, there to station themselves at various points.
Menkeepir, appearing not to notice them, was saying, ‘Please, follow me. I have something to show you.’ He led the way through a draped arch and up a winding stair, lit at intervals by flaming torches; one of which he took hold of as they climbed.
Corin, with Bim wrapped about his neck like a furry muffler, thought, ‘You are a strange man: of lineage both proud and regal, of nature, gentle and understanding. And yet beneath these qualities, there seems a further depth. It is as if you are haunted by some unknown thing, some fear or heavy burden.’
‘Here we are,’ said the Lord of Mendoth, pushing open an iron-studded door and stepping through. Cold air met Corin's face as he too passed without; though the night was clear and cloudless, and the stars swept across the black vault like besprinkled jewels. They stood upon the stone flags of a turret, where windows and roof were open to the sky.
‘If you look about, you can see into the far north and around westward, down to the south,’ said Menkeepir. ‘I come here often, especially at dawning to watch the sunrise; or at night, to look at the stars. Are they not beautiful? They are like a vast girdle that encircles the gown of the sky.’ He lifted his arm, as if he desired to reach out and pluck one; and indeed it almost seemed that he might, so near did the myriad gems appear.
‘They are beautiful,’ Corin replied. ‘They fill me with wonder, the more so because they are unattainable.’
‘Are they?’ questioned Menkeepir, turning so that the light from the torch he carried flickered within the deeps of his eyes. ‘I would capture their light, given the means. And I would fashion that to some marvellous thing for all to share. I would set it here, that pilgrims might come and bathe of it: that wounds and hurts be healed, and yea, old age and death.’
‘That is a great thing, in which to aspire,’ said Corin.
‘Yes,’ sighed Menkeepir wistfully. ‘And it is not my task, though I wish it were.’
‘Then what is your task?’
Menkeepir gazed deeply into Corin's face. ‘I hoped that you were come to tell me that.’
‘Me!’ Corin cried. ‘Why, my Lord, you see before you another who searches for he knows not what. I have come a far way, that is true; through many perils and adventures. My life I have risked at times. And the lives of others,’ he added, sorrowing. ‘But that would take me long to tell. ’
‘We have the night, if sleep does not claim you first,’ said Menkeepir.
‘No, and that is strange,’ replied Corin. ‘Yet it seems to me that I require less and less sleep as time goes by.’
‘Good,’ said the Lord, thrusting the torch into a large tripod filled with fire wood that began at once to burn, giving off a sweet scent. ‘A lovely perfume, do you not agree?’ he said, seating himself upon a plain stone bench and indicating another nearby.
‘I do,’ said Corin, as the glow lit their open apartment.
‘The woods are skrab and pirie and from their fruits, apples and pears, we brew cider.’ He had hardly finished saying this, when an old man appeared, bearing a large platter containing silver cups and flagons, and bowls of fruit: plums, berries and the like. Without a word, he placed them beside Menkeepir and withdrew. Yet not before setting down a shallow saucer of cream next to Bim.
‘Now,’ resumed Menkeepir, ‘please begin your story. My ears await it eagerly.’
And so they sat into the early hours, whilst Corin related events leading into the present; from the time of his remembrance, till his and Bim's arrival at Mendoth city.
The Lord listened in silence, stirring only to pour cider, or throw a log onto the steady blaze between them.
At Corin's conclusion, Menkeepir remained silent, gazing into the flames with unblinking eyes.
Then, at last, he said, ‘I have never heard such a story; though I do not doubt your words. And you say that you come from beyond the drearlands southward? And that further the shores of the ocean there, lies an island wherein dwell men?’ Menkeepir rubbed his chin. ‘There are many of these Elvish folk, do tell?’
‘Yes. A host of them from their own isle, lost Elfame, far to the south. This cat upon my knee, Bimmelbrother, is from that land and he will vouch for my words.’
The cat yawned and stretched a clawed paw toward the fire. ‘Do not worry at my Meowster. His worrds are trrue.’
Menkeepir bent his great, grey-gold head. ‘These voices that you spoke of, the ones that draw you on. What is it that they say?’
Corin pondered a moment, passing his hand across his brow. ‘There are several at least. Some, it seems, old and broken, some beautiful and new, others faint and far off; like ripples in a pool. They draw me to find my waiting fate.’
The fire flickered across his face and, as in a dream, he began to chant,
‘ "Deeper, deeper, sleep thou sleeper.
Dreams undreamt, reap, thou reaper.
Sighing, sighing. Lonely lying.
Through darkened sea, thy paddles plying.
Sail thy ship in night forever.
Bonds of waking softly sever.
Lest the world, repaired of dying, sends a great one, spell untying."’
‘Spell untying,’ repeated Menkeepir, with a frown. ‘Is there nothing more?’
‘Well yes, though it means little,’ Corin answered.
‘Do you not trust me then?’ asked Menkeepir, moved.
Corin shook his head. ‘I do not distrust or fear you. I hesitate, only from the fear that any knowledge, passed from me might take another into danger.’
‘Yet all must seek, If they are to find,’ replied the Lord, earnestly.
‘That is just it,’ said Corin as he met the far-grey eyes of the man opposite. ‘I have a...well...a feeling that you are waiting for a sign strong enough to move you. Move you to what, goodness only knows: a mission, some quest maybe? What ever, I do not desire to be your downfall.’
Menkeepir laughed, but the laughter ended in a derisive growl. ‘Aye, my quest, my downfall, ha! You may be right in what you say. Yet, I am driven like you by things without me. And like you, I must go on to seek the answers, regardless of my fate. Blame not yourself. I carry my own burden always, and seek none to share it. Say on now do, for I am certain that I must have it all. Have no qualms. These are times when the wolf is at the gate, and the paths to home lie gloomy.’
‘Very well,’ Corin replied. ‘So, as I have said, there are The Voices, and there are dreams; visions in waking times. And somehow the bird, the Jackdaw, seems to play a part in them, as well as in the world at large.’
Then he proceeded to tell of the wild imaginings that invaded his mind unbidden: the shrouded woman and her dark companion dog, the seashores and cliffs, the black ocean and the boat, the omnipresent bird, the drawing, driving force that pulled and tore at him, implicit in The Voices. And finally, of the host of shadows that played upon the borders of his knowing mind. ‘I have come this far now,’ Corin concluded, ‘and you know all that I can relate, though to me it is a maze, a patchwork of unknowledge. A mystery.’
Menkeepir considered for a while, then rapped his knuckles upon the platter, calling, ‘Cennalath, Cennalath!’
After a few moments the old man appeared and Menkeepir said to him, ‘Dear Cennalath, please have more wood brought here, and a warming brew. Then come sit by me. It is much too cold waiting in draughty corridors and I have need of your long memory and wisdom. Dismiss the men when they are finished. Please be so good.’
And as the old man hurried away, the Lord of Indlebloom turned to Corin saying, ‘Now, I have a tale to tell you.’
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