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Volume 1 - Escape
Volume 2 - Recovery
Volume 3 - Consolation
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|© Copyright 2003 Kenneth Mulholland|
Varlarsaga Volume 3 - Consolation
(Drawing by Ken Mulholland)
The jackdaw raced, hurtling, wings vibrating wildly, across the grey dome. The sky, the world beneath it; all seemed spinning, spinning.
The last fingers of trees reached away into bleakness; twisted and tilted, like drunken scarecrows. The vast tundra, awesome, ripened into desolation; the earth striped and banded with colours many.
A great, raging ferocity of high winds battered and shrieked, bemoaning the sun-dogs; visions like piercing, yellow stars of day. Green arcs and sheets of red and blue, as waving curtains in the dark, suffused the mingling amber coronas of the firmament. Lightning hissed and crackled amongst ever-twining rays; bending and low slanting over the endless moraines.
The jackdaw, buffeted, rebuffed; dashed by cruel wind, struggled on. Ice lay heavy upon his brow. His beak; a frozen, hardened nail or horn of deadness. His eyes, moistened and dimmed by ever-sight and ever-search. His claws, tucked, numbing and rigid, hard by the narrow, beating, pulsing body.
Only heart and wing to beat.
Only head to upward hold.
Fierce, the elements roared, leaning the weight of wind and ice, and the terror of the unknown. Mournful; howling, the lidless sky opened above. The darker paw of the night-dogs fell about him in relentless crush. Yet the very distant moon-glow reflected; lit the scape of white, day-like.
The jackdaw onward flew. The dogs of the moon followed baying.
Tumbled, fell the world away; shorn of luscious bounty.
Somehow, sweeping, spinning down in spirals upon such, he fell to earth and lay there heaving, the almost dead bone of beak half buried in snow, the quavering head and fearful eyes staring; everywhere, threat over-loomed.
He, the jackdaw, did not die. Not then. He rose, shook the sooty wings and head. Found lee shelter by ridgen-ice. And, rallying, into day-sun, rose.
His wings were beat, his breast a'pump.
Enormous works of ice, raised and tiered, reared before him. Mighty blue-white trilithons; menhirs with cromlechs resting, all cut and capped and crafted, rafter upon rafter, wrought by some colossal, sculpting mason, thrust upward to breach horizon and sky. Here, solitary by day's open glare, marked Earth-Roof.
The bird sank, drifting; wallowing on the wind-lessened breeze. The stark land, peaked with ice-cliffs, was still, silent.
Glaring, sat the sun-dogs by their liege. The wind hushed.
With eye roving, the jackdaw sought; nought moved, save for the slow, laden descent of him. Down, down to that middle, that centre, that abyss and riddle, that which was but a scar on the near unblemished skin of the north; Varlar-Eye.
And into that yawning hole, fell the bird. Falling into falling, twisting and falling. Feathers loosened by impact on crag, head tossed and snapped to and fro. All about, whipping and spinning. Down, into dark oblivion.
Through the eye of a bird, the single eye, the other shut or ruined; through that one seeing eye, the flimsy lid lifting slowly, languidly, coming out of sleep, or faint, or coma. Through that one seeing eye, the jackdaw heeded a lifted drape that was his own eyelid; and cast shadow away, to image of sight.
One eye; one only seeing eye, is not much. Not much to take in all the place where jackdaw lay, sprawled, legs askew, wings outreached, spread, near frozen.
In that single eyesight, across a floor of blue, darkest blue ice, there crouched the terrifying figure of a giant creature; wolf-like, or hound-like maybe. And to the tracing eye of the bird, it seemed that the figure was girdled and bound about by strong bonds that led up to the fingers of some...some...
The jackdaw could no longer bear, could no longer maintain the sight; for such was its majesty and terror. Fluttering, almost beyond life's edge, the bird sought wing's escape. Up, up, out of Eye-Hold, he pitifully strove.
Dim light of day pervaded the hole, the tunnel of Earth-Eye. There it was, far away, far above.
The jackdaw beat upward, struggling toward the surface. A glaciered crevasse around him shone with blue light. On the rime-crisp lip of Earth-Brow, he failed.
Snow drifted down in softness. The bird, the jackdaw, reached and fell upon his back, his beak agape, his red tongue questing. The wings spread open. The tiny legs stiffening. Blood dripped: caught, and frozen; gleamed in the multi-coloured day. Against the whiteness of permafrost, the darkness of sooty wings. From the still beak trickled, life to end, congealed on the pure snow.
And then, a hand; to lift that limp and lifeless head.
But in that hand there yet trembled an essence; the still, yellow beak swelled with something else, something new that puffed the nostrils. With an immense effort, a start, a huge ruffling, the jackdaw broke free and made toward the realm of sky and air that is bird-home. The crusted blood fell away from quill and down.
The sky lifted above the world. And all again was bird-home. The bright blue of it burst upon the eyes, so blue it was and everywhere a singing, as of wind-swept voices, rose swelling and swelling, fit to drown the senses in song.
It was as if all the birds of all the lands were trilling out their hearts. As if the earth and sea and sky were alive with music; the trees swaying, marching. The mountains rising, growing. The rivers bustling with life, like flowing veins across the skin of the world.
Far away, the children of elves and men played, laughing. Bells tolled their fair throats. The snows melted and fields were flower-filled, meadows blossoming. Animals gambolled, unmindful, over the slopes. How the innocent and the meek, the free, rejoiced.
And the jackdaw overflew all that. Back from the wastes. Back from dread. And in his eye, this time, he carried the key. And in the key, awaited the fate of Varlar. And the jackdaw, unheedful, sought to roost the forbidden bough, though hands reached out in anguish and the world hushed.
As a teetering tree, enduring the last moment between the thin-stretched strand of bark and sap and heart-wood, and the axeman's final heart-breaking blow, everything stood still. Everything, awaiting the key's insertion into the lock, the slow and painful turning, the last heavy rattle that sounded doom to Varlar.
And then it was done. The key and lock fused, flashed and melted, as if struck by lightning!
A foulsome rent cracked the rind of earth and from it there erupted a vomit of loathsome spew. Every House of living thing reviled that unwholesome upcast, that discharged malaise of pent disease and dreg. Like a hidden, forgotten pustule, reeking and burning, the hole that was a pit of abomination, opened wider; disgorging, purging World-bowels until the very entrails bled.
Out, over Varlar-skin, surged the canker of destruction. Away fled the meek, to seek refuge where none existed. There could be no refuge, whilst the world thus raged. Varlar, laid bare, ravaged, desecrated and convulsed, lay dying. The tree boles, the mountains; pillars of Varlar-home, were sinking beneath a creeping plague of horror. The doors to the underworld were rent asunder, so that repair was far and beyond the powers of elves or mortal men. Or, indeed, of any of the kindred tribes that dwelt in Varlar.
Yet still, for some inexplicable reason, into that fuming hole of Earth-Mouth, beyond the broken doors, winged the bird. In the jackdaw's eye now were but the shards of the key of life itself; the glimmer of tears, and faded hope.
And then he was gone, down the long, black void of no return.
And Varlar was lost...
‘You have heard me well,’ said the Dream in Corin's ear. ‘Truth, lie and riddle. Which one shall it be ? Or somewhere in the middle ? Or might Chance take a hand, or Fate, or Will undying. Free Will; aye there's a clue, unravelling and untying. Ho now? Whither you? For your paths are many. Yet your choices few, perhaps you have not any. So, I tread my way. The Dream departs the Dreamer. You should ask yourself, "Was he a roguish schemer? Or was he forsooth telling? Did He speak with hooded eyes?" within your thoughts, doubt dwelling. You must of this decide. Of riddle, you need fathom. World's end in your hand, ere you face the dreadful Chasm.’
The Dream was gone and Corin lay awake, listening to the ocean and the oars, and the wind tinkling through the rigging bells.
‘What did it all mean ?’ he asked himself over and again. ‘The bird in the snow…Searching and finding. Finding and dying. And being given a key, or a choice maybe ? Am I the jackdaw ? Is that it ? Given a choice to use the key, or not to. Yet who gives the key ? Who gives the choice ? The key opens the Doors of Adamant, the Doors to Earth-spine and the Adamantine roads: Croh-Yah, Earth-Mouth, Varlar Hole, all name the same place. That place, concealed by Lord Valandir, hidden somewhere in a lonely forest, on a plain called Aileen; shut until the day of reckoning and the doom of the world, according to the Stone of Remorse. But the doom of the world, what does that mean ? Must the Doors be kept shut to forestall that doom ? Or will doom befall if they are not opened ? Am I, alone, to have that choice ? If that were so, what shall I finally do ? Now I am not so sure.’
In turmoil, Corin tossed and turned, thinking, thinking, and in his mind, around and around, echoed the voices of the Ap-peloth witches and the nine shadowy brethren of the hermitage; echoing and echoing, until again, he slept...
‘The Daræ have spoken with Astragali. They are repentant and have undone the wrongs of time. The Nether-Worlds are again subdued.’
‘If any can achieve the task, I guess he is the only one left alive in the world who might.’
‘What if the Adamant Doors of Klud-er-Yah are thrown open and all within, good and evil, are released ?’
‘The World, Varlar, as it is today, would perish.’
‘And there is the World Serpent.’
‘Hush, do not speak of that thing. I forbid you.’
‘But if the Daræ were again to live in Varlar, They might yet subdue all those Terrors.’
‘Then you too would believe what has been told.’
‘I feel sure Astragali and I are not mistaken.’
‘Best leave things as they are. If the Daræ have indeed triumphed in Earth-Heart, there let them dwell forever.’
‘Yet the very World may depend on our judgement.’
‘The fate of Varlar could well rest on you and your errantries... Go on, if you dare, and seek... As Ergris has spoken. Search out the ones of wisdom...'
'From them, even those evil, shall knowledge be gained.'
'Still, within Varlar's bosom lies World's hope...'
'Your salvation; to release the thralled...'
'Your quest; to find a way...'
'Your riddle; to be the first, for there are evil ones working already to open the Doors, and yet you are not to allow the Powers within to rush out...'
'They, are waiting.'
'Beyond the barriers, They are waiting...’
‘It shall be, always has been, yours to wholly decide your path...’
'Plunging waters, darker than the night.'
'Down into the pits.'
'Shrinking, twisted arms, clutching the blackness.'
'Save us! Save us! Lest we drown. We drown. Crying, crying. Dark waters, doom laden. Leaden, unyielding weight. Ages lasting. Ages. Lonely, lying. A lonely crowd, reaching dead fingers, that no longer feel to search. Entombed. Oh such watered grave. Lies here an army, damp buried. Locked beneath, and warders all. To the Pits. The Pits..’
‘Is that you? My Son? Are you there? Do you come? My Son, my Son. Can it be you?’
‘Save us... Save...’
A hand brushed Corin's brow. ‘Come, come. This writhing which passes for sleep needs end. Day has begun without you.’ It was Falnir the elf, in company with He'Remon the Wizard.
The light of morning poured at their backs, through many unshuttered ports of the Dolphin Ship, as swift it cut the waters and the spray sped past.
‘How long have I tossed and turned thus?’ Corin asked, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes.
‘Long enough for a fair wind to have driven us far westward,’ said the elf. ‘Why even now we are beating north, out of the open sea toward the coast. Farinmail the dwarf is with Aneurin Foamhair. Together they search for anchorage as close to Dwarf-home as is safe.’
Corin reached for the wizard's arm, but He'Remon had moved away to a portal, turning his gaze seaward.
‘He'Remon, I must speak with you. A dream has come to me through the night.
Come, I say, or was sent. I do not know the wise. Yet I know I awoke, concerned,
and lay pondering its meaning. Then it seemed I drifted slowly into a second
dream, or vision maybe. It is all so mixed together. Hear my tale in full, for I
need your counsel.’
The wizard bent his grey, red-rimmed eyes full into Corin's. ‘You have my ear and my advice, if there be some I can give. But now, tell your tale in the bracing air of day, the better for minds to think.’
And so they made their way to the higher decks where Aneurin and Farinmail, squat, solid, and waist height to the sea-elf, stood together, the winds of the east cutting across their faces.
‘Thitherward lies the coast, ,just beyond the horizon,’ cried Aneurin Foamhair, his long arm outstretched, pointing with absolute surety.
Corin strained his eyes, but there was nought to see that way, save streaks of low cloud. ‘How can you be so certain?’
‘We, the Valde, know the signs. The waves tell us. Like messengers they be, come from visiting the land; how fast, how high, in which direction. They do not lie. The coast is yonder.’
‘Here,’ said Falnir, offering Corin a cup. ‘Take a morning draught and then tell us of your dreams, your nighted visions.’
Corin took the crystal goblet and raised it to his lips, to drain the sweet liquid. Yet even whilst he tilted his head and his eyes swept over the sparkling rim he saw, through the sun-gleam of it, as if part of his own confused mind, the bird.
‘I know that bird!’ he said, lifting an arm and gazing after it, as the tiny black form of the jackdaw hurtled northward.
Chapter 49 [next]
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