It was a violet moon, this night; it had been a crimson one the night before and a dull green one the night before that. Of this Einion was sure, even though many things seemed to slip and slide from his mind now, so much more than when he was younger – yet he was not old, only early in his fourth decade. And those things he kept hold of often seemed at variance with what others around him said they could recall.
He had mentioned the varying colours of the moon to Dermot, his chamberlain, on the following mornings, but had been met by blank stares that seemed to clearly be saying I don’t think so. So perhaps he would not mention the violet moon in the morning, not now, not after his explanation had been stone-facedly returned.
But the moon’s stain is from the fabulous lights that flicker in the north like the multihued swimming trout use to in the streams.
Yet I don’t think so remained the refrain.
Even though he was the Sacred King and felt that that should allow him freedom, his perception had increasingly become that it was frowned on for him to be outside, other than in the brightest twilight of midday. Certainly he should be protected from the bitter cold; and he should not wander in the night – especially in the night. He should not be in a position to see the various coloured moons that reflected back now the colours of the ice, even from the garden of his house in An Uaimh. And he certainly should not be out in wild places where looming statues and strangely erupting rock creatures were interspersed among the trees.
He had quite liked the woodlands when he was growing up, but mostly as backdrops to the worlds he created in his chamber. When he did occasionally go there he found them to be rather boring. Just trees and birds making a cacophonous racket in the thickets and tree tops. And almost devoid of people.
Now he loved being in them, was exhilarated under the northern ice-lights and the moon that now reflected those magical lights instead of the glaring light of the daystar. Those northern ice-lights surely filtered and enhanced the various lights from the distant stars, and were more magical than that hulking one that used to hang heavy in the sky.
Now, as he ran unafraid through interesting forests, he revelled in all the things he was constantly surprised others could not see. He would enter through an arch beset by flames – but they could not harm him, warm him. No matter, for his inner burning pushed through to give him the energy of one hundred and twenty to fly across the crisp, multi-layered packs of leaves, outpacing any pursuit. In his arrogance he maintained that he feared none of them, but he lied to himself even as he ran through the trees. They were now hoar-cracked and barren, their life having retreated in and down to their roots, waiting patiently for a spring that would come again – eventually; or with needles cold held, but refusing to die, the little green remaining as dark as ever green gets, scarcely remembering the yellow that used to come and would come again with its accompanying verdant hue.
All the small creatures had buried themselves deep – dead or alive – and the larger ones steered clear of his magenta flame. Or curled low in den or earth or cave. There may be no birds now, no flowers even of white, but the sparkling sky and glistening frost and the new creatures from the bones of the world – fire-creatures that Einion called the Nahrimin after those from old tales that had entered into his childhood night times – offered a more magical cast than the dull creatures of the summer. The Nahrimin themselves had swum, perhaps, on lakes of fire before crawling up through the sediment and loam to clamber out into the freezing air. There their skin quickly hardened, but the heart within kept pushing forth its insistence and cracks would appear as the creatures moved slowly through the white-purple world. And Einion would run and run and laugh and laugh at what he alone could see.
All under a violet moon.
He wondered what was for breakfast.
“Your absence was noted, your Majesty,” said Dermot as Einion tucked into his full breakfast, though the time was approaching noon.
“It is so fantastic out there, with the flickering lights from the north … well, you know.”
“It is not safe, your Majesty, and we are going through a difficult enough time as it is without the risk of losing our Sacred King.”
“Nonsense. And I’m so confined.”
“As is everyone, your Majesty.”
“But I’m not just anyone; it is so boring being cooped up in this house – at least in the Temple Compound there was some song and dance.”
“You can invite minstrels here, your Majesty.”
“But they aren’t any good.”
“O all right; arrange something for tonight.”
“And you’ll stay in and listen to them, your Majesty?”
“If I must.”
“It is deemed wise, your Majesty.”
“But only by her.”
Throughout Andau Argun’s long history it had been variously assailed by those from without: the Demon of Cacophony; various settlers; and by the monsters and denizens of the mountains – the most hostile of those denizens being the Daoine-Dumha. In the years before the birth of Einion’s mother his grandfather – Midir – had led a long expedition against them that dug the hillsides from one end of the valley to the other till he had driven the Daoine-Dumha into their last redoubt: An Rath-Cliona. This he claimed he would also unroof to drive the scourge of the Daoine-Dumha from the valley for ever.
But their queen, Cliona, pleaded, saying that there must surely be room for both peoples, and she promised never to attack the valley or its inhabitants again. Yet Midir did not trust her and insisted on a hostage as surety of Cliona’s word. She prevaricated, and so Midir renewed his assault till Cliona sued at last and agreed to all his demands; and she gave her daughter, Grania, as warranty for her word. Then Midir withdrew his troops and returned to his holdings in the Vale of Hodnet.
But the hate and malice of Cliona followed him, and she cursed him and all his male heirs, vowing vengeance thereafter.
Now, though Grania was a hostage to the good behaviour of her mother, Midir treated her kindly as befitted one born to high station. And some sort of affection grew between them, and then became much more on Midir’s part, till he asked the daughter of Cliona if she would wed him.
She declined, however, saying that My mother would never countenance it; she already hates you, do not give her cause or means to further her revenge. But Midir’s desire was stronger than his caution, the former growing while the latter declined, and he asked her many dozens of times till he wore down her resistance. So be it, she said, though with a heavy heart, for she had grown fond of Midir.
The day they wed was the happiest yet of Midir’s life, and he thought it would be the start of long incremental years of happiness. And there were indeed many happy times thereafter, with Grania giving him a daughter within a year of their wedding, but she bore him no more children and thereafter seemed to lose much of the enchantment she had come to him with. Yet Midir still loved her and his daughter, Don, with most of his heart, for he tried to hide that he wished also for a son to whom he could teach his prowess and who would inherit his lands. But, as that never happened, when Don was come to her maturity he arranged that she should wed Orlam, a Lord of Kinver, to whom he told all the tales of his house, adopting him as his own.
That wedding was even more splendid than that of Grania and Midir, but marked the high noon of Midir life, for Grania increasingly faded away thereafter, only surviving just long enough to see her grandson, Einion, born.
Yet there was also another tragedy, for on a time when Midir went to visit his daughter and she had passed her son to him, and he had turned away to the window the better to see his grandson, he heard a soft susurration behind him. And out of the window he saw two swans wheeling and climbing away into the mountains; neither Grania nor Don was ever seen in the valley again. He and Orlam were wroth, and cursed Cliona – whom they believed responsible – but were unable to mount such an expedition as Midir had managed in his youth, the lands beginning to be beset by the colder weather that increased as the years passed. Midir wept at the faithlessness of Cliona and her offspring, and swore his vengeance in return, but the few men he could spare from protecting his holdings from the creatures that increasingly crept down from the mountains to search for news of his wife and daughter discovered no trace.
Midir declined thereafter, and Orlam took over the running of his holdings and took over the sole raising of Einion, spoiling him to keep him from the likes of his great-grandmother. Yet when Einion became the Sacred King Orlam found he had now lost even his son to women, seeing them all as one monstrous brood. But the conventions and the other lords of the lands of Andau Argun were strongly in favour of the tradition of the Sacred King and Orlam would have to fight them all and his son if he were to return Einion to the fold.
This finally broke Midir, who increasingly jabbered into wine and the fire at the injustices done to him. Orlam remained angrily defiant, and would head out to hunt for tidings of the gate of An Rath-Cliona, or traces of the fleeing swans, till on a bitter night he went out never to return.
And so Cliona’s revenge marched its malice.
“I heard voices underground again yesterday,” said Einion. “Mostly singing, great choral sweeps, rather than the daft arguments of previously.”
“Indeed, your Majesty.”
“O yes. I like the feel in my feet of their reverberating voices. They touch me. I feel a part of them. Was it you who told me of the little folk who live down there?”
“Not of little people.”
“There was something someone told me. It’ll come back to me. Yesterday they were singing of scenes I seem to recall from old tapestries, I think – perhaps that is what made me think of little people.”
“Perhaps, your Majesty.”
There had always been times in the valley of Andau Argun’s history when the weather deviated from a fairly equitable norm that was remarkable considering its situation high in the Enchanted Mountains, a fair way north, and not close to the ocean. But this fimbulwinter threatened to be one of the worst. Worse than under the Demon of Cacophony; worse even than in the earliest days when the mists from the surrounding mountains had not yet been caressed back by the giants and their songs.
It had been going on for thirty-three years now, Einion had been told: the same number of years he had been alive. Not that there was any connection, he was assured. And how could there be? why this unnecessary reassurance? when he had obviously been a bairn – and no child could be held accountable in such a way. Yet he also somehow retained the sense that children have that the world revolved around him that is usually, by degrees, shed as progress is made towards adulthood.
He was told that the winters had become progressively more serve, and then longer in duration, as the decades passed, till there had been no summer of note three years ago, just dust-laden clouds and weak crops; then the summer-before-last when the winds blew unceasingly; and then the last summer when the frost and snow hardly retreated at all. Nothing sown sprouted, nothing planted fruited, and nothing wild could be harvested.
No summer at all.
Einion did not mind: he loved the winter and the hoar-frosts with the sharp retorts of the trees and the crags and frozen cascades of ice that grew everywhere, and offered some sort of illumination, but no heat, seeming to radiate instead a coolth. And beyond, as though of smoke, rose such images of monstrosities, such demons from the nether regions of the world, that were not however as bad as some from Einion’s deepest nightmares.
He made sure that others knew of these, and trusted that – because they came from him – they would not be forgotten. Such creatures as the Blitherselly were to be remembered. Well and frequently. Others would learn from him, for the future.
He wrapped up warmly, was well fed, and there was plenty of firewood for his household.
He had dreamt of her since he had passed into that strange time between childhood and adulthood, though variations on those dreams had continued even up to the frozen now.
The her changed, was sometimes replaced by a plethora of shapes who bowed and bent to his will. He did `not always trust her, though sometimes she remained unsullied, so sweet of fragrance that he did not cast his eyes around and down to the mass he could see below him in search of a replacement. She would console him in the passages of the night when he walked with her among the terrified shapes of his mindscape, calling out that there was a place of safety.
His grandfather, Midir, had given him a chain “to help still the turbulent world reflected in the sigil.” But it was the “chain that constrained the acid of freedom” according to the High Priestess. “Isn’t that a comment that tries to arrest reason,” he replied.
“No, I see clearer. It is your attempts to remove the vagaries of change, trying to halt us in an it-must-be-thus of your own devising that precipitates the decay you claim to be trying to halt.”
“At least I don’t embrace chaos.”
“Of mankind – or of nature? Of willed disorder – or of complexities beyond easy understanding?”
“You’re just trying to deflect me away from clear sight,” retorted Einion.
“So you always say.”
“So you always do.”
“I’m trying to stop things disintegrating,” she insisted.
“You embrace ossification. That doesn’t halt or slow decay, but brings it about faster.”
“Utter rubbish. Totally illogical.”
“So you always say,” he replied triumphantly.
She rarely came calling now, had rarely done so since he had ascended to the Sacred Kingship. Perhaps she was jealous of the High Priestess? Perhaps he had not needed her then?
But now he wondered if he was again in need. Not because the valley was buried under snow, and not really because he had been expelled from the Temple Compound (though that still riled), but because he was once more traversing a forest where whispers were beginning to permeate akin to the passages of the terrors of night he recalled from when as a youngster he had walked in the petrified forest.
And now he was no longer welcome in the Temple Compound. They were too busy; he was too much of a distraction; he hindered any chance of the valley recovering. Errant nonsense. He had power, of course, as the Sacred King – but he would never do harm. He always looked out for what was best for everyone, all together, all in place.
He had always been in the running for the Sacred Kingship, had had a quiet confidence that he would accede, and was delighted when he came into his own as his third decade drew to a close. He would have liked his elevation to have come sooner, but now they had to wait for the incumbent to die – and Cairbry had lived an awfully long time. It was during his extended dotage that the valley had suffered its egregious hurts.
As Sacred King Einion knew what to do: not just the theoretical ideas inculcated into him since birth, but practical solutions. The people were confined in too small an area of the valley, full of smallholdings that created little food beyond what was required by the subsistence families with their dozens of children. The towns about the main waterways were growing fast as the many children grew up and left to find new lives for themselves. But there was not enough food for them to thrive. Practises were unwieldy and the people stubborn. And the valley’s settlements too sparse and disparate; the only real lines of communication were the waterways, and these had proved insufficient to get food to even as many of the people as lived near their banks.
But he was hampered from the very first by the High Priestess of the Goddess of the Land, his consort, who saw his radical approach as threatening her position and the pre-eminence of the Priestesshood in the Temple Compound. She would not listen to him; she did not comprehend that he was a Man of Destiny – though he blanched from telling her that.
“I know there are more people than there used to be,” he said, but this is a good thing. We can tame the surrounding wilderness, organise it so it can feed us all.”
“When will you stop? When the mountains’ barren slopes are reached.”
“You’re scaremongering. Living space is not a problem.”
“It could become …”
“Why all this gainsaying? We all agree that there are problems feeding the burgeoning population here. Why are you rejecting my solutions?”
“Because I don’t know what they are, not beyond vague ideas about always expanding. Hardly thought through.”
“We do not need to be worried about colonising new lands, there are so many. We can encourage the peasants to move into the woods and fell the trees to drive back the waste-lands. And we can organise the already cultivated lands into more productive units. Enlarge the holdings, reduce the variety of crops grown in each place.”
“So no looking to limit the population?”
“There is no need, there’s plenty of land.”
“So you’ve said. And what about the harmful effects on that land?”
“What harmful effects? It’ll become more productive.”
“But the waste-lands are not – to use your inelegant term – unproductive: they furnish firewood; carefully managed they provide timber; there is game; and there is beauty and places for retreat.”
“Retreat from what? Hunger?”
“Yours is not the only solution. It does not need to be such a radical and immense imposition. These small farms, held from generation to generation, have produced plenty of food century after century. With their coppices and reed beds. Why destroy them?”
“But we’ll create something better, something over which we can exercise more control. There can be more people.”
“Why would we want more people?”
And they could not get past that point: the point of whether it was beneficial to have as many people in the valley as possible or if other considerations should have sufficient weight to limit their numbers.
Thereafter the High Priestess seemed to avoid him, and he found that the Priestesses and Mistresses in the Temple Compound gave him little more than the basic time of day. He became moody and irritable, and did his best to spread this throughout the Temple Compound – especially when he met the High Priestess at times of ceremony. And he spent more and more of his time drinking and brooding alone in his suite of rooms. But then he would burst out in anger and berate those around him, or the world and sky at large if no one else was around. Which increasingly happened. Till he was called to the High Priestess’s study.
The interview was short, for all he had plenty to say; he was to leave the Temple Compound for a house in the town outside. A substitute would be found for as many of the ceremonies as possible. He would only be required for those at the equinoxes and solstices.
His considered counterarguments were rejected as having nothing to do with the reality of the situation.
“I’d love to be told about those who live down there.”
“If anyone can, your Majesty.”
“I wish you wouldn’t question me. I’ve heard them, on many occasions – they are down there. I need to know more.”
“There’s the Temple Compound’s library?”
“Just piles of old scrolls. All going mouldy.”
“Or the story-tellers?”
“O not them. You know I don’t like having to converse with people. If they would just come and tell me what I want to know; but they never do, just recite tales about what I should think.”
“You don’t have to have them to entertain you, your Majesty.”
“I know.” Einion tapped the table in irritation. Then, as if with a revelation: “I know, why don’t you find out about this for me.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
But to Dermot’s annoyance Einion did, for once, remember what he had asked his chamberlain and was annoyed when he was tardy in finding out what he could. Well, a lot more than annoyed.
An excuse to give in and go out that night.
When he would maintained that he was braver now than he had been as a child, what with having greater understanding; but inwardly he occasionally felt that the possibility of increasing menace in the forest meant he needed a deep redoubt where he could be safe.
And yet all he got still were vague choirs echoing his yearning and offering no clarity or path to safety.
The following morning he was again admonished by Dermot when he returned as the dawn hinted at making an appearance.
“Very well, I’ll stay in tonight.” He did not, of course, say anything about the change that he was beginning to perceive in the forest.
“And I’ll get the best bard I can, your Majesty.”
“As you wish.”
And he was better than the ones Einion had heard before, almost holding his interest, especially with his Song of the Dolvers, with its introduction that talked of
Common dreams –
of little people in the ground
giants in the mountains
feathered people in the clouds
All are real –
but here I’ll tell of those
who reside in the tunnels
that reach most everywhere
And thereafter the minstrel sang of the secrets and mysteries of that subterranean race. Einion thought he understood it all.
The following day Einion asked Dermot about the Dolvers, enquiring if they were perhaps those he had heard singing underground.
“I don’t know, your Majesty.”
“You were supposed to find out. This is not the first time I’ve had to chase you on this.” But his admonishing was unexpectedly mild.
“I’ve hardly had time.”
“Well do so now, or … or … and I’ll stay in tonight.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
But he could not resist going out into the dark, the possible terrors not enough to stop his yearning; anyway, he was not someone who felt his promises to inferiors needed to be kept.
Yet on that night something fundamentally changed. Not just the possibilities of a return to old childhood fears. Not the moon, though it was now stained a deep blood-red, nor the flares in the north that dictated the moon’s colourful reflection, even if their colour of blood-red flaming was more intimidating than the usual azures and emeralds. They flared frenetically that night, and the shadows flickered increasingly, moving more quickly than Einion had known before – but neither was it that. He laughed at this sharp dance, skipping and rollicking with the energy that he in his arrogance felt akin to.
For it was on this passage through his personal forest that the creatures slow erupted from the bones of the world broke from the constraints the freezing air tried to impose on them. Their crusted skins did not splinter out with deadly shards, but they did fragmented into innumerable smithereens that could no longer restrict their restlessness.
Einion did not notice their early stirrings, too caught up in his dance with the shadows of the northern lights, only slowly noticing that there were other movements, uncoordinated with the shadows from the north. He did not fear them, kidding himself, claiming still to be untouchable in his own forest, and he tried to incorporate their random motions into his own dance. But it was beyond him – him stuttering somehow – and he stumbled and then tumbled down into a deep drift quickly covered by a flurry of snow.
And the forms of the Nahrimin passed him by.
He lay panting for a few moments, just winded, not yet ready to regain his feet and continue his dance, and it gave him time to think. For, whatever his thoughts may have been about possible predators or small animals curled tight beneath the snow, he had never seen any creature moving at anything like his pace through the forest before. He was unsettled, at least. He rolled over and raised his head to peer in caution to see if any of the Nahrimin were moving close by. There appeared to be none, though the flicker of the shadows from the northern lights made certainty difficult. Einion raised himself to his feet, aware of the possibility he would have to flee, and looked more carefully to see what he could see.
There were Nahrimin still moving through the forest, he did not doubt, though he could not see any for certain; and he cursed that on this night the northern lights had chosen to flare blood-red, the same colour as the multitudinous breaks in the Nahrimin’s rock-skin; on most nights that would have shown as the only hot colour in the landscape, but tonight …
He looked intently again, and listened hard; such as he could discern the Nahrimin were still moving, milling around in a wide horseshoe to his right – there seemed none to his left. So he took that way. He did not dance now, but tried to flit between the trunks, fitting into the shadows rather than bouncing off them. The trunks were massive there, as the land slopped downwards, and he found it easy to elude the Nahrimin. His hankering grew: his fear lessened.
As he came to the last line of trees it came to him that the bank below him, that opposite, and indeed the shape of the watercourse, were an almost exact replica of the place in the valley where the Dawlish Stream joined the River Darenth. He was intrigued. But it could not be the place in Andau Argun itself, for the waterway before him was frozen – and the main watercourse of Andau Argun had never frozen, even in the dreadful fimbulwinter of his reign. And even here the river was not frozen solid, the ice looking thin in many places, and Einion could see what he took to be the flowing movement of water below. Yet in one place there had grown what appeared to be an arched ice-bridge that spanned across to the far bank.
It was comprised of strands of wispy curls of mist held and entwined by some great weaver into a myriad of coloured threads, not seemingly something made by man, but having grown out of that unnatural winter, standing proud of the riverbanks, tall and almost straight at the water’s edge, and then with two arms reaching up and across to hold fast both to the banks and above the ice-sheet’s centre. It was more immense than any structure Einion had seen, though not of any he had dreamt of; in his dreams big was always better.
Yet he did not cross the bridge then, for, with the fire-creatures seeming to have drifted back into somnolence, his courage failed him.
“Where did I hear of the Daoine-Dumha then, Dermot – you know I’m not one for reading?”
“We have had bards attend you before, your Majesty, though I don’t know how much you remember.”
“Not much. They hardly hold my attention.”
“Then maybe from your family, your Majesty; Midir is said to have waged a successful campaign against them.”
“That must be it – something from my childhood, childish tales. So it can’t be them I’ve heard singing.”
“Just because you heard tales as a child that were shaped to fit into children’s minds does not mean that the Daoine-Dumha are no more than childish monsters.”
“Are they monsters?”
“So it would seem if your grandfather waged a campaign against them, your Majesty.”
“The voices I’ve heard aren’t those of monsters. So they must be from some other people; or the Daoine-Dumha are marvellous.”
“As you say, your Majesty.”
He came to that same riverbank, that same ice-bridge, hounded by those same Nahrimin, not long after – though he could not remember how many nights had passed since he had first stood there.
Fear and yearning, days and nights, were blending together more now, he was sure, the days greyer and the nights more vivid under the increasing frenzy of the northern lights.
But here he was again, however much later than when he had first been there, trying to summon up the courage to cross the ice-bridge. And his courage would probably have scuttled back to its lair if he had not looked back through the trunks; then he became more afraid of the frying pan than the fire, for – though he could not be sure – he thought the fire-creatures may have been beginning to converge towards him, with speed. He looked along the riverbank: not likely to manage a successful escape that way. But the ice-bridge? Surely the Nahrimin would melt it if they tried to cross? He decided, such as he ever did in the rolling furnace of his mind, that he would cross – to the western half of Andau Argun – or whatever imitation of the valley it may prove to be – though he had not yet crossed the river in the solid-real valley of his mundane life.
So he edged his way out onto the multihued bridge, more afraid of slipping than that it would not bear his weight. Yet the ice-bridge was both solid and was rutted crossways along its ridge, almost as though someone or something wanted him to make it safely across. But then he was a Man of Destiny.
So he crossed with ease, growing more confident as he moved towards the far shore, where he turned and looked back. There were no fire-creatures that he could see; as he looked around the forest on the far bank it seemed utterly still. And as he had now braved the crossing, showing his metal, he might as well see what was here.
“Have you ever crossed the river?” Einion had asked his chamberlain.
“No, your Majesty. I distrust boats of any kind.”
“There have never been any bridges across?”
“I’ve not heard of any.”
“Even of ice?”
“It doesn’t freeze, your Majesty.”
“Are you sure? Why not? Why no bridges?”
“No, your Majesty. I don’t know. And I understand that there are those who feel bridges shackle the river in ways inimical to nature, in ways I don’t understand.”
“But there are plank-bridges across streams; I’ve used them many times.”
“I think the Rivers Darenth and Lodden are special, your Majesty.”
“Why is that?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“It’s a strange old place we live in, isn’t it Dermot? All these traditions and taboos that seem to serve no purpose other than to keep us tied in to practices that limit rather than expand our horizons. Perhaps because of the mountain walls. I tried to bring about expansive change before they kicked me out of the Temple Compound. Did you know that? But they wouldn’t listen. Said I was simply disruptive. That I didn’t understand, that I only saw simplistic solutions to complicated problems. But how complicated? Need more food, get more farmland: cut down woods, plough up moorland, drain marshland. It’s not going to have all the myriad knock-on effects they claim. They react with complicated, interwoven answers to try and stop my simple solutions. They it is who have no understanding. Not me.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
There was a low cliff before him, a few miles back from the river, with a path snaking up to pass through a gap in the wild hedge atop the low cliff. Einion followed this path up, frequently slipping, till he came to the oval sward that lay between the hedge and another low cliff to the west. Almost featureless: all under the snow now. With only a few humps towards the northern end. Einion made his way towards them; when he was not many paces away he could see that they were ruins.
It seemed there had once been a hermitage of some sort there, the ruins of various beehive-huts clustering at the plateau’s northern end, near a pool. This was almost entirely frozen save for just beneath the spring that flowed down from the heights behind. In that fimbulwinter one would not have expected that, unless perhaps it was a sacred spring, steaming slightly. Many of those in the valley were, though it must have been one of great power and importance not to have frozen yet. Yet if it was so important, why had the hermits abandoned the site?
Einion made his way round the pool’s western edge till he crouched just above the unfrozen water. There were cracks in the ice above like eyes and nostrils and mouths, gaping wide in grins depicting what those creatures wished to be – primordial giants of malice, raiders waiting for the storm to break so they could erupt from the north to reclaim, as they saw it, the world from the usurpers, as was told in the old songs of the previous fimbulwinters. Perhaps something to be grateful for, a small mercy, if this worst of seasons in the valley was now also paralysing the predators in the surrounding mountains. No hostile wave from there; but from above and below …
So above, so below. So within, so without. As that pain of a High Priestess kept saying. As if he did not know.
He turned back to the pool in the stream, watching the mists curling luminous above the steaming surface. And the faces therein. Calling, calling to him. Voices more alluring than those reverberating from underground. He stared for a long time, though he did not count it, the drifting reflections aiding the casting back of his mind to all that had happened recently: the singing; the increasingly difficult weather; his unfair expulsion; sweet voices; his anger at their refusal to follow his simple, workable solutions; voices welling underground. And now he knew who they were and what they were calling him to do. And that this was what he was born to. That this was his part to play in saving the valley. Out with the old.
He took the sigil from around his neck and dropped it into the pool. There was a host of bubbles, and a long, sonorous sigh, and then the water froze, the ice claiming its share, spreading out from the already frozen parts of the pool and up the spring till all was quiet and still and very, very, cold.
Einion called aloud to whom he now knew to be the being who had ordained all that was to happen – to her, seeing her as benevolent. Who was allowing him to play his role as the Man of Destiny. Everything clear now.
Drawn from distant peaks, mists rolling deep,
themes of spirits of air, breath & lust
weaving through drunken colonnades, slipping through
to bask in the earth-fires of sating plenty.
Sapphire of the sky – season of the witch;
emerald of smoke – passage of the year;
opals of milk sap, garnets as whole-blooded,
twirling atmosphere sweet inhaled.
Flashing lights & fault-lines & deepest dreams,
lust desire love known & kenned all the same;
many & plenty – few special unique
are drawn in his fiery heart, his crimson eyes.
Ruby of procreation – lustful as the deep sun;
diamond as hard-hearted – goddess of desire;
amethyst long remembered, pearl unlearnt
wherever there cascades a theme of distant loss.
Flowers of every hue, thorns soft-bidden to allow him through: yellow and black, summer blue to purple mourning all coming true now; coming round again – dream-world now on the threshold.
Sword in the forest: blood on the snow.
And with that he turned to retrace his steps into his own forest between worlds. Across the flat oval of snow, down the slip-sliding road and then across the ice-bridge of curled hues. He stopped just before he came to the eastern side, looked about fearfully to see if he could see any Nahrimin moving about; he could not. He relaxed, but then his attention was brought to focus on one point, and his heart began to beat franticly. And he was ever after only looking at that one point, craving trumping fear.
A shape appeared before him, a tall, willowy figure, opaque, wispy, though distinctly female. Her hair was so long it would have reached almost to her ankles if it had not been waving out behind her in a breeze Einion could not feel. Her dress was of a filigree that left nothing to the imagination; and her face was perfect.
“I hear you are being marginalised,” she said.
“They won’t listen to my ideas,” said Einion. “They have barred me from the Temple Compound, said I was a disturbance to their tranquillity.”
“The ice is calm.”
“I don’t think that’s what they meant.”
“But you have the fire within you. You burn with new ways of perceiving the world. Perhaps they’re scared your fire will shatter their internal ice.”
“It can be rigid, too, I see that.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she replied, hurriedly.
“Not that; just that they see the power of your vision and are scared by what it could mean for them. So they retreat into what they have known, not realising that this means the change will be revolutionary. Due to you.”
“I see that.”
“We’ll speak again soon.”
There was a call, endless now, echoes from depths focused onto him as a worthy recipient. It led him up the slope between the tall trunks, all grey-brown now, and then into and through the whitebeams and past the beeches, their isolation less obvious now that beneath virtually all the trees there was nothing more than humps of snow. There were a few hollies close as he passed by, but they were bowed down under the weight of winter; and the mountain ashes that followed – long stripped bare of their life-sustaining berries – and the white ladies of the birches peeling and reflecting the northern lights in fractured imperfection – but beautiful nonetheless, till even these thinned and shrunk as Einion approached the open snowfield.
He hesitated for a moment, the fire within him diminishing for a second, but then that perfect face shimmered even more brightly before him, unemotional and o so desirable atop that ideal body.
“But you do not have to wait aimlessly for what you know will come; remain passive – unengaged – uninvolved.”
“It’s very boring in the house they’ve exiled me to.
“So I understand.”
“There used to be dancing and singing and revelry when I was in the Temple Compound. But now there’s little, just inferior bards and pathetic dancing girls that wobble more than gyrate. Hardly befitting my station.”
“And there I can help,” she said. “Does any of this meet with your approval?”
Then Einion looked through the transparent form to the images behind, primary shapes flowing to show broad sweeps of all he could desire – all he could think of desiring in that short moment. Which was a lot.
The more obvious ones of course: sating his lust with numerous women, so soon one after another, all prepared to do whatever he wanted – and to enjoy it. And his stamina was inexhaustible. Like his boundless energy as he had run through the forest.
And the food and drink of course: so many more pleasure to be had. And he had always had plenty to eat and drink.
All of the inhabited areas of the valley lay far behind him, and a wind hurried across the snowfield. But the fire within him roared so fierce now, with his goal getting nearer. And his increased feelings of justification in no way lessening his anger at those who had demeaned him, his position, his views. If anything, his rage at the vindication of his beliefs and position was even fiercer than before.
More precise licentious thoughts flooded over him now: of women from his past; girls he had known when not quite yet an adult; the High Priestess of the Goddess of the Land in the Temple Compound. They had refused him then: there was no thought of that now. And he could ignore that there were substances chosen to facilitate his stamina and that were needed to ensure their compliance. All amid fountains of silver cascades wrought of pearls and diamonds; gold and red enamel goblets and ewers; tall statues doing impossible things to each other, somehow not repulsive. He considered seriously participating in similar activities himself, unaware now that if lucid he would know that self-revulsion would follow his acting them out.
He would show them all; it was not just about him and his incipient elevation, but that the fimbulwinter in the valley was coming to an end; his Destiny was being fulfilled, and now his reward was coming. The shackles of the past had been cast off. The details could be left to others.
Now he was well out beyond the northern lake, with the mountain walls drifting ever closer. With sweet song and fragrance finally drawing him in: warmth and reward; impermanent and transitory; a new day.
Stunning – classic – giving him a new lease.
And yet at times – perhaps at all times, though often deeply hidden – it was one woman he wanted. That special rose in all the garden of buds and scents and blooms, alluring in such a manner that he was blind to all others.
“What is it you really want, your Majesty? You ask all these questions, but don’t wait for an answer.”
“I am the Sacred King. You do not talk to me like that.”
“And if you had power I wouldn’t.”
“I am the Man of Destiny!”
“What the hell does that mean? What does it describe? What does it make you?”
“It means I am worth so much more than you, all of you … any of you.”
“But what does that mean?”
“It means that I see more clearly than you. I am not bound by the constraints you all try to impose on me. For I know – I see. I see through the complexities of life into the pure heart.”
“That, your Majesty, is just an excuse to stop thinking without realising that you are too thick to comprehend the world except in very simple terms based around you and your wants.”
“I am the centre of the valley!”
“Only this valley?”
“I am the Man of Destiny. I centre everything – I have shown the way; I have done what must be done. Why does no one recognise that?”
“All you have done is give in to your self-absorption and distance yourself from any contradictions, from doing or being anything of worth. While all collapses around you.”
“I have saved the valley!”
“You haven’t even saved yourself.”
“I don’t need to hear any of this: I know who and what I am. I have understanding. And you will not distract me or stop me gaining my reward!”
And there, through the mists, with the crystals and shafts of held moonlight all strident argent, flowed the tinges of dawn-rose effervescence, adding a visual allure to that of the song and the fragrance. Not sickly to him.
The doors stood open, their sable outsides pushed back against the mountain wall, with all they kept hidden from normal people visible to him.
It was his paradise, his dreams fully attained, with all the curvilinear forms of those of the barely-bearable world before the doors become geometric shapes disguised as chaotic. There were slender pillars inlaid and entwined with vines and rambling roses, with sinuous rivers of pearls more real than the crude approximations Einion had come across outside.
Reason caught and then wrought into semblances of his perception.
There were ponds and rills, gentle mounds of treasure, circlets of emeralds and drapes of blood rubies, terrifying in their beauty; there were vats and ewers, pouring statues and pools dip-ready. Caches of rewards, flaxen shapes, curtains unravelled. Waving fronds of white gold and frosted diamonds being manipulated by the duskiest or palest of maidens. Sweet, lilting music wafted from where other scantily-clad maidens of snow and ebony, olive and walnut were plucking and bowing, a soft cascade that permeated everything – calling him: calling him.
Halted stone decayed – moss lichen overthrown – startled earthworm caught star held close – plague of so-nice – silver gold-plated, all drawn thin as the buxom wenches, flayed as the grimace, tight as the also-ran, uplifted tucked-in-neat – no floppage allowed. The colours as loud as the whisper that bellowed out through the caverns asking why he was late.
I’m here now: no panic.
Welcome in, my beauty. And all through the caverns he saw joy, unconfined.
There were dishes and mounds and roasts and pomegranates; beakers and glasses and flasks, nigh-bare waitresses and cup-bearers, all aware of him: all ready.
Especially the dancers – o the dancers – soft movement gyration flow long locks down – weaving dance masquerade wave ribbons floating air stream weaving wavy steam fortune flowing … stylized swelling forms.
And there was the tall and perfect figure, beckoning just to him, inviting him home.