Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 29
Meb remembered the food well enough, even if the rest was a little vague. A huge hot crusty loaf, big enough for fifty . . . or Groblek and them. Thin slivers of a salted meat. Some fresh curd cheese. Bilberry preserve. She’d loved that.
“It’s good eh?” said their host, when she asked.
“It is just the best thing I have ever eaten,” said Meb.
Groblek beamed. “Little berries. About the size of your little finger’s first joint, where I gather them. And they don’t grow in bunches, but in ones and twos on a stalk. A lot of work, but they go well with the cheese.”
Meb had to wonder how his great big fingers could ever handle such tiny berries.
And of course, there was beer. Meb drank cautiously. Nearly as cautiously as the merrow ate.
“Don’t you like my food, little fish-man?” asked Groblek.
“It’s of the unfamiliar kind,” said the merrow. “I’m more used to fish, if you take my meaning. So far I’m liking it, especially the red salty stuff, but I’ve a feeling that I would prefer not to know what it was. It’s a little like marlin, a little like mako, except that something’s lacking and different.”
“It doesn’t taste of fish,” said Meb, nodding.
“That’s a bit unnatural, to my way of thinking,” said merrow, seriously. “But understandable up here.”
That amused Groblek, rather than offended him. “I get salmon and trout and some eels. But I am more familiar with the harvest of the high places than the sea. But if you have had enough I’d not say no to some more music. Without quite so much dance to it.”
The merrow scowled. “I can’t but play the dance with the music. I’ve tried, to be sure. But it is as much part of me as the playing is.”
“Magic, strong magic, but intrinsic and uncontrolled,” said Finn.
“That’s the way of it with us,” said the merrow. “Mostly anyway. Wild magic.”
“Well, you could play us something quiet then,” said Groblek. “And get the dvergar to teach you. They’re of the opposite ilk. Form and discipline make their magics.”
“Part of the balance of all things,” said Finn, lazily, lifting his leather tankard. He was enjoying the food and the beer, without any appearance of caution to the consumption of either.
Groblek nodded. “Play, fish-man. I enjoyed the earlier tune.”
So he did.
Later Meb juggled some more — and Finn talked to the giant. It was a very odd conversation that she quietly listened in on. Almost as if everything they said had more than one meaning, and the second meaning was just beyond her. It was like hearing Wulfstan and Hrolf discuss whether they’d get sprats or mackerel today without knowing that the mackerel chased the sprats inshore, and that they were very seasonal. “There are cracks in the mountains, Groblek.”
“There have always been cracks in the mountains, Fionn.”
“Well, there are cracks in the sea.”
“I’ll have nothing to do with the sea. Unfathomable stuff. And powerfully wet too,” said Groblek.
“Full of salt, too.”
“Salt as tears. I’ll have no more of it.”
“Without it there would be no rain and no snow for the mountains.”
“You make a good case, Fionn,” said Groblek heavily. “But no.”
“Do you know what they’re talking about?” whispered Meb to the merrow.
The merrow nodded. “I grasp some of it anyway. The Lord of the Mountains is in love with the Sea. But she cannot not live in the mountains and he cannot live by the sea. It’s an old, old story. I’d thought it just a story.”
‘Brys cleared his throat. “I’d be owing you an apology, human.”
“It’s all right,” she said awkwardly. “It all worked out. I mean if you hadn’t cut my hair and taken my clothes, I would, um, probably have been just in time to get killed. And Finn wouldn’t have taken me on as his apprentice if he’d known I was a woman. You’re not going to tell him are you?”
“Ach, you must be the worst bargainer in the world,” said the merrow with a fine imitation of disgust. “I’ll not do so, but it was ever so reluctantly I was going to let you persuade me, in payment for throwing a soul-net of your hair at you. You take all the fun out of it.”
Meb shook her head at him. “You’re impossible.”
“Never. It’s just improbable that I am. But the truth be told you are still wearing the Angmarad, and you have my cloak of red sealskin. I can’t return to my kind without it, or leave the diadem of the sea.”
She touched the piece of twisted bladder wrack. “Finn said I must keep it on my head.”
The merrow smiled wryly. “And I wouldn’t be quick to disagree with him. He’s a power, that one. I was just a bit slow in recognizing it. It’s something I’d not have Margetha told, if you’ve a wish to have the balance of the bargain with me.”
She understood that this too was gesture of good faith. She nodded. “Fair enough.”
“Well,” said Groblek. “I’ve tasks for the morning. Play us a last tune, merrow. Something soft and restful.”
What he did play was sad enough to make Meb weep. At the end of it Groblek got up and walked away into the shadows without saying a word.
“You took a chance,” said Finn.
“‘Tis my nature to do so,” said the merrow, shrugging.
Meb realized she was missing something. “What was that? It was so sad.”
“It’s a lament. The lady of the water longing for the tumult of the waves and the sound of the gulls and the Lord of Mountains wanting his majestic silences, and the distant spiral of eagles,” explained Finn.
Taking on board what the merrow had said earlier, it made a kind of sense. A love that was doomed . . . The practical voice in Meb’s head said Huh. They’re both too used to having things their own way. But the song was so full of the tragic longing that Meb studiously ignored the practical part of her mind.
Finn stood up and stretched his long limbs. “You two stay here at the fire while I go and look around. It’s possible that the music has distracted our host from closing all his doors and windows. And who knows what else I might find. I’ll be back.”
He was, eventually. Meb was desperately fighting sleep, and the merrow had long since lost the struggle.
“It hasn’t got any smaller and less complicated since last time I was here,” said Finn suddenly from behind her. He really could move as silently as a cat.
The fright did much to dispel the cobwebs of sleep, but in her tiredness, it did nothing to reset the bounds she normally restrained her questions to. This one had bothered for some time. “Master, why does he call you ‘Fionn’? The dvergar did too.”
He shrugged. “It’s an old name. Something of a joke which has lost its meaning these days. You know how very short men are sometimes called ‘Lofty.’ In the old tongue it means ‘fair,’ which I’m not. Over time it’s become Finn among humans. The dvergar have long memories.”
Various things began to fit together in Meb’s head. “How old are you, master?”
“As old as my eyes and slightly older than my teeth,” he said with an easy grin, showing those same teeth. “And it is about time you stopped calling me ‘master.’ It might go to my head if I believed it.”
Meb shook her head. Her throat was tight. “No. You are my master. I would have died if you had not rescued me.”
He snorted. “I knocked you into the water in the first place.”
“That is not what I meant, master. I was a g — boy alone and I would not have lived to winter if I had not found a master. I am yours to command, master.”
“Then I command you to stop calling me ‘master.’ I’m a poor hand at it, as I must have nearly got you killed you a good half a dozen times since then, and I’m not done yet. So stop calling me ‘master.’ Finn will do. And while you are at it, think of a way to get out of here. Time is passing.”
Meb didn’t like it. But it was an order. She considered the other order. “But it’s only been a few hours, m . . . Finn.”
“It’s been about two days back on Yenfar,” said Finn. “Time does not run here as it does elsewhere. The last time I was here for a month or so, but missing in Tasmarin for twenty years. It’s one of the things I’d love to understand. All he will say is that space and time are somewhat rotated.”
“I’ve felt a bit turned around ever since I got here,” said Meb, nodding. “Nothing is quite what it seems to be here, is it m . . . Finn?”
“Hmm. You are right. But just what do you mean by it?”
Meb thought. “Uh, well nothing is the right size. And things are bigger . . . and sometimes smaller. They change.”
“I do believe,” said Finn, thoughtfully, “that size may offer us a way out. It’s that or stay here forever.”
On that disquieting note he lay down and seemed to drop off to sleep instantly, having thoroughly woken her up.
In fact she was not the only one not asleep, as she established when she got up a little later. Groblek was watching from the shadows, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“What do you want?” she asked nervous at suddenly seeing him.
“Many things. But what I can have, and what I am going to get are another matter,” said Groblek. “I noticed the crown, little human. Will you take the Lady Skay a message from me?”
“Um. If I can.” Meb did not pretend that she didn’t understand. Although she was not at all sure how you talked to the sea. She could ask the merrow.
“Tell her I miss her. That’s all. I actually let you in because I recognized her symbol. It’s a bit dried up, mind you. I try to avoid thinking about her, but that symbol, Fionn, and the Merrow’s song . . .”
“Will you let us out?” asked Meb, taking her courage in both hands.
His eyes twinkled. “Of course. But you’ll have to think of how. And of course when and where are also different matters.”
And with that Meb had to be content because he faded away like shadows when a cloud hides the sun.
“You’re a different size this morning, Groblek,” said Finn.
“I change. Most things do.”
“Even rocks or mountains?” said Finn, dryly.
“Even rocks and mountains,” said Groblek. “A rock is a little larger when the sun bakes it. A mountain can wash away to the sea or grow with fires of the earth in it.”
“Well, I’ve seen you small, and reaching to places far beyond. But some places are proof against you.”
“Not really. I don’t like the heat in the lowlands.”
“In Yenfar the alvar plan to stop you. They’ve no liking for the way you let us get away from them. They’ve worked magic against things of great size. They’ll block you.”
“First they would have to understand me,” said Groblek. “I am merely big footprints in the snow and lost travelers and occasional strange tales to them.”
“You don’t understand alvar magic,” said Finn dismissively. “Anyway, what about some breakfast, good host?”
“You do understand alvar magics?” said Groblek his eyes lazily half-lidded. It didn’t fool Meb.
“Yes, to some extent. Better than I understand you, to be honest,” said Finn. “Now about breakfast . . .”
“It is often the very simple concept that’s hardest to understand. They cannot stop me. Neither can anything else. The harder they try the easier it is.”
“Ha,” said the merrow. “Show us then. I’d be wagering they’d stop you.”
“Ach. He can change sizes. He’ll just go as a small thing,” said Finn, shrugging. “We were talking about food.”
“Only you were,” said Groblek. “How much do you want to wager, little fish-man? Or man-fish.”
The merrow dug in his pouch. Pulled out a coin. Looked at it. Put it down. “Old silver.”
“Not of much worth to me. I’ve plenty of that in the bones of the mountains.”
“And gold?” ask Finn eyes sharp.
“Ah,” said Groblek, grinning. “You’d like to know that, wouldn’t you? There are spider-web veins of it still underground. That which hasn’t found its way into the hoards of dragons or to the sea. Most of it gathers there eventually, before it’ll come back to me. So what do you have to wager, musician?”
“What a musician always has, that others want, I suppose. Music. Your choice of piece.”
“Now that is not without value,” conceded Groblek.
“Against that you could not do it without being made to let us go.”
“I am not usually made to do anything.”
“Then it is no risk is it? So show us then. A mountain from here to Yenfar.”
Groblek grew and changed as they watched. And Meb felt Finn take a firm hold of her arm. He gripped the merrow with his other hand. “When I say so, jump with me,” he said in an undervoice. “And grab hold of any part of him.”
Groblek was no longer a giant. Where he had been was the foot of something so vast Meb could not see the top of it. A thing of stone and ice.
Finn’s grip tightened. “NOW!” He yelled and jumped — onto Groblek.
They were actually on the mountain, grabbing rock . . . and the snow began to fall on them.
Finn hauled them again, sending them falling, rolling down the slope.
Then he stood up. Dusted the snow off himself. “It would appear I understand your nature better than I thought, Groblek,” he said with a bow toward the mountain, shrouded in the storm. “I win my wager, and the merrow owes you a song, sometime.”
“In a manner of speaking,” said the huge voice of Groblek, “he wins too. I am here. I cannot be kept away from somewhere I already am. But it was a good wager. Neatly done, Fionn. Look after the little ones.”
“He liked you two,” said Finn. “There is no accounting for tastes. Come on, let’s get moving. There’ll be less snow, lower down the mountain.”
Meb realized that when they’d fled up the strange stair to Groblek’s castle, there had merely been patches of snow next to rocks and in the gullies. Now it lay thick over everything. It was a few finger widths short of the tops of her boots—and it was still drifting down. The sky was heavy with clouds and was hard to tell if it was morning or afternoon.
“The good part is it’ll be hard for Zuamar to fly, let alone see us in this,” said Finn, leading off, downslope. “The bad part is that anything that’s not white and still does stand out. And from experience, walking under the trees will get abrupt loads of this stuff to fall down the back of my neck. I see that our friend has left us a trail to follow.” He pointed to the big footprints. “He liked the Scrap, so let’s hope he is being nice to us.”
The footprints led down and then over a ridge — and it was immediately apparent that this was a good place to head for, as it was a bit of a snow-shadow. Walking was easier, and they were soon able to find a trail of sorts. There was no sign of it having been used since the latest snow started. Finn was wary about it, but it was a great help. Meb found it less exhausting as she didn’t have to lift her feet so high to follow Finn. At last, she had enough breath to ask questions. Meb thought it was about time she understood a little more of what she was dealing with, especially as the merrow, Groblek and the dvergar had all given her clues that Finn was no ordinary human. Meb had decided that he must be some kind of magician. That was very rare among humans. She — and every other human being on the whole of Tasmarin — knew dragons didn’t approve of magic-working humans. Of course, she was now intensely curious about what he was actually up to. But if she had to be honest with herself, she’d spent most of her life being intensely curious about far too many things. Hallgerd had always said that it was a fault in a young woman. “Ma . . . Finn, what exactly is Groblek?”
“I thought I told you as much as I knew,” he said with a disarming grin. “He is a mountain here, among other things. Humans are seldom just one thing, so why should mountains be?”
“I’d be thinking it’d be less confusing if they were,” grumbled the merrow. “It’s far too complicated out here, away from the sea.”
Finn laughed. “There is more to the universe than most people guess. Or maybe it is caused by most people guessing. And we’d better get a move on before we freeze.”