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Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery

Chapter - 29 A Prophecy Comes True

After Cennalath had returned, bearing steaming mugs of potato and mutton soup, the two guards appeared, carrying between them a large wicker-work basket filled with further stock of cut and trimmed fire wood. With this they stoked and tended the tripod grate until it blazed, filling the night with an orange glow that radiated warmth around the turret. Then silently they withdrew, leaving Corin, Bim, Menkeepir and the old man alone.

Having supped and set their bowls aside, Menkeepir began. ‘It is said, in the legends and tales of antiquity, that the Fathers of my People arose long ago in lands far to the north and east of here. Those lands, according to the traditions of the tongues of men, have long since been encroached and devoured by the sea and little remains of them, though none, as I know it, have ever returned to test the truth of this.’ Menkeepir bent his eyes to Cennalath's. ‘Is that not how you heard the stories at your father's knee?’

Cennalath looked up, as if from a drowse. And for the first time Corin observed the old man's eyes. They were heavy and hooded by white-frosted brows, but the fire drove away the shadows that played about their wrinkled edges: cataract filled and near blind.

‘Yes, my Lord. That is how he used to begin. Then he would tell of their long struggle, for they were defenceless and had not speech or even thought. Little was to choose between them and the other wild creatures that abided within that place, which, as I was told, was upon the shores of a great lake, or maybe an inland sea. Elves dwelt at its furthest margins, and in time they chanced on these helpless folk and taught them with patience and wisdom; like parents do their swaddling children. There grew a love between those two peoples, though men looked up to Elves as wondrous and lofty teachers; Lords of that realm. And only slowly, through many lives of men, did knowledge grow, till they could think for themselves and grasp the gift of speech. The Elven folk altered little, living on whilst men flourished in youth and faded as the wild flowers spring forth and fade. Elves that were the early mentors of men, became the guides, guardians and companions of generations afterward. Men's lives were short in the shadow of the Elves and yet Mankind, on those watery margins, survived and kindled, as a fire when fed grows from the embers. Those folk: shaggy and bowed, naked and savage, barely able to stand upright, were our forebears.’

Menkeepir nodded. ‘That is how we have it of the beginnings of our Forefathers. Our lineage derives from those ancient times, and in them Elves were inextricably linked. Later, men grew to stature. The Elves took their own way. Men took theirs. It is told that many divisions occurred. Folk departed to seek new lands in every direction. Of those, two clans of men came into these regions. The first were the ancestors of our people. They were strong, daring and resourceful; as was needed, for the wilds were fraught with dangers and the paths to death manifold. Those great, rough leaders of men subdued their surroundings; paving the way for the second wave of migrating clans. These were the tillers and the sewers, the folk of the pastures. From the Elves they had learned the knack of seed growth and beast herding. They, it were, who reaped life for all men and harvested the fruit of survival. And in their times of labours, they were watched over and protected by those men of blood and mettle who had pioneered before them into the south-west, and by some few Elven folk who had wandered the world through the ages, toward the sunrise.

That was long ago. How long, it is difficult to tell. But it would be measured in many of hundreds of years, and but for the aid of the Elves our lines of Mankind would probably have died from the face of the world. For amongst the chains of mountains, in the passes and caves, deep in the lonely forests and beneath the land that folk walked, lurked things of danger. Mostly they were wild things bent upon survival too: bears and wolves and the like. But also there were the early ancestors of the goblins: creatures bound to evil deeds and malice, torture and pain, abduction and slavery. With them, there was no peace and no friendship. And there were lone trolls and ogres: huge, fearsome creatures who plundered and destroyed whenever they could. And, worst of all, there were the dragons: fire-breathers and bone-crushers. Their monstrous, scaly hides were like armour and their claws like scythes.’

Menkeepir shook his head. ‘It is a wonder that frail men survived at all. Yet the lands were wide and there were hidden places that no others had found. So, the men raised defences with hill-fortress cities. This very bastion of Mendoth is built on the site where earlier stood others. Six, so 'tis said.’

‘That, my Father's Father told to us,’ agreed Cennalath. ‘Beg pardon my interruption, Lord Menkeepir.’

Menkeepir patted the old man's hand. ‘My pardon I give you, Minder of Memories. Say on, for your wisdom and knowledge reach further back in time than mine.’

‘Well,’ said the old man, and a smile of pride broke over his face and his clouded eyes fair glinted in the firelight, ‘there came an age, amongst ages, when village and fortress spanned many mounts and commerce ran between; simple trade you know, but much and more upon the ridgeways and down deep in the dales, even against the evils that prevailed then. It was the family of the house of Mendoth and others like them: tough, resourceful and guided by the wisdom of their Elders, who rose to the Lordships of Indlebloom and into the lands beyond. For though there was danger everywhere and enemies abounded, few were united into anything more than packs of wolves or gangs of goblins and these, for the most part, our kindred of old slew or frightened away. The only creatures that dared assail the cities or ravage the villages were the fearsome wingless worms and the flying dragons. At whiles they would come, alone and in stealth, to wreak havoc upon the land; firing hay lofts and cottages, and carrying off livestock and even people. It must have been a dreadful time. Twice, at least, Village Hill was rased by these assaults. But our ancestors built it up again, using stone carved for them by the Stone Gnomes; a strange race of Elder Folk, short of stature, who dwelt deep within the hearts of mountains.’

‘Master Corin has had dealings with them already,’ said Menkeepir.

‘Has he indeed,’ remarked the old man. ‘Well I never. It was said that they were a vanished people. None, certainly, have been seen by our kith for many an age. They are known only in tale. It is said that they could withstand the fire-breathing dragons and actually hunted them, killing the young by drowning, or smashing the eggs ere hatching.’

‘That is what they were doing when my companions and I chanced by,’ replied Corin. ‘Though one of the creatures escaped them.’

For a moment, the old man looked astonished, then said, ‘My word, how the legends of yore come alive: what with cats that speak, Stone Gnomes, and dragons and such. ’ He thought a time, then went on. ‘Now where was I? Ahh yes, the rebuilding of Village Hill. The Lord then was one Orandir, from the House of Oren. He and his Sons after him held the Orenburg, as it became known, through several more destructions; each time rebuilding it in lesser or grander style, as they could manage. Much of the old stone they used is gone, blasted and broken. But some foundations are still those of the earliest works.’

‘Why did they stay on?’ wondered Corin aloud.

‘Where else to go?’ replied Cennalath. ‘The dragons ranged in every direction over far distances, though where had they their lairs none could tell. Sometimes they did not appear for many years and in those periods our peoples prepared various ways to defend themselves: cisterns were built as reservoirs to quench fire and tunnels delved beneath the hill to aid in escape. Watchers were posted day and night upon the walls and far off on distant high places where they could signal the approach of danger. It is told that a group of bowmen under the command of Orobur, a great grandson of Orandir, managed to shoot out the eyes of one such dragon, where it had alighted upon the city wall to amuse itself by setting those within afire and tumbling spires with its tail. That one they destroyed, though some were taken with it; including Orobur himself. Afterward, Orobur's kinsmen had the creature's head and hide mounted on the hill opposite until at last it rotted and perished. But from then on the trees were hewn down and the peak marked out in the likeness of a winged dragon. That seemed to serve as warning; for seldom after did any monster appear, and when one did it rarely attacked.’

Cennalath paused for a while, thinking it seemed. ‘Yet that was before the period of the Three Wars.’

He looked askance at Menkeepir. The Lord of Mendoth nodded. ‘Perhaps I shall tell the last part of the story, but you continue on for a while.’

‘Very well, my Lord. Although the tale is sorrowful to me the further it goes.’ Cennalath ran his hand over his snowy, balding pate and began. ‘Those days were still long before our lives. Even so, I know them as if I had lived them myself. The House of Oren had fallen into decline and a new line of Lordship was established by vote of the peoples. That was the ill-fated family of the House of Madloth. Madyës was the first Lord. His brother Madir disappeared with a party of others who were returning from the far-off citadel of Kurigaldur; where dwelt men of the older clans who bartered trade with our peoples. Madir and his followers were never seen again. Thereafter, walled settlement and village fortress alike, were raised and destroyed. Goblin-kind began to mass on the far marches. Never to be seen in the light of day, they came at night in their hordes. With them they brought the small things who could climb like spiders. Battles were fought against those invaders. One such was when Madyës fell, leading his forces; overwhelmed by impossible odds. His daughter, Pothniar, took command as Lady of Madloth and personally inflicted a great defeat upon the goblins at Clovenfords. For a time it seemed the war was over, no enemies were sighted skulking the borders of the lands. Yet some three summers later, Pothniar was abducted by a raiding party, not half a morning's ride from here. It fell to her son to take the title of Lord, since his father had died defending her. Hightor was then fifteen springs old and he was the last and most successful of all his family. Not only did he weld together the peoples of Kurigaldur in the east and those of Erilar away northward, but he won several encounters and repulsed the trolls and goblins in the south. Then he strengthened the borders and re-opened the roads for trade with Alder-Carr, Erilar and Kurigaldur.’

The old man heaved a long-drawn sigh. ‘Ahh, alas. That peace was short. There came a series of bloody battles, fought in the beginning of winter along the feet of the Mirthin mountains in Dorthillion. Hightor was victorious again, though the cost in lives was appalling. And when he was certain that the enemy were vanquished, he turned his army, or what was left of it, for home. Last of all, came he at the tail of the force, through the freezing passes of the mountains. He must have been exhausted, as must his personal guard; for there, somewhere in the maze of gorges, they perished: overlooked by those before them who were already climbing down into the Vale of Indlebloom. In the following thaw, their bodies were discovered by Mendoth of Iahar forest, and brought back to be entombed at Tol Maen beneath the long mounds. There, they sleep to this day.’

Cennalath fell silent, and his near blind eyes glistened as he bowed his head.

Menkeepir laid a hand upon the old man's knee. ‘That is the lore by word of mouth, handed down to us from bygone times,’ he said. ‘Now I will continue for a while, whilst my learned friend regains his composure.You see the rest is better known to me. Mendoth of Iahar, so named since he had in fact been born within those glades whilst his father and mother were hurrying here from Alder-Carr, became the new Lord of this Citadel, and it was named anew after him; for the House of Madloth had ceased to exist upon Hightor's death.

A time of peace passed, in which Mendoth took a wife who bore him two sons: Mendoth the Younger, and Elmeth. The Younger Mendoth was but three springs old when poisoned, after eating the black berries we name Deathly Lanuma. His brother too, near died of the same, but survived to become Lord of Mendoth after his father's passing in old age; a rarity then. So Elmeth advanced into manhood and he it was who lived through the most perilous and inexplicable of events, to maintain the House of Mendoth there after.

In Elmeth's middle age, the lands were again beset by goblins and their followers. Alder-Carr was consumed and rased, and Erilar in Dorthillion, reduced and broken so that the survivors fled through the Mirthin seeking aid and shelter here at Mendoth. These things were given them, though it sat not well with their Chieftains to beg refuge; yet they were choiceless in the wilds. So, in Mendoth gathered the young and the ageing, and those infirm, whilst Elmeth led forth the several forces he had at his disposal. The goblins must have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if we are to believe the tales told us, and Elmeth was defeated and thrown back. Mendoth citadel became the last refuge; though that refuge, in itself was hopeless. Lord Elmeth and his armies retreated from the onrushing foe to the safety of the walls, yet he knew that these would not stand for long. The hills about were infested by evil creatures. Fires raged the length of Indlebloom. All was in uproar and chaos. Those within Mendoth awaited the coming of the inevitable. When the rams began pounding at the gates they fought valiantly, though that availed them but little respite. Soon the stone, battered until it trembled, was thrown down and the swarming foe poured in; hewing and trampling as they pressed against the defenders.

And then... Then suddenly, they withdrew. Scores of thousands of them: the snorts of trolls and the screams of goblins thirsting for blood, receding into the distance. It took almost a day to empty the hill of them. Those of Mendoth proper, and the refugees from far off Erilar; those left alive at least, were astounded. Just at the moment when death or enslavement was imminent, the Enemy had completely vanished, and for no apparent reason. But thus was it. The Vale of Indlebloom lay empty and desolate.

The goblins had gone. And with that departure ended the final of what are now known as the Three Wars. Elmeth, and others of his House, survived the carnage and under their direction, Mendoth city was rebuilt and fortified anew. Afterwards, an uneasy peace stole over the lands: Erilar and Alder-Carr were again established and our peoples flourished; though always with the fear of the goblins, who remained hidden, until some years ago. Why the Enemy disappeared, remains a mystery that has never been solved. Still, from that time the lands greened once more, save in the south where they lay bleak and drear, and no living thing would endure long there.’

Menkeepir paused, as if to allow the tale to sink into Corin's mind. Then he went on, ‘The days of Elmeth and the last of the Three Wars are long gone and my Family, the Family of Mendoth, have thriven since then. My Father, who also was named Elmeth, the third to bear that name, married at an early age and to him my Mother bore myself and my two Brothers. I am the eldest, then comes Mendor and lastly Mysingir. Cennalath here, was close to both our parents ere we were born, and after...’ Menkeepir seemed to falter, and fell silent, his far-grey eyes, to the floor, lowering.

‘Aye, close to them, that I was,’ murmured the old man. ‘As, even in my callow youth, I had been to Elmeth's father Benadil before either of Menkeepir's parents were conceived. To them, I was a family friend; a confidant, like an ageing uncle. Both, I had known since their birth, and in my own way, I loved them. They were barely adults themselves by the time their three sons were born, and so devoted to each other and to their children. I have very many happy memories of them then.’

Cennalath too, halted, also at a loss for words and Corin, almost guessing the answer, asked, ‘What became of them?’

‘They died... Died together, twined in each other's arms beside the pool of Lin-Dlenn,’ replied Menkeepir, sadness stealing into his words. ‘They used to walk there often, I am told. The pool springs from the high mountains yonder and the waters collect and plummet from the cliffs in numerous falls. A beautiful place, Lin-Dlenn. Very deep, it is. And at its furthest end, very still. There is a shelf, wide and shallow, just below the surface, and that retains the water so that it spills over slowly, to wind away in runlets. It was a favoured place of theirs. I go there sometimes, to think, or just to sit where they sat, and watch the pool. Alders overhang the banks and the wild flowers bloom through the seasons.’

The cold of night seemed to throw back any warmth from the grate. Cennalath hunched his bent shoulders, staring into the flames with his withered eyes. It was he who, at last, broke that sombre stillness. ‘How they died we do not know. Perhaps they were poisoned. Perhaps they poisoned each other. Yet must it have been a fair bane, for it left no mark. There was no sign, nothing to tell of that which had happened.’

‘True,’ said Menkeepir. ‘I was but five years of age then and my Brothers, younger of course, recall nothing of it. Cennalath remembers though, for he was there when it happened and brought our parents back to Mendoth; to see them entombed amongst the Mounds of Tol Maen. Speak, my friend. Tell master Corin what you remember.’

The old man closed his whited eyes, and the sound of his breathing grew laboured. ‘We rode away from Mendoth's walls at dawn: the Lord and Lady, other companions, I amongst them, and a guard of some two score. The three children were left in the keeping of family within the city. It was early autumn. By noon we came to Lin-Dlenn. Upon the soft, grassy slopes, we ate and drank, refreshing ourselves. We spoke. We laughed. At whiles, Elmeth and Lady Fandil strolled away, up to the pool above. We left them to themselves, as was their wont; employing ourselves with other pursuits, late flower gathering, singing to the harp, dancing, watching the leaves fall.

When the afternoon grew late, and they had not returned, we went to fetch them. And there we came upon them together, still, together. But they were cold in each other's embrace; their faces bent together...’

A sob escaped the old man's lips. Then he said, ‘Little else can I tell of that time. Only one thing more, and whether it was so, I now cannot be sure; though it seems to me that on our mournful journey home, I glimpsed a dark form lurking amongst the trees...’

‘And from about that time onward, the goblins began to creep back into our knowledge,’ said Menkeepir. ‘All the years since then, twenty and more, their evil kind have burgeoned anew. In these last few winters gone, they have stirred and arisen; and with them, wolves, trolls, and other dreadful things. Now it is, after a long time of uneasy calm, that the earth again crawls with the loathsome. And we of men are still not prepared, or recovered from past hurts. Perhaps too, we have failed since then. Anyways, we meet the enemy as best we can; yet in numbers they are growing, whilst we seem to dwindle. Again, we are becoming the hunted, in our citadels and walled enclosures, in the fields and glens. Slowly but surely the tide turneth. The dominion of Man appears to be faltering.’

‘As was in Ravenmoor,’ replied Corin gravely. ‘And but for the intervention of the Elves, Men would live no more there; except maybe some few in slavery.’ He pondered a moment. ‘It would seem to me that the signs of danger began to grow there in much the same manner as here in your lands.’

Cennalath raised his white head so that the pink skin beneath shone in the glow of the firelight. ‘Best tell him, Lord, of the Seeress and her prophecy,’ he said.

‘Yes, I was about to come to that,’ agreed Menkeepir, holding out his hands to the warming blaze where it flared anew. ‘It was a strange thing, that which happened. Yet from the time I was old enough to know of such things, I have carried her words in my mind and heart, awaiting the day of their fruition; though never have I set eyes upon this creature in all my years.’

Menkeepir looked up, catching Corin's eyes and those of Bim's, where the cat stared unblinking on his lap. ‘It all began thusly. On a day, not many before my own birth, an unnamed woman came to Mendoth city from out of the wilderness. She claimed to be one of Four; she a Seeress, a prophesier of the future, and she begged leave to speak with my Father and Mother. This was granted her. And when she arrived before them, she said that she had journeyed a far way to tell them of her visions. When questioned wither her homeland, she replied that she dwelt beyond the forests of Malthace and the realm of Kutha-Kesh, in the distant east. That alone amused my Father and others there at the time. Is that not so Cennalath?’

The old man smiled, ‘Aye, it did. At the time. The thought of such a frail lady enduring so great a distance and hardship of travel made us inwardly scoff. But if our feelings showed, she seemed not to notice. Instead, she spoke swiftly her tale of seeings, and when done, begged rest after the long ordeal of travel. In the morning, she had gone; vanished without trace from the city. She was never seen again. Though behind, were left her prophesies.’

‘Which were?’

‘Which were these: that to Lord Elmeth and his Lady Fandil, three children would be born, all male. That each would be fair of locks. That each would grow to manhood in health. That the first born would be given a task and a choice: the choice to be the Saviour of Men; the choice to champion them, to lead them to salvation. That he was to await the time, the chance, which was to come in the form of a Stranger from unknown places, a one who would unlock the answers and show the way. Someone who would appear from an unexpected path.’

Corin broke into a smile. ‘You mean me? I am your Stranger?’

‘The prophesies have been fulfilled,’ replied Menkeepir, with a flick of his far-grey eyes.

‘Aye, indeed they have,’ sighed Cennalath. ‘Even to her last vision: that Elmeth and Fandil should never be parted, not in life, nor in death. But that they should rule in wisdom and happiness until the time of their span was ended, and they depart together. Alas was that span too brief,’ he muttered.

‘Yes,’ said Menkeepir, a finality in his voice, ‘so it was. But none knew it then. Still and all, I have patiently waited through childhood and youth as best I could, though I cannot deny the desire within me, at times, to set out in search of my quest, whatever that might eventually be. Yet I did not, for my Brothers restrained my impetuous whim, reminding me of my duty to our peoples and of the words, told them by Cennalath, who had heard them from the Seeress, " Someone will come, at whiles, and the way will be made clear. Long it may appear in the years of men, though short it be in the winds of the world. Then, and only then, will the road open and feet tread down it."’

‘Truly,’ said the old man in a far-off tone, ‘that was what she said aright. I was there the night she had audience with the Lord and Lady; the Seeress with that little bird she carried on her hand. A watchful creature it was, and tame to her it seemed.’

‘A bird you say?’ Menkeepir enquired. ‘But I do not recall your telling of a bird, old man.’

Cennalath nodded, coming to himself, ‘That I surely must have, I am certain, but perhaps long ago, and I have left it out in later tellings, as I have left out details such as the colour of her hair, her eyes...’

‘This bird,’ interrupted Menkeepir, casting a glance at Corin, who sat listening with redoubled interest, ‘what kind was it?’

‘Why er, I think it was a...a daw... yes. It is so many years, but I think a daw, a jackdaw.’

Corin and Menkeepir looked long at each other.

Bim sat up.

The fire crackled and hissed.

Dawn streaked across the sky, westaway.

‘It shall not be too long before Mendor sets out,’ said Menkeepir quietly. ‘What way now, will you choose? Do you ride with my Brother to seek for your friends the Elves? Or are you indeed He, whom I have awaited these long years gone?’

Corin shifted upon his seat. ‘Well...I am...somebody,’ he said haltingly, uncertain. ‘I must...must seek for my...’

‘You need not thus do,’ interjected The Voices in his head. ‘Choose again Sleeper.’

‘...friends...’ Corin trailed off.

For a moment he closed his eyes. Then he rubbed his creasing brow. ‘No, no, that is not now the way. I must leave them in the hope of their safety and take another road.’ He opened his eyes, and gazed earnestly at Menkeepir. ‘You said that the Seeress came from somewhere toward the setting sun?’

‘Beyond Kutha-Kesh, which is itself many leagues away over the Icknaldir Chain and the Cindered Mountains.’

‘Have you ever been there?’

‘No. But Mendor has. He travelled there once as far as Kurigaldur and met their Lord, the Wanax Orsokon. Though of that journey he remembers little now, for he was very young.’

‘He was just eight rounds of the seasons then,’ said Cennalath. ‘I was with him, as was the Adviser to the young Lords.’

‘Yes. The Adviser to we, the three orphaned children of Elmeth and Fandil,’ muttered Menkeepir. ‘Thereby lies another sorry tale which we will not tell this night ending.’

Corin nodded. ‘No, for time is on the wane and Cennalath has much to tell us of the ways to Kutha-Kesh.’

‘To Kurigaldur?’ asked the old man.

‘Yes,’ returned Corin. ‘To seek for the Seeress.’

‘But who knows if she still lives, leastways where?’ protested Cennalath.

‘Her bird, or her bird's bird, yet is in the world; that I know for sure,’ replied Corin, the faint tinge of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he stroked black Bim upon his lap. ‘Perhaps, in Kurigaldur, we shall learn more...’


Chapter 30 [next]

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