12: Of the House of the Overlord
They camped that night on the fringes of the mists, Taru being too exhausted to travel further; he would ideally have liked to put some distance between him and the bulging walls of the mists, but he could not walk further that evening. So it was the following morning before they travelled down through the Vale of Hodnet, the first of the twelve realms of Orestol, not rushing, and taking most of the day to pass through the vale, Taru revelling in the contrast to his previous days.
As dusk descended they saw lamplight and firelight shining through windows set in the boles of vast trees and low moss-covered walls set in dells in the ground; smoke rose from black, twisted tubes that could only be seen when the setting sun’s slanting rays caught them. The travellers, however, camped that night at the mouth of the vale, unwilling to disturb any of the inhabitants: Alentir’s tent could, after all, shelter them both.
The next day they continued south-westwards, out of the green vale. The heights on their right had steadily decreased and had now passed from a barren out-thrust of the mountains to hills up whose steep sides marched the beechwood that covered most of that part of the valley. Gazing ahead the travellers could see below them an expanse of water: Lake Luhvet. Alentir explained that the majority of the inhabited parts of the valley now lay between them and the lake, and that the major pathways people would usually follow passed through there. But that’s not the way I prefer to go – there is a quieter and more direct route to where we’re heading.
They turned somewhat north of west and climbed up through a defile behind the last of the hills – Melver – and on through a small elmwood, and then on to paths between fields of cattle and new-sown corn till they hit the major north-south road. They followed this northwards till they came to the white stone bridge – the only one to span the River Alken – standing solid below the House of Nédath-ö-Orestol.
The dwelling of the Lords of the Golden Serpent was a sprawling building, with the only crenelations extant in the valley, set in a green sward, broadly oval in shape, stretching north to south. The Wynfrith Stream flowed from a fissure at the northernmost point, but soon opened out into a large pool. Issuing again from the pool’s southern end the stream, flowing through the House’s gardens, turned towards the south-east before cascading down to join the River Alken just above the white bridge of Crows-an-Wra.
Not an obviously intimidating place.
And Taru rested there, though he soon began to explore the valley which, though not large, held much of interest.
It was on one of his earliest expeditions that Taru met Fial by chance as he walked along the beach by Lake Luhvet. He was spending a few days away from the Overlord, staying at The Jolly Hangman in Callwic. The town was recommended by Alentir: About the only place in the valley you’ll be able to find books other than the Overlord’s library. And it’ll do you good to try somewhere outside this House.
They hit it off immediately, though they were awkward around each other; he became clumsy and could not think straight. This was not for the first time – he had been told he daydreamed too much when a child – but he felt he had steadily grown to be much more lucid recently. Yet, around Fial, it seemed he was only fluent in song and tune. For he did sing unaccompanied or played his flute, even if reluctant initially, standing before the sun. For it was through music they joined most easily, enabling an unself-conscious closeness Taru knew he craved, but struggled to relax into.
Yet, though Fial was clearly of importance to Taru, he talked little about her. And after they went their own ways he said even less, even when he performed some of the pieces he had written at that time: And For Me That’s You and Still Gold.
But when they were together, and in his reveries of how things were – however accurate – he felt more connected to Fial, to someone else, than he remembered since his failure with Ryth; it was as though he was passing through another important rite-of-passage.
Then she had had to go away for a bit.
He was sure then that she was the one for him, and that there could never be another; but other areas interested him also – study, practice, digging – and his absorption with Fial, or at least with his feelings for her, did not always loom large when she was not with him. And he would tell Fial what he had uncovered in his studying of the history and lore of the valley – for instance about Einion and the silver sigil – happy with his own accomplishments.
It was a fine summer, and it was a time when he was happier than he remembered. Not more content, as he was a bundle of nerves, but he basked in the roar of the sun-flares that he saw emanating from her, and could not see how it could not continue to be. For she did not tell him that she had to go away permanently till the last opportunity.
As his stay in the House had progressed, Taru had deliberately sought to spend less time with Nantö, for the current Overlord was keen on presenting as facts arguments Taru could see the holes in, but he did not have the confidence to openly question the Overlord’s assertions as he still felt keenly his position as an outsider. He knew he still had much to learn.
But it also seemed that Nantö had got or told what he wanted – though perhaps only for the time being – and he no longer sought Taru out. And, especially when Fial was unavailable or when there was that time when she had needed to be away, the ioculer spent time with Alentir. They took to wandered together, mostly in the northern parts of Orestol – across its meadows, through its woods of oak and the higher birch, and by its waters – and particularly enjoyed the garden about Nantö’s dwelling, for they had each spent long times traversing wilder lands.
Increasingly, when the valley’s climate allowed, they sat on the edge of the garden’s wooded area or beneath the willows and alders by the pool’s edge. There they talked – often of nothing much – and relaxed the days away.
It seemed to Taru that Alentir had seen more and walked in more illuminating worlds than most, but did not flaunt it. His tales of the barren, far north-west and the unsettling passage beyond the land of the five lakes were fascinating. So Taru thought; he envied Alentir, hoping he also would encounter more exotic places. If he chose to move on again.
As autumn turned to winter, Taru removed himself totally from the House and any enforced proximity to Nantö. Alentir had left without saying he was leaving – though that seemed to be usual for him – removing the key reason for staying there; and Fial had retreated to the Temple Compound in An Uaimh, intending it to be permanent, so why not retreat himself? Through Alan, the landlord of The Jolly Hangman, he had found a cave-house in the southern realm of Cernal where he secluded himself with books and his instruments and drifted inwards.
Things had not worked out with others, so why not try being alone, in comfortable surroundings, devoting himself to improving his knowledge and proficiency? Inhabit a world he himself wrought. What did it matter if it was only for him? Other people went away too easily, were too insubstantial, but he could not cope with them anyway.
He had learnt a lot in the far north with the shaman and the Thunderbird Clan, and travelling with Rohin, and in the library of Nédath-ö-Orestol; now he needed to get all this information in order. He was sure he could do it, that he was smart enough, and this time shuttered-in was just the moment when he would break through and see the clear pattern he nearly always thought was there.
He did not know of the wraiths and monsters that came down from the heights to infest the valley, nor the difficulties many of the inhabitants suffered, with famine and death all-too-common. He was snug and well-provisioned in his cave-house.
13: Of the Lay of the Overlord’s Saving of Orestol
It was at that winter’s end that Nantö moved to ensure the fimbulwinter would not happen again. And in this he was successful, though he did not survive to reap the rewards, for Taru came upon the Overlord, dying, on the southern slopes of the valley, not far from the Old Fort, where he was entrusted with the emblem of the Golden Serpent.
He had been unsure of where he would go after his seclusion, but the gifting of the Golden Serpent decided his immediate future. Without properly packing or setting his cave-house in order, Taru returned to the House in time for the Overlord’s cremation.
It was then that he heard and remembered Nantö’s gleoman’s first attempt at encapsulating the change that had occurred in his Lay of the Overlord’s Saving of Orestol, though Taru never recited it himself.
With shield & sword, with strength & honour,
with prudence & pride, did our powerful Lord
rule his realm ere rest eternal
came to claim his courageous fame.
Snows fell early, that fell winter,
lasted long. All through the valley
streams lay frozen & winds circled cruelly
about the homesteads, hemming in the hunters
to leave unhindered spectres & shades,
border-flouters & fell beasts
to menace the flow of moors & forests
while all save the Overlord cowered inside.
Yet before the end he did not fall
down into folly, but fought to defend us,
for he hunted the hills for the hideous monster
that threatened his realm. In the trees of the south,
beneath the boughs, he met his wyrd
as through the bushes broke the rampant curse
in boar’s form; it fiercely charged
across the clearing at our courageous Lord
his loyal steed. Swiftly he mounted
pulled his horse out of the path
teeth & tusks. Tight was the call
to the soft underside of that strong steed
as he skilfully turned & turned again
to confronted the crazy charge
of the demon-boar; yet brave & straight
our late Lord leaned & turned
his sturdy steed from the onslaught of slashing
teeth & tusks. But too fierce
was that furious fiend, the flesh of the leg
the tusks caught & deeply scored
lamed the brave. As the boar tore
its tusks free our Lord swooned
fell from his steed, who fled in dread
leaving our Lord alone in the clearing
to face the chagrin of the charging form
of the nameless boar. But Nantö was weak,
scarce able to stand, his side now also rent
deeply slashed by the desperate tusks;
blood welled from wounds mortal
as slowly sank our dying Lord
into the murky depths of death’s embrace.
Before his companions could reach the glade
our pure & brave Lord had passed beyond
the doors of death. Yet at the end
with his sword he’d skewered the enemy,
the foul fiend in boar’s form.
With grieving hearts & ghostly faces
they came upon the two corpses.
For bird or beast the boar they left;
the loyal steed they left to roam.
They brought the Lord back to his House
to lie in state. He’d laid down his life
for his people & this high valley
he had held in trust, highest in his thought;
honour we give to this great Lord.
Spring, though late come, when it comes at last
will enable this high realm to regain its health:
crops shall flourish; farm-beasts multiply;
trade prosper as the true people
move back to stand in the golden glow
that’s the eternal mark of measure
under which Orestol deservedly flourishes.
With shield & sword, with strength & honour,
with prudence & pride, did our powerful Lord
rule his realm ere rest eternal
came to claim his courageous fame.
At the wake for the late Overlord that followed Nantö IV’s will was read out; it came as a surprise to everyone – including the new incumbent, who had only been told immediately before the wake – that Taru was his heir; whom the late Overlord insisted to the last on calling Gilnir.
And Taru announced he would do things his way, though he did not yet know what or how. Just give him a little time. Yet there was one thing he knew he must do sooner rather than later, a serious matter, though he told no one – before – what it was.
14: Of the Passage of the Caverns
In the north of Orestol the still and silent lake of Blencarn Luh lay in a shallow dip in the moors. Although the River Alken flowed into its northern end, and fled southwards down steps and falls, there were no ripples or waves on the tarn’s surface. Standing at the water’s edge a breeze stirred Taru’s hair, but still no waves blemished the lake.
In the middle of the water rose the sacred hill, Blencarn, a jagged dome of dark rock whose sides rose steeply out of the surrounding water. Here and there tiny pockets of soil had collected and sparse grass or spleenworts grew. Moss covered other small patches, but elsewise Blencarn was bare.
There was a place Taru had discovered, after long study and with crossed fingers, where a path ran just under the water that could be crossed with care. On the bank there should stand a white stone to make its start. But weather and centuries had done their work and it took a long time for him to find what he took to be the eroded remains of the marker.
By now the sun was sinking behind the mountains opposite; Taru feared that if he did not go all the way that first time he would not succeed, so he edged out into the lake, feeling his way cautiously, and was not surprised to find the path zigzagged its way across and round to the southern point of Blencarn where, between two out-thrust arms, lay a narrow cove, with a brief beach, that the dark rock had stopped from being seen from the shore.
There was a fissure there, about six feet high and two wide. Taking a deep breath to try and calm his racing heart, Taru pushed forward. Beyond the narrow entrance it seemed to open out, though he could not see the walls or ceiling. He walked forward till he could not see the floor either, periodically turning to check if he could see any trace of the grey of the entrance.
And then when he next turned round he could see nothing. He turned again in case he had inadvertently not turned sufficiently far, for everything was black, but all he could sense outside of himself was the sandy floor. He sat down and waited.
How much later a faint point of light became discernible, he could not guess. He gazed intently as if to try and discern its source. The point grew slowly, eventually casting enough light for Taru to rise and proceed with halting confidence. The floor began to slope downwards. Then, of a sudden, the light blazed shining from all points.
The cave in which he found himself was high and broad. The light that flooded it was harsh, no yellow warmth to illuminate the seemingly fossilised trees covering the majority of the floor. These stood very close together, with their roots and branches intertwined. Somewhere in the distance Taru heard the sound of a hunt, of creatures crashing through the dense forest. But the sound was faint and there was no discernible movement in the trees near him.
The stark forest stood densest against the side walls. For a space around Taru there was a clearing, but the trees also thinned towards the centre of the cave till, in the middle, was a path clear of all but a few straggling branches. Taru took the only way open to him.
The path twisted and turned as it crossed the cave, and Taru was not able to see far ahead; the end of the forest came abruptly. Ahead, across the width of the cave, flowed a sluggish stream, dark and wide, crossed by a single span of red stone, beyond which steps led up to the black hole of the cave’s exit.
And at the near end of the bridge sat the Guardian.
It had the form of a monstrous dog, twelve feet tall at the shoulder, with a coat of very dark blue-black, claws sharp and ivory white, and ears long and alert. But instead of a dog’s face it had that of a woman – young and beautiful, with grey-green eyes and out-thrust lips, and Taru could see pale breasts standing out against the dark fur.
He approached cautiously; the Guardian slowly lowered its head as he came to a halt some dozen feet before it. It opened its mouth to expose a jaw more like that of a dog than a human. The foul breath it expelled as it spoke made Taru reel backwards.
It is a long time, it said, since any man has dared approach the underworld and face the horror at this gate. Now you have come this far you cannot go back. Either I let you pass, or I devour you.
Taru glanced around when the Guardian said this, to see that there was now no path through the forest. To pass you will have to answer the three riddles I set – and time is not on your side.
A curious & wonderful creature I saw,
sailing home with its haul of silver;
its horns & chest full of magical treasures.
A hideaway it wanted, like the Silent’s tower,
to go to rest & preserve its light
uncontaminated by the daystar’s might.
This did not give Taru much trouble. The reference to the Silent’s tower gave it away, for she came into many of the myths he had studied as a child. Moon, he answered.
On ground I tread, making tracks in water,
whilst my hushed clothing hoists me above tall trees.
only once will I sing my deep-soughing song,
as I fare, resting nowhere.
my name is …
This one’s answer did not come immediately as it was, hardly surprisingly, much harder, and Taru soon became agitated. So, as he usually did when nervous, he ran tunes through his mind. Ones he had written, or heard and developed, even those performances by others – rare, and almost all by Rohin – in that brightly warmed southern land with its own harsh glare they had traversed together.
My patience is running out, his tormentor said.
And then it came to him; of course, what creature was said to sing only once, just before it died.
Swansong, he said: my name is swan.
Then immediately again:
I know of wonders,
many that cross the centuries,
but of one I find, most of all,
the hardest to conceive.
It swallows songs, devours histories,
it binds sentences beyond leaves rustling;
it passes through or glides over –
one with no idea, one with some –
within or besides.
It is a wonder of the world,
not as ancient as some,
but one that nonetheless
you have to name.
Taru was completely at a loss. He drifted, his mind lost in meandering places where he had no chance of finding an answer. On books he had perused – so many tomes, always had his nose in a book. They made more sense than people: had more structure. Well, some of them, much more rational than others. But all flawed – he had needed his keen intelligence to collate their various points. But this was not helping him now. Maybe if he had been less of a bookworm. Ah, of course.
A bookworm, he said. That’s the answer: a bookworm.
Correct. You may pass. And the Guardian closed its eyes as if to say I’m finished with you – for now.
It took Taru a while to summon up the courage to pass close by the monstrous form, and he only managed it when he reasoned with himself that though the creature could eat him as he sidled past, if he stayed where he was it was almost certain he would become its meal. But the moment he was parallel with its back legs he flew cross the bridge and through the opening beyond.
15: Of His Passage Through the Palace
Taru felt even more disorientated now than when he had been trapped in the mist of the Enchanted Mountains as now he
walked through a neighbourhood of painted relief – the pervading light spinning the walls into an eternal bland conceit – through a forest royal with trees crystal marked as though in memory of the Silent and all the other selenites
– coming to another flight of steps leading down a purple-shouldered hill – falling steeper and steeper and looser and looser as he moved faster and faster till the steps had become a scree of blue boulders and yellow pebbles that bore him an unmeasured distance into another darkness
– into a cave reverberating with an endless drumming – as of many hearts beating in the rib-cavern of the world – an insistent rhythm core-fire driven – and Taru found his breathing and heart-beat synchronising with the immense rhythm to ease him into a state of exhilaration – a fragrance swirled towards him though he could not feel any breeze on his checks – flames danced before him – catching him in their movement and propelling him unsteadily
through a door that appeared briefly before him, and that slid shut behind him. He fell over. There was a moment of blackness, then all-pervading light. White.
The room in which he found himself was square, with gleaming metal walls showing his unflickering reflections and two guards standing before double sliding doors. They were short and squat, dressed in steel and carrying thunder-sticks, and wore looks of bored surprise.
Taru pushed himself to his feet and dusted down his hands. The two guards regarded him briefly, then – in unison – moved forwards, stopping a few yards from the ioculer.
One of the guards half-turned to the other and said: “Just what we were expecting.”
“Well, yes, nothing happens for eons, then suddenly …” said the second, also half-turning towards his companion.
“Undoubtedly. I just wish I could remember what we were supposed to do now.”
“Do I have to remember everything?”
“You know what I’m like.”
“True. I guess we’d better get on with it.”
By now Taru was getting alarmed, both at the strange room and the guards talking as though he were an it, and he had been surreptitiously backing away into a corner as though he had a hope that the guards would then miss him. They did not, of course, and both turned again towards him.
“He looks frightened,” said the second guard.
“So would I, with your great, ugly mug staring at me.”
“I don’t stare – just have a firm gaze.”
“Right … if you say so.” Then the first guard focused his attention on Taru. “You don’t need to be frightened. We’ve come to escort you.”
“If you have it with you?”
“Yes – if you have it with you.”
Taru was still too nonplussed to be able to think clearly, and he did not respond, so the first guard asked again:
“You do have it with you? That is why you’ve come? To return it? We don’t get many visitors from the obverse lands.”
“He’s not answering, Veroid. He’s not answering.”
him, look at his face. Let’s try being a touch softer.”
“Or perhaps he’s simple – I’ve heard they mostly are, up there.”
“I am not simple,” said Taru, firmly, goaded into
speaking. “I’m just disorientated.”
“There, I knew it’d be all right,” said Veroid.
“I do have what you think I have, I’m sure. But I think I should take it to your king.”
“We’ll judge whether … “ started the second guard, but Veroid cut in.
“If you remember, Dryon, that is what we’re supposed to do.”
“Ah, right. As you say.”
“If you don’t mind, Lord, we’ll take you to him. Just follow me.” And Veroid turned and moved to the double doors. He pressed a button by their side, they slid open and he passed through and turned right down the corridor beyond. Dryon gestured for Taru to follow, and then walked along behind.
It was not easy for Taru to get a sense of the place as he was led along many identical passages and through various similar halls: all monochrome, rectangular, blank – ranging from pale grey to near-black, or traced with a light-devouring grey – all gleaming, angular – both intricate and monotonous. But the guard ahead talked as they walked, describing the palace in such detail that Taru began to build an image in his head. Dryon, following on behind, said nothing.
In shape in the palace was tubular, larger ones above smaller ones, all clinging to the underside of an immense shard of rock. It was mottled grey, with rows of windows and doors and balconies placed at regular intervals along its sides with apartments and halls and galleries and function rooms for the Dwarf-King and his retinue running behind.
Then, just as Taru felt he was beginning to feel he was being driven spare by the repetition and blandness of Veroid’s descriptions, they came into a hall unlike any previous one. It started, it was true, monochrome near the entrance, but introduced colour as it moved towards a pair of elevated, crimson doors set in a magenta wall. Banners hung limp on either side, depicting seated gryphons, and eight guards in yellow livery stood or patrolled before the steps up to the doors.
Taru hung back with Dryon while Veroid went forward to speak to the yellow-clad guards; then the ioculer was called forward and two of the guards turned to open the doors behind them and ushered him into what he discovered was the Dwarf-King’s Throne Room.