While contemplating his course, and fearing for kin captured and held years ago in threat against his movements toward Izilba on Westernesse, and moreover desiring more than ever to look upon the beauty of her face, and to hold his son in the beat wind behind swan wings, heading to better lands than he’d departed – while pulled as a throng of wains by two winds, Doral came to him and spoke at last of the day she was found by Zhera’, and nursed well.
A darkness more than shadow had come upon them, in the night, and it held evil dogs at bay, tormented and burned themselves, and hungry for flesh, and in the height of their dismay, when terror had passed into knowing death, these beasts were set upon the girls, to feed. Only by misfortune of others was she spared, for the dogs in tearing at the girls, began to fight over parts, and to run from the others, until the pack and their shadowmaster had been carried far down the mountain slope. Too injured to flee, and desiring only death swifter than her companions endured, Doral stayed, hidden as it happened, from above and below.
For in the time before dawn, an airship passed high above, then descended, and the terror of death was nothing compared to the dread for her soul – thus she discovered her own soul first in this dread – that fell upon her, in sight of the monster of the airs. Far below her it landed, and took to it the beasts howling, passing out south just as swiftly as a dream upon waking.
Doral’s words came slowly, with great labor, and wounding; her story, pressing the choice more severely upon Zhera’, to return north or to continue south perhaps to encounter this evil. The tracker without a trail.
What finally drove this throng south beyond the mouths of the great river at the bend of land, were the fumes – a yellow reek more substantial than the fogs that passed from the mountains’ feet the days he came to Tarlang and discovered the daughters – for then it seemed, in after reflection, that the smokes aided his search, having confused the coastal-shore folk, and concealed him from their watch. Now, news and his own exploration confirmed that this fume came from underground, and burned what it wrapped about, wreathing this way and that, as if seeking for a small thing misplaced. Towns northward upcoast were abandoned, or strewn with burned bodies of men, yellowing; but not decayed, preserved in horror of death without breath, drowning on land, while at tilling or repairing nets, or planting posts for homes never built.
These reeks gave him no hope for meeting thither his wife and confirmed his despair and dreams that his son was no longer by him found among the living. These days were bitter, and sadness immoveable sat upon his spirit, though Doral and the others increased in joy, contemplating a return home, with sisters everlasting. The twins had, it seemed, come to prefer the daughters, and most the nursemaid, who also took delight in this knowing of his. Ever surrounded, utterly alone, the tracker and trapper of living things, found himself entrapped by his own living.
He now deliberated the end, that upon delivering his cargo home, the twins would he commit to their fosterage under Umma, and West he would sail, until the edge of waters cast him into a void, or stories and fables took being in lands of promise, and he might abide with wife and children, to track the living diversity and to keep it yet living, wild yet not wholly unfriendly to man.
In the nights upon the waters, as turns at oaring were taken, he’d often dream of sweet days behind, split however into nightmares coinciding, of tormented kin that suffered when he joyed, ending before dawn often as not with a memory of bed sharing among elves, while his firstborn starved and froze in a thousand different lands, wearing faces of every man he crossed in life. Often in the night’s waking, he looked into the Great Deep, and would’ve cast himself thereto, had he not cargo to deliver, that he still loved, though little joy did their delivery’s thought give him, easier would dying come thereafter. He tied his ankle to the ship’s horn, telling himself it was to better direct its course, knowing well what wasn’t spoken.
In time passing the throng was driven ashore by a ship, to be received at a blockade, for south of the mouths of the great river, where Esgalduin (as we call it) lately came through a great falls, and passed through mire and mere to bleed into the sea. Here an evil air had come, to stain all the land, and though sick and weak in famine, the people of these shores and marshes served a power at the blockade. What was sought was not told to Zhera’; though Doral wheedled the hunt from a reluctant servant: a woman, foreign, witch of the hills, necromantic and scryer with implements to bring illness, plague, child-death. All wore a charm painted as an eye, on strands woven about their necks, for protection against this witch, said by some also, further inland, to fly as a bat, and to feed on cooked flesh only, though not by her hand or flame.
Zhera’ contrived to appear as a smuggler of maidens, and to this role the daughters descended, finding in acting out their own lives’ miseries, a charm against deeper despair lingering. He was fined, and for two days chained behind iron walls, the penalty for smuggling living flesh from northern realms in need of quarantine. His keepers winked at the wetnurse and twins, for who among the men hereabouts could refuse to taste his own harvests? And they offered to purchase the boys, or a girl for pleasure.
Though taught in all evil treatment of men, the folk of these parts were just in wicked laws, granting to Zhera’ his leave; his keepers pretending to have tested him out, to see if more than smuggling be his trade and purpose, before the Man of Inquiry stamped the record of penalty’s paid. As Zhera’ walked in despair to a canoe waiting to transport him to his seawains, and to wheresoever be left now of his family, a plague cart came into view, up the stony path, behind which were dragged or pulled or carried on sledges, dead and dying; upon the cart was mounted high a pole, crossed by a second shorter branch of alder, around which was wrapped, high to look upon, an asp, black against the grey morning sky.
“Look Ye upon thy Deliverer,” hollered a fat man beside the cart to all corners of the land, booming,
Look upon the asp whose bite
Stings but the wicked, whose
Venom purges the flesh of worm-sores.
Such serpents Zhera’ had encountered in wildlands, near shores marshy, and staked about by reeds. They could be trained, some maintained, to hunt for a master; but never had he heard lore of them for medicine. And he recalled a dream-utterance of Izilba’s long ago spoken:
Concerning the raising up of serpents upon thrones, walking as with legs over men, to sting the moon by the fire of its tail’s whip, and Zhera’ laughed, that the snake was held higher than the queens of that land; and though he sought one to him to give a star for, as in token to wed, this flying serpent as out of Umma’s tales was now sailing past. He laughed out the first despair, the evil ironies bitter to consider, and came at last to laugh as he had in the mountains, in the early summer among elves, and wife, and children; weeping as he laughed, to know the golden light in the taste of their fruit, recalled upon his tongue, while he laughed, this wine to awaken his heart.
So more dreadfully he played the part of a smuggler of flesh living, a villain outward the more despised, for inside he had been washed clean, balmed in memory.