16: Of His Time Before the Dwarf-King
The room was long and rectangular, with light coming from high windows and long tubes in the ceiling. Elsewhere the walls were a garish mix of pictures and patterns that Taru was disinclined to concentrate on. A speckled carpet was on the floor – the first such soft covering Taru had come across in the palace. At the far end was a low dais where sat a figure clad in pale garments on a similarly restrained throne; behind was hung a larger version of the banners Taru had seen on either side of the entrance doors.
Most of the room was full, except for an aisle down the middle, for standing on either side were hordes of courtiers. They seemed to come in every shape and size, only a few looking much like humans. The shortest came little higher than Taru’s waist, while the tallest must have stood close to ten feet.
There were those who had a reptilian cast, long snouts and scaly skin. Others had fur, perhaps tusks, snouts, and ears high on their heads. The human-looking ones were the most normal, though rarely of normal height. Yet these were the ones Taru thought he was most likely to remember in his nightmares.
Yet it was difficult afterwards to describe them, for the humanoids seemed essentially other, and this otherness made precise recollection difficult while also allowing them to penetrate Taru’s deep dreams. Their faces were wart-encrusted (or covered with sores or pustules), with baleful eyes, and with features distorted by nature or hatred. And perhaps this was the reason to fear them: not only were they physically other (for so were most of the courtiers), but they clearly loathed Taru and presumably the whole world above, and felt no compunction about showing it. They threatened normality: defied reason. They could be akin to those monsters he had heard talked about in the valley; maybe some had even come visiting during the past winter, and would look to return if the valley’s defences lapsed again.
Yet all these very different creatures were dressed in only a handful of variations: all bright colours, no white anywhere, with ruffs and ballooning trousers or hooped skirts, and with shoulder-pads and low-cut tops. In most situations Taru would have found the sight of exceedingly hairy or scaly chests and the variously shaped, hued and textured breasts on show disconcerting, but they barely registered here.
Veroid shoved Taru in the back, a far-from-subtle hint that he should move towards the dais.
It felt a long walk down between the two bands of courtiers, most glowering at him, towards the Dwarf-King on his dais at the far end. Taru tried to avoid looking to either side, certainly not wanting to catch any of the strange creatures’ eyes, and he only half-glanced ahead of him to see how much further he had to go.
He continued till there were no longer any courtiers on either side, just a couple of guard-officers, a high official dressed all in purple, and, seated on cushions on the dais itself, seven scantily-clad individuals – some women, some men – whom Taru thought were probably the Dwarf-King’s concubines and companions.
Taru kept his gaze lowered, while also looking up as surreptitiously as he could; he did not want to be caught off guard.
“Welcome, strange traveller from the lands above. We have waited an age for you to come.”
Taru raised his head and gazed fully on the Dwarf-King. He was a shortish, broad individual, seemingly fully-human – at least in shape – with a welcoming face and sparkling eyes that held just a hint of red. His hair, his beard, and his clothing were all of various shades of near-white. He would not have raised comment if he had walked down the street in Callwic or Udy-Anam-Puram. And the throne on which he sat, now seen from much closer, was similarly unadorned, and seeming wrought of pale gold.
“I came as soon as I was able, your majesty,” replied Taru.
“You’ve taken me too literally. You are like all your kind: too preoccupied with yourself. And I know why you’ve come. What you bear. And it has been an age since one such as you came to take the Savarh Argan. Take, mind you, not ask or seek my permission. That was an age ago, and I have been somewhat impatient, even short-tempered, as I’ve waited for its return.”
“I did not know how the Savarh Argan was obtained, just that Nantö brought it back as a symbol of his legitimacy to rule.”
“Don’t you think it strange that stealing something confers a legitimacy to impose law and order? But he was hardly the first to underpin so the establishment of his rule. Which, I take it, has now ended.”
“He died hundreds of years go, but yes, the rule he founded has run its course.” Then Taru took out the Golden Serpent, proffering it to the Dwarf-King, who signalled for the courtier dressed all in purple to scuttle forward and collect it.
He took it to the Dwarf-King for inspection.
“I needed to be sure,” was all he said, when the courtier took the Savarh Argan off to – Taru presumed – a strong room. “And now that is done, somewhat uncomfortable for all of us I suspect, there is something I wish to show you before you return to the upside. Something I doubt any of your fellow humans have seen, and which this Nantö would not have had the leisure to see – scurrying in to steal and out before the pursuit. But you came with honourable intentions. Come.”
The Dwarf-King rose from his throne and led Taru around it to the balcony that extended out from the lowest tube of the palace; he went to stand at its far edge, beckoning to Taru to do likewise and look out. No one else had followed. Taru did not blame them: he did not feel secure. For the panorama took him aback.
It was unlike anything he had seen before, or hoped to again. He had expected to (perhaps) see his way down into a fiery place of punishment such as some of the religions he had heard about preached, or (probably) a volcanic heart of flowing magma such as the learned in Parasalaya and Ogea’gya persisted in insisting was the truth, but the view below lacked any fiery presence.
The palace itself hung from a chard of purple-green rock that clung to the roof of an immense cavern, so vast that Taru wondered whether if he lived on its floor he would consider himself to dwell within the world he knew or on another planet.
The roof of the cavern above the shard was of smooth rock, blue veined, with a scarcely-noticeable curve. Far off were the suggestions of towering walls, though wisps and tendrils below and about cast a welcome imprecision after the sharpness of the palace. And way below were shapes and textures of green, grey and blue that it was easy to interpret as woods and mountains and lakes, though too far away to be sure. But directly below yawned a huge sable maw that was too immense to be mistaken for anything else. Enormous and seemingly bottomless. Its aching emptiness the most frightening sight Taru could imagine – a descent into nothingness, with only flimsy rails and a flexing floor between him and an endless fall.
“Tell me how it goes, up above in your world,” said the Dwarf-King, making no comment about the sight below.
Taru struggled initially to speak, still too awed to know what to say; but the Dwarf-King remained patient and he began a somewhat jumbled reply, trying to give an answer at once both comprehensive and succinct. He only spoke of the valley and, if the Dwarf-King wanted to know about the wider fastland, he did not ask; Taru spoke of the downwards spiral of the strength of the Overlords’ rule, of the monsters and harsh winters that had come at the end, of Nantö IV’s futile attempt to regain the initiative, and of his sense of the valley both then and now.
When he had finished the Dwarf-King replied slowly:
“The way you see the world, you strange spindly ones, continually perplexes me. I can tell you things about your valley that are much more real than your human doings. For instance: Have you seen the statues there?
“The three powerful ones standing on the fringes of your valley’s woodland: the Creative Mother, the Guardian Father, and the Perfect Being.”
“Only one, your majesty, above the House in the west, the one with two faces.”
“The Perfect Being. But there are the other two. Down by the waterfall is the Guardian Father, not always successful, and the Creative Mother in the east, before the Tower of Arden that I can see in your eyes you’ve visited.
“But the Perfect Being is the supreme one: the desired attainment. Where old spirits have been stripped away and a new, noble one developed in its place. All in one perfect combination. I am on that way. And, if you listen to me, you shall see more subtly, with heightened awareness, the world of those who surround us.
“Yet this seeking can also be negative, having only a selfish aspect, with knowledge sought for base reasons; trying to uncover how to transmute metals or become immortal or travel at will through time and space.
“I see you are a seeker. Most of us are in some way or other; it’s a foolish individual who doesn’t think there’s anything left to discover. But you are looking harder than most.
“You’ve needed help at times, though. A guide. Help with thought and memory. I won’t ask if I’m right: I know I am. I see more clearly than you, than most, and that sable-blue shade is flying around you, always – watching and whispering. But you don’t listen hard enough.
“You ones from above all need a guide. You look to the spirit world, the play and balance of the elements, but be careful what you believe in; there are those who can discern lines and patterns others cannot, but there are also many charlatans who say they can see when they can’t.
“I sense there is an imbalance above, now. I hear it in the words you don’t speak. And I see things in you I doubt others do. I see them in your eyes, in your face.
“I see the hurt that the threatening girl caused you when she rejected you, when she exposed you to the truth of your being a foundling – implying a wider and complete rejection which no reassurance from your parents could assuage. There is the opening up of your mind in the far north, and the many times thereafter when you are sure you saw the raven who guides your path. I’ll not try and uncover which were genuine and which were only figments of your imagination, but some at least were true, for you have arrived in the valley when you were required to do so if change and repair were to occur above us, and you braved travelling down here to return the talisman of the Golden Serpent and listen to what I have to say.
“I wonder who called you? She who called Alkar? Certainly it was not me. I’ve stopped trying to exert such influence long ago, though I have been beseached to, and only wait now for what will be to be.
“It is clear to me that you will not stay much longer in the valley above – a simple foretelling. It is clear that you have not yet found the place you seek, for all you needed to enter the valley and experience all that followed thereon. A fulfilment of a plan, perhaps – less is chaotic than many perceive, And it seems to me that your coming here is not the conclusion of that plan. But though I see more of the intricate working of the world than most – and you more than many – I cannot see all the plan portrayed as chaos. Yet I still learnt from he that besought my help – for all I refused him – but I can again tell you this: There is a place you must find (though you may well not obviously fit in) and to get there further steps are required. Work out what for yourself.
“For you will come to a time and place where you have to choose. Starkly. Where and when the temptation to go a certain way will sorely test you. Thereafter I cannot see, for what choice you make then cannot be foretold.”
The Dwarf-King paused, before finishing with: “There is not a plan set by any elemental, or being or deity known or unknown, but there are those with enough perception who are able to cause currents in the world and plant knowledge and ideas that can influence how things may turn out – beings greater than me.”
Taru did not reply, beyond a Yes, your majesty, not knowing what he could say that would not betray his lack of knowledge, but he did always remember what he had seen below and what he had heard from the Dwarf-King and never felt quite the same again.
“And now it’s time for you to go,” said the Dwarf-King, turning away from the abyss below. Taru followed him back into the Throne Room to stand once more before the dais. The Dwarf-King seated himself again on his throne. No one in the room appeared to have moved since they had left, and the Dwarf-King sat still.
“It is a long time since anyone came from above,” said the Dwarf-King, at last, “but hopefully it won’t be so long till the next time.”
“I hope so too,” said Taru, thinking it the right form.
“Yet now, as I’ve said, it’s time for you to go.”
“But I don’t know …”
“This has been considered. Nurthen.” And a courtier stepped forward, presumably Nurthen, one of the more human-looking ones, to stand next to Taru. “Show this man the way out.”
And with that Taru followed Nurthen back down the aisle between the banks of courtiers and out into the antechamber. Still not speaking, Nurthen led Taru by a different path to the one by which he had come; out of a side door and up a spiral stairway that soon passed from the metallic tubes into reddish-purple rock. At the top was a small hall off of which radiate at least a dozen passages. From a shelf there the guide took a lamp, lit it, and then set off down one of the passages. Taru followed, stumbling, till they came to a place where pale light flowed past them. The guide stopped, but signalled for Taru to continue.
He found himself on the western side of the River Alken, having come out of a knoll close to the foot of Mount Aborâ. Below and to his right he could see the valley of the Wellow Stream, and beyond that the roofs of the House.
17: Of His Conversation With the High Priestess
It was only after he had returned the Golden Serpent to the Dwarf-King that Taru went to see the High Priestess of the Goddess of the Land in the Temple Compound.
He was shown to an airy and sparsely furnished room, with open windows looking out onto a private garden, full of singing birds and shrubs near flowering. The High Priestess sat in one of two high-backed chairs. She was slight, nearing middle-age, with her long brown hair tied back and her grey eyes firmly alert. There was a low table with goblets and a ewer on it between the seats.
She rose as the door was closed on them, and said; “Please be seated. Would you like some water?” Her voice was soft, almost serene.
After certain pleasantries, the High Priestess asked, straight out, what had brought Taru to the Temple Compound so soon after his elevation.
He did not answer immediately – instead he asked the High Priestess what she knew of the silver sigil and the emblem of the Golden Serpent.
“As much as any here. There’s a lot of learning in this Temple Compound and, while the High Priestess is not always the most learned of us, we have all studied hard. And though the sigil and Golden Serpent have not been my especial area of study, I know more than the basics. Why do you ask? I take it there is a particular reason.”
“Yes. As I’m sure you know, I have been named Nantö’s successor even though my views of the Overlordship are very different from his. And that I was bequeathed the Golden Serpent. Though I no longer have it. But I do have, now, the silver sigil.”
“That does denote a change,” said the High Priestess, her face unreadable.
“I have returned the Golden Serpent to the Dwarf-King, to its rightful place.”
“It did have a place here, for a while, but I could see we had reached a point of change, even if I was unsure exactly how it would unfold.”
“Well … yes. And I found the silver sigil.” Then he told of his experience by the Batch Stream, and the little he could remember of what had happened between then and his arriving safely in Orestol.
The High Priestess did not seem to need to consider what Taru had said, replying immediately: “Beyond that: What do you know of the sigil’s history – its symbolism?”
“I came across an old manuscript, beautifully written, but a copy of an even older one, that told the story of Einion. It spoke of his Sacred Marriage, and how he had been invested with the sigil – the description of which was very vague – and struggled in his rule. The manuscript was not very complimentary about him, portraying him as a spoilt child, always thinking he knew best, wanting his own way, and not listening to others. And that his rule failed. Although it welcomes the first Nantö and his crossing the mountains into the valley, the manuscript does not read as Overlordship propaganda; maybe it was taken from the end of a native chronicle? But it does not tell of Einion’s fate, just that he left his home.
“Yet I also came across a journal, written by one of the later Overlords: Aengus. It is turgid, self-obsessed stuff, very tedious to read – he doesn’t seem to have been much better than Einion. But I’m pleased I stuck with it, because there, late and long-scrawled, is a description of finding what is clearly the sigil in the pool in the garden of Nédath-ö-Orestol. My surmise is that Einion deliberately left it there, though what that site was before the building of the House I cannot guess; perhaps he had a foreboding – or had read or heard a premonition – that it could still exert an influence after he’d gone.”
“Perhaps. Anyway, Aengus clearly felt a lot about the sigil, for he goes on at considerable, unclear length about it. And then the journal stops. Other reading makes it clear he left the valley, but does not tell of his fate.
“There is, however, a very obscure, battered and clearly prophetic manuscript that speaks cryptically of Aengus leaving this Valley of Gold to build another kingdom in the world outside, hoping the sigil would ensure prosperity.”
“There is The Histories and Prophecies of Dinogad? It’s mentioned in there.”
“It wasn’t called that.”
“There is certainly more than one prophetic manuscript, certainly.”
“All of which is speculation. I doubt anyone here knows what truly happened. Maybe Aengus travelled far away; maybe he went south, or east? And, though the sigil ended up in the Batch Stream, who knows whether it was from just after he left here or later? In any event, I found it there and have brought the sigil home.”
“You have it here with you?”
“Do you know what it means?”
“I fear that it means I will have to remain here.”
“Why? Is that so bad?”
“I have already let you know that you will not be the next Sacred King, one of my Priestesses saying as much when the last Overlord’s will was read out at the wake. I trust you remember, now?”
“Yes … I do.”
“So you will not need to retain the sigil, nor remain if you don’t wish to. Not for that consideration. This valley does not revolve around you as much as you may think, given your part in the momentous changes that are happening now; it is, after all, not the valley of your childhood dreams.” Taru looked at her in amazement, wondering how she could possibly know. The High Priestess returned his stare.
“It seems to me,” she said slowly, “that it will become clear to you who should receive the silver sigil. Trust in the Goddess – you will know what to do when the time is right.”
Taru did not have that faith, but though the images the High Priestess was painting did not ring true, he had no alternative to offer, so they turned the conversation to more practical aspects of the change from the Overlordship’s reign. And the High Priestess gave Taru firm advice, even unto the details of the odd cottage here or there.
18: Of His Friends’ Returning
It was afterwards that Fial entered his life again, coming to the House as an emissary of the High Priestess; but all knew it for a ruse. Although she had to take Taru’s reply back to the High Priestess, she soon returned to stay with Taru.
At that point neither of them had any inclination of any intention of leaving again. For all Taru had had itchy feet for most of his life, and certainly since Ryth had told him in no uncertain terms what it meant to be a foundling, he had not particularly felt he had belonged even before then, for all he could not easily point to why: he was different, just different, with his special talents.
The Overlord’s death had shaken him, as had his experiences in the realm of the Dwarf-King with his talk of him having to keep moving on to a certain place at a certain time, but as he settled into a pattern of walking and talking with Fial he felt a mature sense that he had finally arrived, settled into a life others would recognise.
It was a happy time, though they soon found they could also irritate each other if they spent too long together. Not how Taru had envisaged things. And other things started to jar: visiting Fial’s old nanny; tolerance of his more erratic behaviour as the day wore on; and – in particular – it manifested itself after they had travelled down to the valley’s southern limits and Taru had stood for a long time looking out from the last hill to the hazy vistas beyond.
To him it was magnificent, for all the lack of clear views, with movement and complexity and his ability to see the greater and the deeper, but Fial had been unnerved by those immense and turbulent views, even when obscured by rolls of mists and clouds bouncing into one another. Taru may have revelled in the thoughts of a wider world beyond, where he could stride across greater landscapes and give reign to all the talent he knew lay within him; but Fial shrunk back.
And then Alentir returned.
Taru had left a few belongings at his cave-house in Cernal and, after their trip to the waterfall, a few days away from Fial to make the heart grow fonder seemed sensible; definitely not a prelude to preparing to leave the valley for good. He had almost finished collecting up what he wanted, when Alentir came by.
Taru was more than a little surprised, though Alentir reminded him that he had said he would return.
The ioculer’s activity in the cave-house had stirred up quite a lot of dust, so the two friends sat outside to catch up. Alentir recounted his journey all the way back to the High Plateau of the Bo Barbarians, away across most of the fastland, and that he was now on the final leg of his life’s wanderings: back to Mélusine. For he felt he understood his life now, just needing to complete its last bit with the oceanid.
Then, as though to illustrate his point, he told Taru The Bird in the Mountain is Not Yet Awake.
Afterwards, they sat for some time, both looking away from the cave-house. A doe trotted up the slope. She seemed to sniff towards them, then turned to trot off, unalarmed.
“You know I have to go away now,” said Alentir.
“And that we’ll not meet again.”
“I know. It’s time.”
“And are you sad?”
“Yes – though it feels the right thing to happen. But I’m pleased to see you one last time.”
“Good. And I am certain about my actions,” said Alentir, “and have no doubt your way will become clear.” As he was speaking he rose and picked up his small pack from where he had placed it beside him. “I’m not good at lingering goodbyes.”
“I noticed,” mumbled Taru.
Then on an impulse Alentir hugged him, awkwardly, the pack in his hand adding to his lack of fluidity, before turning and striding down the path that would lead him to the waterfall and the sea far beyond.
Taru called a Goodbye – Good luck that was not meant to be heard before collecting his few bits and pieces and heading northwards.
19: Of His Leaving
It all seemed clear now. He was sorry for how it would affect Fial, of course, but he felt she would understand. He would explain it all.
Although he had had to ponder hard on the meaning of The Bird in the Mountain is Not Yet Awake – and had certainly not worked out exactly how it informed the knowledge he already had before he left the valley – everything he was learning in Orestol, in the library, below Blencarn, from Alentir and the High Priestess, all said he needed to move out of the enclosing mountains, of that he was sure; the valley now seemed more a parochial backwater than a retreat, too liable to create the feeling of him being hemmed in. Still a beautiful and (essentially) restful retreat, but lacking the scope Taru wished for. So he could fulfil his potential.
Although as what? his raven asked.
Me, he had said: to show that I am special like others. To fulfil my destiny.
You’re contradicting yourself.
A comment he ignored.
Yet Fial could not grasp what he was saying, refusing to understand, but kept her dignity in her frustrations.
“You don’t live in the here and now – you’ve always got your eye on some other place, another time. If you only do that the here and now will always seem bland.”
Then he said he understood that she would be hurt by his leaving, seeing it as a rejection of her, but that it was not what he intended at all. It was nothing personal. He realised as soon as he had said it that it was an incredibly stupid thing to say.
He had never seen her so angry. Fuming and volatile and unforgiving; then stern and cold and barely bending. And he cowered inside as she made it plain that to her ‘nothing personal’ equated with ‘I don’t see you as an individual’.
Not how I meant it did not placate.
When she had calmed down and come to her senses, he gave her the silver sigil he had gained from the water goddess in the Batch Stream something over a year ago. To him it was but the playing out of themes long suspected, running back to long before he had come to the valley and that would flourish after he left; but Fial absolutely saw things differently – yet the health of her home mattered, surely. Spending a night with the sigil changed her understanding, but more with her future than with Taru’s motives. And she did not explain herself to Taru, which he could not help seeing as payback, before their brief Farewells.
They had had great times together, he kept reminding her in their last few days; she politely told him to Shut up! But they did manage to mine some pleasure before they separated. He was going forward, of course, he told himself – him and Uffatun and his cithern.
There was a certain place he had to be at at a certain time, after all.