Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 27

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 27

Chapter 26

Fionn had seen Zuamar flying high across the mountainside, and known that the chase was finally on. A dragon, naturally, knew just what a dragon could see, and how to avoid being spotted from the air. Fortunately, most dragons could not see as far into the infrared as he could, or they would have had a worse problem. If it had not been laid into the very fibre of his being by the First that he should not kill dragons, Fionn would have cheerfully taken to the air then, and dealt with llarian.

Fionn know there’d be alvar on horseback and hounds tracking and harrying them soon. Still . . . it was barely a couple of hours to sundown . . . The advantage of an aerial spotter would be lost then. And Fionn had dealt with hounds and horsemen before. Horses, alas, were much more sensitive than humans. You wouldn’t get them coming within five ells of a dragon, no matter what shape it assumed. Dogs were braver . . . or more foolish. They still didn’t like coming too close. Fionn grinned. He couldn’t blame them for that. Fionn had often wished to try riding a horse, but that wasn’t going to happen. A donkey cart was his limitation, so far.

He roused his charges. “Up sleepyheads. We have a mountain to climb, and they’re after us.”

***

That salve of Finn’s had done wonders for her feet, Meb thought. Now if only it could do something for her muscles. She ached. And very soon she realized that it wasn’t over yet. At first it was just the far off sound of the hounds giving chase. Then the sound of hunting horns, and occasional glimpses of a dragon in flight far above the trees. Meb was truly grateful for those trees . . . only the three of them were going upwards, and the trees were definitely smaller and more scattered up here. The sun was lowering, about to spear itself redly on the smaller peaks to the west. And now the yip of the hounds running, let alone the sound of them giving tongue when they found the scent, came echoing up the valley.

“Will . . . will they stop for dark?” she panted.

“I doubt it,” said Finn. “But he should,” He gestured skyward. “It’s an effort to keep flying. There is much magic in the flight of dragons, but that’s because they’re too heavy to fly without it. It still takes some physical effort. And the hunt is strung out. They’ll not take us easily.”

“How . . . far to this shelter?”

“Ach. There are doorways everywhere. But Groblek likes rock and snow. And we need moonrise. Onwards, Scrap!”

Somehow, she drove her body onward. Onward and upwards. At this time of the year darkness came very quickly. Nearly as quickly as the hunters were coming.

Onward. Onward.

She was stumbling, holding onto his cloak again. The merrow was holding onto her in turn. Below them a forest was abruptly on fire.

“He’s still flying!” said Finn. “The alvar won’t be pleased about their woods.”

The red glow reflected on the clouds helped her to see a little.

She could hear the dogs panting now. Looking back she saw a glint of armor in the moonlight — tinted red by the burning forest. “Up there,” yelled someone. Meb looked in desperate hope for the refuge Finn had said was close.

For a moment she thought she saw it. Rough steps leading to an odd beehive of stone. But when she turned to focus on it . . . it was just an illusion of shifting shadows and moonlight. There was nothing there but black rocks and a few patches of snow . . .

“Aha!” grunted Finn. An arrow buzzed past them. The dogs were baying now, baying for the blood they could finally see.

“Up the stairs!” said Finn. “Don’t look, just follow your feet. Quickly. Groblek is going to be tetchy enough without the dogs.”

Finn seemed happy enough climbing the illusionary steps. So Meb followed him, holding onto the edge of his cloak. She’d swear she was not even on the mountainside. And the dogs were . . . below her. She nearly fell off the stairway. They were above the dogs. Walking on stairs she could only glimpse as she turned her head. They were tangible underfoot though. And, illusion or not, she was scared of those big lean dogs. She was just so tired. It was easier not to think. Just step up. Up and up into the cloud, to the door of the beehive-castle. It must be on a high ridge or something. It looked as if it was perched on the cloud, in the moonlight.

The door Finn knocked at was a huge, heavy one, made of roughly rived oak. It didn’t look as smart as the planed and polished doors of the rich merchant’s houses of Tarport, let alone the palace at Albar. Meb began to feel slightly more hopeful. Perhaps this was the servants’ entrance. But why was it so big?

The reason became painfully obvious as soon as the door swung open. If Finn had not grabbed her shoulder she would have run back to the dogs. The person inside needed all the height that the door afforded him. Finn was tall, the door-opener was at least twice his height, and maybe three times the width. The broad face was rimmed with a thick fringe of wild hair, and a beard that curled down to meet another layer of curly fur that spilled out of the top of a rough leather jerkin. He did not look pleased to see them. His mouth was set in a hard line. There was no warmth in the deep-set brown eyes that stared out at them from under his heavy brow. He did not move or say anything. Only his wide nostrils twitched.

Finn bowed extravagantly. “Ah, Groblek. So glad to find you at home. May we come in?”

The hairy giant did not move. He merely raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think you’d have the gall to come back here.” His voice was so deep that Meb expected it to shake the stones of the archway loose.

Finn smiled, his sharp face wicked in the moonlight. “Now, Groblek, you know me. I have an infinite amount of gall. And I could hardly be passing your charming abode without stopping in to see how you’re doing.”

The corner of Groblek’s mouth twitched upward. “Whoever is chasing you must be very close,” he said with grim pleasure.

Finn shrugged. “A large number of very angry alvar and their dogs do appear to be chasing us. There was somewhat of a misunderstanding, it seems.”

Groblek raised both of his eyebrows. “You’d think that they would know better than to bring their dogs up here,” he growled. He turned sideways so that he no longer blocked the entire doorway. “You’d better come in. I’ll go out and have a word with them.”

He ushered them in and stumped out. Meb noticed that he had — for his vast bulk — small feet. Hairy feet, rather like every other uncovered bit of him that she could see besides his face.

The door swung shut ponderously. It was not latched, but the sheer size and weight would have made it a challenge for her to budge, let alone open.

Now that they were out of the wind, and had stopped running, Meb simply wanted to collapse, possibly into sleep before she actually hit the ground. However, something about Finn’s posture said that they were not out of danger yet. He’d seen her through all sorts of problems, so far beyond her small fishing village background that the best that she had been able to do was to follow blindly. But the difficult part of Meb, the part that had always come up with the daydreams and the practical solutions, had been telling her for some time now that it really didn’t like being a leaf in this whirlwind. It felt that she must stand on her own feet fairly soon. It also wanted to know just who the traveling gleeman really was? What was he actually doing? And why had he decided to take her along with him? Meb told the inner voice to shut up. She was barely coping with what was happening, let alone wondering about why. The voice niggled that it might just make coping easier. Meb wasn’t too sure about that. What she was sure about was that she could smell food. Her stomach informed her that it had been a long time since she had last eaten.

She looked around, taking stock of their surroundings. The place was lit by a branch of candles each as thick as her thigh. The walls were constructed of huge slabs of roughly shaped stone, chinked with moss. It was obviously little more than an antechamber to this Groblek’s strange castle, or, more accurately for his size, house. She tugged at Finn’s cloak, which she realized she was still holding on to. “Who is he?” she asked.

“Ah. The hard questions first,” said Finn smiling. “It all depends on who you ask. I think he may be different things to different people. To some of them he is a giant.”

He was gigantic, she had to admit. Yet . . . not as big as she had somehow thought giants would be.

“To others he’s the Migoi, the Kang Admi, the Ts’emekwes. In yet another place they think that he is a mountain, or possibly a mountain-troll. Or Bergtana, the disappearer, who captures innocents who wander out on to his mountains.”

“So . . . what is he?”

“Probably all of those. And a few other things in places beyond our ken. He’s not helpful. But he does have a sense of humor. Make him laugh. . . .”

There was a huge, thunderous, rolling roar outside.

Finn grinned. “I imagine that’s several dogs and huntsmen who won’t come up here again. Not unless a dragon’s hot on their heels and then I am less than sure that they wouldn’t be better off with the dragon.”

“Will he kill us?” asked the merrow.

Finn thought about it. “Probably not. But the question you should ask is will he let us go?”

“Well? Will he?” asked the merrow.

The door swung open. Groblek appeared, blocking out the moonlight, rubbing his enormous hands together. “Cold out,” he rumbled. “Come through. It’s not often I get guests at the front door. I normally have to find them out on the mountainside. Except him, of course,” he gestured with a big thumb at Finn. “What persuades a human, and stranger still, a merrow, to associate with him? He’s a liar, and a rogue, and thief,” he said in an amiable rumble, as they followed him through another door, into a large room, where a fire burned, and the smell of baking was still stronger.

“I am seldom a liar,” said Finn. “And in my case, theft is more a question of perspective. I’ll admit to the rogue.”

“Very generous of you,” said Groblek. “But I was talking to them. So you shut up. You’re entirely too glib with that tongue of yours.”

Meb realized that she’d been relying on Finn to talk them out of this difficulty too. And now he wasn’t going to be able to. Well, Groblek hadn’t been pleased by the dogs or alvar. “We were running away from the alvar and their dogs. Finn said we could find shelter up here,” she said in a small voice.

“He did, did he?” said Groblek, thoughtfully. “And so, what did he tell you about me, little human? Don’t lie. I have no liking for liars.”

Meb knew she was a very poor liar, and anyway she had no idea what to lie about. “He said you were a giant. Or a mountain or a troll. And some other things I didn’t understand. He said to make you laugh.”

Groblek’s lip twitched. “He knows a great deal. Too much for it to be honestly acquired knowledge. So: make me laugh. I’m waiting.”

“Um. Can I juggle?”

“I don’t know. Can you?”

She nodded. “Yes. Finn taught me. I . . . I want to be his apprentice.”

Groblek smiled, showing enormous square teeth. “Very good. You almost made me laugh then. Well, show me. And then your merrow friend can see if he can do as well. Or is he not a juggler?”

“Er. I don’t know. I . . . don’t think so,” admitted Meb, wishing that she was less tired, fumbling in her sling-bag for balls . . . and only finding rubies. They were a little small for her purposes.

“Well, merrow? Do you? Or what other way can you come up with to amuse me?”

“I don’t juggle, Lord of the Mountains,” answered the merrow.

The mobile eyebrows twitched. Meb decided they might have a life of their own. “I haven’t been called that for a while,” Groblek said, mildly. “So what do you do, besides swim and chase fish? Merrows are not something that I see here too often.”

“I play the pibgyrn,” said the merrow, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “But it’s not a thing I do in public.”

“Too bad. I don’t have any supper for those who fail to entertain.”

“And there isn’t any other food in the place, or a way out of here without him,” said Finn.

Groblek fixed him with a chilly stare. “I thought I told you not to talk?”

“Consider it unsaid.”

The gigantic Groblek shook a finger at him. “And that trick won’t work to get you out of here this time.”

Meb realized, looking around, that she couldn’t see the door they’d come in through. The place was shadowy. When she turned her head there were things she almost seemed to see, just out of the corner of her eye. There were vast, shadowy vistas there. She screwed up her eyes and blinked. The room was bigger than it could possibly be. She’d seen it from the outside.

Groblek noticed her staring. “It is much more complicated than it looks,” he said smiling a little. “Mountains are. There are distances folded into them.”

Meb’s inner person had one of those moments of epiphany — this place was what mountains were. Not what they looked like. This was the spirit of the mountains. And Groblek was somehow part of it as well as living in it. He looked big and solid and quite . . . ordinary, in a giantish way. But she suspected that he wasn’t, any more than steps into the air, or this room that had subtly changed and hidden the door was. A part of Meb was very afraid, at dealing with things so far beyond her little village. And another part of her was fiercely delighted to find that her dreams were true. That the world was really infinitely bigger than that narrow window onto it that she’d had. That part of her took control, took a deep breath and said: “I need something to juggle with. And this is a very wonderful place.”

Groblek nodded. “Yes. Not many realize that straight off. I normally juggle boulders myself, but they might be a little large for you. Hmm.” He scratched his head. “Ah.” He reached out. His hand went . . . somewhere else. Meb could see his arm, shimmering and at a strange angle, fading away. He drew it back and brought out a handful of snow. Then he squeezed it down to a round hard ball just bigger than her fist. “How many do you want?”

“Um. Six?” she said. That was the best she’d ever done, really. But she had a feeling this needed her very best.

“You have done this for many years?” he asked, reaching into the strangeness, bringing back more snow, and shaping it.

“Uh, n . . . no.” admitted Meb. “I started a few weeks ago.”

The mobile eyebrows showed his surprise, but he said nothing. Meb was very doubtful about the snowballs . . . it had rarely snowed at sea level and her memory of the soft flakes had been that they melted quite quickly and were, well, relatively soft.

These snowballs weren’t. They were surprisingly heavy and hard. She gave them a few experimental tosses to get the feel and weight . . . and realized that they were all slightly different. Terrible to juggle with. But she wanted to succeed. She’d do Finn proud. She began her throws, going for a simple sequence first, and then increasing the number of balls she had aerialised. And realizing to her horror that they were really cold. Finger-numbingly cold. There was nothing that she could do about it but to ignore the pain and toss them higher. To divorce herself from worrying about them slipping or her losing grip, and pretend that she was somehow outside herself watching the gleeman throwing his brightly colored balls in increasingly complex patterns . . . And suddenly she realized that the ball she’d just flung up in air was not snow. It was the brightly colored ball in her mind’s eye. It was startling enough to make her totally lose concentration and for the balls to come thudding down around her as she gaped at it. Then she realized what was happening and tried to catch and toss the remaining balls, and slipped on one of the balls on the floor, nearly fell on her face . . . tossed the next ball up, slipped again and landed hard on the seat of her trousers. She sat there, and the rest of balls landed neatly in her hands amid the thunder.

It wasn’t thunder. It was laughter. “Oh very clever,” said Groblek, “you misled me very well.”

Blushing to the roots of her hair, Meb bowed her head. Finn helped her up.

“I think the pupil just outdid the master,” he said. “And yes, Groblek. I had to say that.”

“I’ll let it pass. Although she may have caused snowstorms and avalanches across twenty worlds. You need to be careful with magics here, human-child.” He seemed just at that moment vast and old, but the next he was just a giant in a leather jerkin with a great deal of wild hair again. “You’ve earned a bite or two of supper. I don’t get to laugh often enough. Now, merrow, will you or won’t you play for us?”

“I don’t play in public,” muttered the merrow.

“Ah, but this is hardly public,” said Finn.

“That is the final word from you,” said Groblek to Finn, in such a way that she knew this time he really meant it. “But it’s true enough. Consider this the wide open spaces. An alpine meadow.”

And briefly, it was. But the moon that shone down on them was bigger than any moon Meb had ever seen, and there was a second moon, low in the sky. The she-bear feasting on the berries there plainly saw them and took fright. She lumbered away into the darkness.

“It’ll be tricks of shadow that you’re playing on me,” said the merrow. “But very well. On your own head be it then.” He dug into his shoulder-pouch and produced an instrument — a chanter with a horn mouth-piece and on the other end a curved horn bell — cut so that the end formed a mouth of ferocious teeth. It was polished, carved and beautiful. The merrow blew a few notes, and then began to play. Meb found her feet tapping almost immediately. He was good, better than any musician she’d ever heard.

Actually, she soon realized, he was better than just very good. The sound, haunting and compelling, was moving her . . . physically. She was swaying in time to the music. Then, with those sharp merrow eyes shining wildly, he changed tune. Now, it was fast and staccato . . . Meb knew the tune. It was one that the sailors danced to. And now it was one that they all danced to, with varying levels of grace. The giant’s dance made the floor shake and sounded like thunder, although there was a certain enormous delicacy and precision about the way he crashed his feet down. But it was a thunder far too close for comfort!

The merrow lowered his horn mouthpiece from his lips. “Have you had enough?” he asked, defiantly. “I can play all night if you be willing.”

Groblek panted . . . and laughed. “I deserved that. And I enjoyed it too, little fish-man. You play well. But the mountains need a rest from the snow and the thunder you’ve caused between the two of you. Now, we will dine.”

“And not on us, with luck,” said Finn.

“I hardly ever eat guests who make me laugh,” said Groblek.

Meb was not sure if he was joking or not.

***

Fionn had watched very carefully when Groblek had reached through the dimensions to give her snowballs. Looking at it again, he felt that he was just on the brink of understanding what Groblek was doing. Groblek was reaching outside of Tasmarin. In fact, Fionn was sure that he was reaching outside of the entire cycle of worlds that had been drawn from to make Tasmarin. Fionn had known the others existed, but it was just this ring that he was responsible for. Tasmarin still needed to be destroyed because it was damaging the rest, upsetting their polarities. It was also a trap which prevented him from seeing to his work in the wider cycle. He was stuck here and that would spell disaster for them all. Besides that, he found it intensely frustrating to be trapped here, knowing work needed doing badly out there. It ran counter to his purpose not to do it.

He had tried to get Groblek to explain it to him last time. But the giant was not someone you could force to do anything he did not want to do. In times before Tasmarin’s building, back when Fionn had still roamed the fractal planes of existence, fixing imbalances across the ring which had been his responsibility, he had seen traces of the giant, from time to time. Huge bare footprints in deep snow. Footprints that came from nowhere and led to nowhere. Then, when he’d been trapped here the first time, he’d been foolish enough to contest Groblek physically. Fionn had learned: you cannot fight a mountain. You can only work with its natural bent, and try to out-think it.

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