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Volume 1 - Escape
Volume 2 - Recovery
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|© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland|
Varlarsaga Volume 2 - Recovery
Prologue - The Tale of Forinth the Mariner
Forinth the Mariner, for that was what he had been titled over many years, was growing old.
As the High Minister, he had seen the beginning and the growth of the new kingdom of Ravenmoor and its Boy-King, until Weldun's eventual marriage and the birth of his son and heir, Tiernan.
Forinth had seen the establishment of the little villages of King's Ford and Mydarrow. He had almost lost his life twice-over in shipwrecks, attempting to sail out of the treacherous Berry Bay; a feat that none had ever succeeded in and few dared to try. He was at Captain Bartram's bedside when his old friend passed away in peaceful sleep. There, he had held Bartram's limp hand and cast his mind back to the death of king Edrun aboard the little ship Raven, so long before.
In middle age and after, he had ventured far along the then overgrown and broken roads, into the mysterious interior of the land. He had encountered wolves and fought them, suffered hardships and conquered them, named new places and landmarks and seen strange sights. He and his explorers had passed the hills men later called the Folded Hills, journeyed through dense thickets that Forinth named after one of his followers, Wigend, and bridged the marshes beyond. His journeys were numerous and reached to the Fernon Bergs and the Ghillie Ranges. Forinth Forest, the Sea of Trees, was discovered and named. And beyond that still, lay the unknown. He and his people could only guess that the mountain chains continued, but how far and to where, they had no idea.
Forinth, in old age, had determined to go on. He and a party of men numbering two score, camped at the edge of the great forest at a place they named Travellers Rest and in the following days, ventured within. Some did not return. Some came back with frightening tales of wolves and other more sinister things. At last the attempt to penetrate the forest was abandoned and the survivors, including Forinth, returned home. Yet Forinth could not forget, nor find rest ever afterwards, and as he passed the years he thought more and more on what might lie beyond the Sea of Trees.
In his latter days he retired to a tiny hamlet that was, in the future, to become Burdarrow. At the time of Forinth however, it was comprised of only a few poor farms and an inn, The Black Wolf. There he kept his lodgings until, one day, he vanished; an old man without kin.
News of his disappearance finally reached king Weldun, who loved Forinth and had never forgotten his loyalty and faithful service. And so he sent forth folk to search far and wide, but no trace did they ever find of the Mariner, and in the end they gave up. That was all that was heard or known of Forinth, the lowly fisherman who had become a hero and a founder of Ravenmoor.
However, Forinth lived on, though none were aware. He had simply packed a few belongings, some needful things: a good warm blanket, a pair of knives, a much used bow and store of arrows, herbs and such food as he could carry, and set off in his dotage toward the forest that bore his name. He travelled eastward at first, fording a shallow river later named the Rinnon, but which he called the Bartram, and thence went on north and east along the line of the Ghillie Ranges until he came, after many days, to the extremities of the forest where it veered around the first of the foothills. There, the ancient oaks faltered and ash trees sprang forth allowing easier passage. The undergrowth lessened and Forinth, who had never come that way before, found the going to his liking. He strode on up the gentle slopes in a methodical fashion, leaning upon a stout ash staff cut along the way. He had little thought of the future, other than to climb the mountains and see what was on the furthest side before he died. He had chosen to make his last journey during the middle of the brief warm spell that was Ravenmoor's high summer, when the snow line had retreated into the heights far above.
Several times in the forest he was beset by wolves, but in old age he had grown as cunning as they. With fire and sharp point he held them off, keeping his back always protected by stone or wood. At night he slept within a fire-ring, or inside small caverns, or the tangled roots of trees where a single blaze protected him. Streams that he crossed grew murky and slime-filled, and reason told him to go thirsty until clear water was found.
Not straight up the slopes, but carefully over the undulating curves that eventually cleared the forest. It was a patient climb; one endured with the belief that this was to be his final attempt at the mountain barriers. His breath dredged him, his heart thumped.
Over long days he progressed. He survived only on that which grew: roots, plants, moss and the trickle of snow-water from above. So he eked out his dwindling supply of food as he struggled forward.
Into the mountains the nights grew colder and the wind swept about the narrow passes and empty gorges, wringing hollow sounds from the grey stones whilst he huddled inside any nook that offered refuge. His tiny fires flickered lower and lower as fuel became scarcer and a deadly chill began to creep into his veins.
Still, through the days, he pursued his course warmed again by the sun and invigorated by the sharp, clean air. As well as he could judge, he was somewhere on the north-eastern slopes, and nearing the snow line.
Once, far off, he glimpsed the white form of a snow wolf, come down amongst the scree of the fells; but of other living things he saw none. Sparse little grew in his path now and the way became ever steeper and more dangerous. Forinth's strength ebbed and frequently he lay himself down to rest, wrapped in his thick, woollen blanket. He did not count the days, seeing no need, but on a morning he reached a high plateau and there were the first shallow patches of muddied snow and further, tall peaks, gleaming white, that rose before him. For a time, old Forinth was daunted. And yet something, perhaps a sense of urgency, drove him on. Searching, he came to a narrow defile protected by overhanging cliffs and up this he trudged. The defile opened into a steep pass filled with snowdrifts and Forinth found himself knee-deep within this white blanket. He began to freeze up the length of his legs and only the existence of a rocky outcrop, rising like an island out of a white ocean, saved him from perishing. Along this cold, grey mass he scrambled, cutting his weathered hands on the rough stone and blowing clouds of steam that froze on his whiskers and thick eyebrows. When he came beneath the lee of a dark cliff, he rested for a long while. The sun was gone and he had no strength left to go further.
Later, he kindled the remaining twigs and dry leaves that he had gathered and carried in his pack, from far below, and for a short time warmed his bloodied fingers and numbed face. Then he fell into an exhausted sleep that lasted until morning.
When he awoke he saw, not far from where he lay, a cleft cut into the stone; and to this he dragged himself. It was small, wide enough to permit a thin man to squeeze in if he stooped over. But it was dry and free of snow and most importantly, the ragged, jutting surface led upward into shadow. As if in a dream, Forinth began to grope his way inside, often drawing himself up on hands and knees, feeling a faint draught that stirred the stillness, and hearing only the sound of his own slow progress, the jagged rocks he dislodged and his laboured breathing.
Many times the way narrowed so that he could barely squeeze through and at others he found that the walls closed but the roof lifted and he was forced to stand and shuffle on sideways. He had the feeling of being lodged at the bottom of a well, or inside a chimney; but he found toe-holds in niches, and crevices for his fingers, and drove himself on. His strength was at an end when he heaved, with one last effort, over a lip of stone where he lay panting and spent; his feet still dangling into the void beneath.
He was there a very long time, faint with exhaustion. His head had ceased to ache, and his body to feel pain. He felt only numbness and, with it, a sinking weariness. Though even then, through his blurred vision, there seeped a watery light. It was sunlight playing on snow; and upon the far side of the snow was a gap between two crags, with nothing but the sky beyond. Forinth rose unsteadily to his feet. His bones cracked but he did not heed. He stumbled forward, lurching, his arms outstretched before him, his eyes fixed upon the sky, his mind upon the one, burning thought, ‘I have reached the top!’
Sinking into the snow, he fell, but crawled on; floundering like a drowning man, until suddenly all beneath him gave way and whiteness enveloped him. With a muffled thud, he landed on a hillock of snow and ice, whilst more snow poured down, partly burying him. His last vision was of flurrying snowflakes and the dull gleam of sunlight high above, seeming strangely pale and blue-green through a broken ceiling of ice.
It was dark when he came to himself once again, and he was dreadfully cold. The old man was lying head down, where he had slid as the ice melted away beneath him, on the floor of a rock fissure. His legs and lower body were bent upward, still half covered in snow, and he was wet through. Using all his will he clawed and splashed himself free of the slush, seeking a drier place; dry at least as snow-bound mountain stone can be. Blindly, he found a ledge, and there managed to prop himself against the wall of the cleft where, between bouts of resting and a kind of dazed black-out, he weakly massaged and chafed some little feeling back into his hands and frost-bitten feet.
Later, delirious, he began to half crawl, half drag himself along against the hard stone; having lost all reason except his final wish, the desire to see day upon the summit of the mountains. Then, in the faint light of the cavern, he blundered into something that seemed oddly familiar, yet also alien to his failing mind. He tried to make out its meaning in the dark with his fingers, but they were too swollen and wooden to feel much, and even as vague thoughts swirled in his mind, he swooned away.
Again, the aged Forinth found himself swimming toward light and life; rising from the depths of darkness and foggy mists of the mind. Grey light slanted through an opening to his left and far above. To Forinth's right another dim oval traced the mouth of the cave and for some time that was all his thought could perceive. Then, his head nodding with weakness, he turned his glazed eyes toward the thing that his arm rested upon. Slowly he blinked, over and again, trying to understand the vision that his eyes told his mind was there. He lifted his arm, mustering every dreg of strength and control left within him, and his fingers fell, almost uselessly, across chalk-white bones, covered in places by fragments of cloth, that had once been a living creature.
Forinth was too weak to recoil. Indeed it took a time before he could move his hand away. The skeleton was small, half a man's height at most, but the skull itself was much larger than a child's. Dully, through the bones, he saw what appeared to be a sizeable girth-buckle.
Silence lay in the cavern, broken at intervals by the Mariner's shallow breathing. His eyes wandered down the tiny ribs and up again to the outstretched bones of the skeleton's right arm, over the spidery fingers to the stone they rested upon. Or was it a stone? Square, box-like, grey against grey, mingled with shadow and rubble.
Forinth waited, his eyes focused on that single object, his will forcing his mind to think. With the slowness of a house-laden snail he began to move: creeping his gnarled hands, dragging his log-like legs; the trunk of his body, dead-wood heavy, between.
Through time without meaning he inched his way, nudging the skeletal arm aside and moving its captive treasure slowly out toward the growing light. A thin wind whistled about the lip of the cavern; a sea wind that suddenly drove Forinth's attention from his find to the view that he had waited many years to see. He lifted his bobbing head and saw, by the day's long shadows, that he gazed both north and east. The morning sun, out of sight, rose behind him in the west. And there before him was all he had come so far, so aged, to see: sea, water, ocean.
Upon the whole horizon, north and east; lay only mists and ocean.
His head sagged against his shoulder. ‘So this is all there is beyond the mountains,’ he thought, feebly piecing each word together in his mind. ‘Just wild ocean. Nothing more.’
He coughed, his breathing faltered. Eventually, his eyes returned to the object before him. It appeared to be an ancient, discoloured box: scrolled and strangely marked, faded by time's ravening.
There was a lid.
He reached out a trembling, failing, hand to touch it and to his wandering, dream-like sight, he saw it shudder and slowly, smoothly open. Panting, he tried to lift himself up, that he might see what lay within. He struggled on his elbows, grinding them against the hard stone beneath; but he could not manage it, though he tried over and again.
At last he lay still, his motionless fingers resting by the corner of the casket.
The sun drove onward, coursing through packs of white cloud and bursting from them, casting warmth across the ocean and the reared land beneath. A band of sunlight, playing at the edge of the high platform, widened and spread over the width of cold stone where Forinth lay. The sun lifted overhead toward noon. It beat gently down, dappling the wood of the carven box. The shadows moved and changed as the clouds rolled on. Rays of light crept imperceptibly down the casket until they touched Forinth the Mariner's hand; a hand that would never move again.
Forinth the Mariner, the explorer, the adventurer, had seen his heart's last desire, and more again than he could ever have dreamt.
The white hair ruffled about his head.
The sun went its way, riding into the east.
And the lid of the box slowly closed.
Many a sun-day passed on that high, wind swept ledge and many a cold day filled with swirling snow. Yet the ice and snow thawed and melted as the seasons revolved and long afterward little had changed but the seasons themselves and the decay that time alone wrought.
But one particular day, in the early spring of one particular year, a fleeting shadow crossed the ledge. And soon the shadow returned, circling and swooping, until finally its caster alighted upon the still and silent stone, to perch with a curious eye cocked toward the remains of a man, and the weathered box that the boned fingers yet clutched.
‘Craa,’ came the bird's inquiring cry as it hopped about, ruffling feathers and furling its wings.
For a time, it stopped to preen itself, taking very great care of the sooty wings and tail. Then, with a hop-hop, it broke into a flap and landed on the box. Soundlessly and easily, the lid began to lift upward. With a little squawk the bird fluttered away until the lid had fully opened. After regarding this with head cocked to one side for some moments, it flew again to the rim of the casket and peered inside. Seemingly startled, it rose into the air, and then landed once more to stare down at that which lay within: first with one eye, then with the other.
This bird was a jackdaw.
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