Haunted Mountain Chapter 10: The Whispermere

Miroaster led Byron by paths the satyr could not see. While the daylight held, a rock or a tree or the alignment of some pair of mountain peaks told him where they were. The sky cleared as night fell and Miroaster found his way by following the summer stars and their place against the horizon. So they went, working their way south, keeping to the eastern slopes of the Crestfall range.

“Who are we going to see?” Byron asked that night by the campfire.

Miroaster stirred the coals. “The Whispermere.”

Byron frowned. “What makes you think this Whispermere will know where Nosh is?”

“I don’t,” Miroaster said. “But the Whispermere hears. If Nosh has passed within a hundred miles, it’s possible the Whispermere will have heard some thread of the tale. That will be our beginning.”

Byron considered. “What do you mean, the Whispermere hears?”

“All things speak,” Miroaster said. “The birds, the beasts, the trees, even the soil and wind. The Whispermere hears these things as they move around him. In time all knowledge comes to the Whispermere.”

Byron sat quietly, gazing into the fire. He glanced at Miroaster often, taking in all the detail he could without being caught. He was a tall man and wore a heavy leather bracer on his right forearm. It covered the back of his hand and wrapped around the thumb and two largest fingers. Miroaster made no sign that he noticed Byron’s gaze. He twitched his hand and with a loud ring a long dagger blade shot out of the bracer across the top of his hand and stood there, gleaming in the firelight.

Byron jumped. Miroaster laughed and recoiled the blade into its casing.

“I guess that comes in handy,” Byron said with a half grin, still recovering from his start. He looked at Miroaster’s sword where it lay against a rock. He pointed at the weapon with a jerk of his chin. “It’s broken.”

“Yes,” Miroaster said. He gripped the hilt and drew the heatstained blade from its hold. As the last of the sword appeared, Byron saw again its broken edge.

“Is it magic?” Byron asked. “I’ve heard there are magic swords.”

“Better than that,” Miroaster said. “It is dragon steel, claw and scale of dragon kind, smelted and forged with ancient skill.”

“It’s old.”

“Very.”

“How did it break?”

“Deathmagic,” Miroaster said. “I have the missing piece here, also.” He opened a buckled flap on the side of the scabbard and slid from it a long sliver of metal. Unlike the rest of the sword it was clear and unblemished silver.

“This sword is called Marmaros,” Miroaster said.

“Marmaros,” Byron said, gazing. “What does it mean?”

“It means ghost moon,” Miroaster said. “Somewhere there are seven others of its kind. It is one of the eight swords of Isporeth.”

“Isporeth?” Byron said. “The dragon judge? Mirabell’s mother?”

“Yes,” Miroaster said. “It is told that Isporeth commanded the griffin queen, Weln Six-Pinion, and a group of dwarves and griffins chosen specially for their skill, to gather Mirabell’s molted scales and claws after she died, to forge them into weapons with which to destroy the evil that slew her.”

“She was killed by Borántu,” Byron said, “the Shadowbreather. He killed all the Judges, too. I saw the skeleton of Mirador, the high judge, Mirabell’s father, on the way to Qualnáchnabard.”

“Yes, I have seen it,” Miroaster said. “There was a suit of armor and a shield also made from the scales of the young dragon. No fire or blade can harm the one that wears it, so it is said.”

“Why not fix it?” Byron asked. “The piece looks to fit perfectly, not a splinter missing.”

Miroaster shook his head. “There is magic at work on the sword that this fragment does not share. See how it gleams, more like mirrored glass than steel. No, it came apart from the main blade before the death hex set in and was not affected by it. But even if that were not so, I know of no one with the skill and knowledge it takes to work with dragon steel. The craft was lost long ago.”

Byron watched Miroaster’s face as he sheathed his great sword and put the gleaming sliver of dragon steel back in its compartment. “Why are you hiding?” Byron asked.

Miroaster looked at him with a half smile. “Hiding?”

“Mr. Thúmose told us you were hiding yourself and even he doesn’t know where you are. He says you’ve gone dark.”

Miroaster nodded. “That’s true.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means I have covered myself up. My presence must not be known, and I cannot pick and choose who is able to sense my whereabouts. I must be hidden from all who have that power, or from none.”

Byron shrugged. “Why must you be hidden?”

“Because I too can perceive. And I have felt a power awaken somewhere in Everándon, a power with which I must contend. Secrecy is my strength for now.”

“I wish I could just hide myself.”

“Do you?” Miroaster said with a laugh. “Well, it gives a certain advantage, it’s true. But one must trade. To hide myself I must cloud my own sight. If I am invisible, that from which I hide myself is also invisible to me.”

“What are you hiding yourself from?”

“An ancient power, a power to which I am bound. One day I will encounter it. That much is assured.”

“Assured by what?”

Miroaster looked down at the sword that lay across his lap. “An oath, taken long ago.”

“What kind of oath?”

Miroaster smiled. “Tell me about that medallion you wear.”

Byron looked down at his chest. “It’s a monocle.”

Miroaster peered close. “So it is. Where did you get it?”

“My Gradda,” Byron said. “It lets me see in the dark.”

A light frown puckered Miroaster’s brow as he gazed at the monocle. “Really,” he said. “May I try it?”

“It only works for me,” Byron said.

Miroaster nodded and moved his gaze from the monocle to Byron’s face. “Does it now,” he said. Then he peered into the fire as if searching for something. He did not blink for a long moment, but then he smiled. “I have met your Gradda,” he said.

“You have?”

“Yes. Before you were born. It was in the days after the Wolfen War when he was still in his solitude.”

“How did you meet him?”

“I had reason to seek his counsel. He was living in the Brackenlands, north of your Woody Deep.” Miroaster smiled. “I found him fishing for his supper. We ate his catch and talked together as the moon rose and set.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Rumors,” Miroaster said. “Rumors that a pair of witchwolves had emerged in the western packs.”

“Dindra told me about those,” Byron said. “She said her grandfather had seen them.”

“Madican Thundershod,” Miroaster said. “Yes, it was he who suggested I speak with your grandfather. Madican told me that Darius Thorn had met the witches and lived.”

Byron’s jaw went slack. “Gosh,” he said. “Gradda.”

“He is a crafty one, your Gradda, and no small skill with a javelin. But above all his craft and skill there is his courage. I’ve never seen its equal for light or for darkness. Except perhaps in his grandson.”

Miroaster smiled again. “But he never mentioned a magic monocle. I suppose it worked for him and would have worked for your father also, had he lived to possess it.”

Byron looked into the fire. “My father.”

He and Miroaster sat quiet for a time, watching the embers of the fire.

“I will have a walk around before I lie down,” Miroaster said.

Byron looked out into the darkness. “Aren’t you scared?”

“No.”

“I’m not scared at home,” Byron said. “But out here it’s different.”

Miroaster nodded. “I have roamed in Everándon long. By now I’m as much a creature of the night as the wisest owl or the cleverest raccoon.”

“When are you going to tell me what you were doing at Sogfarrow?” Byron asked.

“Tomorrow,” Miroaster said. “In the afternoon I will tell my tale to you and the Whispermere both. For now, Byron, try to sleep. If you can’t, lie on your back and listen to the stars.”

Then Miroaster turned and blended with the night.

Sunlight broke through the rainy sky and a single shaft glittered in the falling water that spilled over great rocks from one pool to the next. Byron followed Miroaster along a deer trail that wound through the pines beside the cascade. In the early afternoon they stood looking down on a mere. A huge rock stood at one end and smaller rocks dotted the water. A rainbow soared above the valley, piercing the clouds and coming out again to fall into the peaks beyond.

A pair of mountain goats drank from the mere. Birds splashed about in the shallows, flapping and singing. Byron followed Miroaster down the trail and the mere went out of sight. When it came into view again, the goats had moved aside for a pair of enormous creatures that looked as if they were made of stone.

Byron stopped. “Trolls!”

Miroaster stopped also. “No, Byron,” he whispered. “Grunks.”

“Grunks?” Byron said.

“That’s right, a whole family of them. Hush, now. We’ll wait until they drink and move on.”

“Grunks,” Byron whispered, frowning with remembrance. The grunks had long, stout arms that reached with gigantic hands to the ground. Their legs were short and thick. Their backs and shoulders were wide across and they had no visible necks, though they moved their heads well enough. The three babies mingled about between their parents, identical to the adults in every way except size. All five moved with the same ponderous manner—now bending to drink from the mere, now lifting their heads skyward to observe the rainbow.

When they had drunk their fill, the grunk family stood and stretched. The mother gathered her little ones and groomed each of them by licking her palm and wiping them down. They struggled and made bleating sounds of protest. Byron curled his lip.

Miroaster smiled at him. “It protects them,” he said. “It covers their scent so they can hide in safety while their parents forage abroad. It seems they mean to leave the grunklets here for a while.”

After their grooming, the little ones settled down and allowed their parents to lead them to the shade and safety of the trees. Then the adults set off in separate directions, away from the mere.

“All right then,” Miroaster said. “Let’s go.”

“Would they have hurt us?” Byron asked.

“No. The grunks are strong as the mountains but docile as a falling leaf. They could have hurt us terribly, killed us without effort. But that is not their way. The grunks will rise in anger against few creatures in Everándon.”

“I think I’ve seen grunks before,” Byron said as they approached the mere.

“In the Woods of Deep?” Miroaster said. “Well, maybe. But I’ve never seen or heard of them west of the Crestfalls.”

“Uh, well, it was in sort of a dream that I saw them,” Byron said. “And those red-eyed skull warriors —the wülken —I saw them, too.”

“Wülken?” Miroaster said, looking down at Byron. “That’s a word few now remember.”

“What are they?”

“The word means infested but some translate it as haunt or even ghost.”

“Where did they come from?”

“Thúmose told you of the Lychgate didn’t he?”

Byron nodded. “Yes.”

“Well, a Lychgate is used to create wülken. They are warriors drawn from the dead to fight the living.”

They stopped at the edge of the pool.

Byron gazed deep into the reflection of the tall stone on the water. “I saw them,” he said.

Miroaster looked at Byron for a thoughtful moment. Then he crouched to the pool, cupped the mere water in his hand, and drank.

All across the surface of the pool the reflections shivered and scattered in tiny ripples. There was a deep, windy sound like a whisper from far away under the ground, and in it there was a word.

“Miroaster,” it said.

Byron stepped back and nearly fell down.

Miroaster looked up at the ivy-covered rock at the back of the pool. “Yes,” he said. “I have come.”

“I have not felt your step in many days,” said the voice. “Where have you been?”

“I have need of secrecy,” Miroaster said.

Byron stared at the rock. The ivy hung thick in places but here and there gaps opened to expose what lay beneath. He peered deeper, then caught his breath and stood blinking. Beneath the ivy he saw a great eye carved into the stone. Further down he found the corner of an open mouth, and between the two a small spur stuck out from the ivy in the shape of a nose. The lines were weathered and hard to discern, but there was no mistaking them.

“Much now moves that hides itself in secrecy,” the voice said. “Things are stirring that do not wish to be perceived.”

“That is why I have come,” Miroaster said.

“To find answers to questions,” the voice said, “questions that press you to need.”

Miroaster nodded. “Yes.”

A wordless sound, like a sigh, issued from the face of the rock. Byron looked close and saw that a glistening sheet of water poured down from the place where the mouth was carved. The ivy there was wet and rustled a little as the Whispermere sighed.

“Secrecy is everywhere,” the Whispermere said. “The paths of knowledge are not so free as they were. Bird and beast are hindered by fear and do not tell of what is passing. I feel the wind and water, the trees and the soil, but no words are spoken there, only feelings. And I have felt a dread in Everándon.”

“Then you must also feel the thunder of the Unicorn,” Miroaster said.

“Yes, I feel it. At long last I feel it again. But I feel much that I have felt before. It feels to me, perhaps distantly, that the Wegs have come again.”

“That is why I hide myself,” Miroaster said.

“Very wise,” the Whispermere said. “Why have you come?”

“We’re looking for our friend,” Byron said. “He was captured.”

The Whispermere did not respond.

“Byron,” Miroaster said. “Take a drink of the water.”

Byron crouched down and drank. As he did, the water shivered and splashed and the deep voice laughed, sonorous and hushed, drawn from unseen deeps with a cheer that caused the birds to flap and call in the trees around.

“Findrel,” the Whispermere said. “Miroaster had you hidden away, but I can feel you now. You are very far from home.”

“Yes,” Byron said. “Mr. Thúmose asked me to help him.”

“Did he?” said the Whispermere. “Yes, you have the feel of one upon whom the Unicorn might call for aid. Now I see. Rumor has reached me of your winter travels. Glad rumor. Grateful rumor. And what has the Spiralhorn asked of you?”

“Well,” Byron said, “nothing in the last few days. But the last time I saw him he asked me to deliver a message.”

“What message?” the Whispermere asked. “If I may know, what message and to whom?”

Byron shrugged. “I don’t think it’s any big secret. He wants King Thrudnelf of the dwarves to take his people back to Showd Mazark. He asked me to take the message.”

“Showd Mazark?” the Whispermere said. There was a long pause. “I do not know that name. Wait, yes, now I remember. It lies at Mountain’s End. I had forgotten until now.”

“Forgotten?” Miroaster said. “The Whispermere forgets? I have never heard of that before.”

“Yes,” the Whispermere said. “There is a shadow, a swirling darkness covering places in my mind. My knowledge of Showd Mazark must surely be there.”

“That is forbidding news,” Miroaster said.

“Forbidding?”

“Your mind sees of old,” Miroaster said, “before even the Dragon. Yours is knowledge that you alone in Everándon can possess. And yet you speak of a darkness that hides that knowledge like a veil?”

“It is as I have said,” the Whispermere answered. “Much now moves that does not wish to be perceived. Some powers are strong and crafty.”

Miroaster nodded. “Well do I know it.”

The ground trembled faintly as the Whispermere sighed. “But tell me why you have come.”

“We’re looking for our friend,” Byron said, stepping forward, “who was captured.”

“I know such things have passed of late,” the Whispermere said. “The giant princeling has been stolen from his home. Fear could not contain news of it for long, what with the giant king’s rage and the threat of his war of reprisal against the dwarves.”

“But the dwarf prince is gone too,” Byron said. “Prince Nosh. That’s who we’re looking for.”

“The dwarf prince captured?” the Whispermere replied. “I’ve heard nothing of this before now. But tales are hushed. Words cease. Eyes grow distant at the mention of the things that are passing. Whatever now moves lurks behind a mask of stifling dread.”

A long, deep sigh breathed out through the vines that covered the stone face of the Whispermere. “But another question presses you, I think.”

“Yes,” Miroaster said. “Some time ago I had reason to track a taxim to its haunt.”

“What’s a taxim?” Byron asked.

“A creature of death,” the Whispermere replied. “A scavenger of graves.”

“The taxim will make its home on a field of battle,” Miroaster said, “just as a ghoul or a wight will do in a burial ground. But taxims often live in groups, each taking for itself an area in which to tunnel and hide. It is said that a taxim can tell you the names of all who died in the place it has chosen.”

“Who can say by what gruesome ritual it comes to such knowledge,” the Whispermere said. “But why were you following it?”

“I came upon it keeping watch over a young girl. The girl was adorned with markings, crude UnMagic, such as a taxim might use. Together with the girl, the taxim rode in a wagon guarded by Fellsmen, led by an ogre of the North.”

“One of Goth’s people,” the Whispermere said.

“Goth?” Byron said.

Miroaster nodded. “The ogre king.”

“Rumor has reached me of the Fell Clans working together,” the Whispermere said, “in small bands. Though even among their own kind there is little unity to be found. But I wonder at the presence of a taxim in their train, that it should have quit its haunt.”

“I wondered at it also,” Miroaster said. “And I have no doubt it was pressed into service. Indeed, I did not think a taxim could long survive away from the soil of its dwelling. But the wagon was filled with just such a soil, in which rested the bones of some creature. I tracked the taxim for eleven days.

“Twice along the way I glimpsed it carrying a large metal ring. It was frantic and weak when it reached its haunt, but still too quick for me to catch. It escaped into a hole and when at last I reached it, it was near death. The journey proved too much for it. It shrieked in warning to the members of its colony, but I was unable to question it before it died. It was still clutching this.”

Miroaster reached into his bag and took out a large, flat ring of gold, covered with markings.

“What is it?” Byron asked.

“An armband,” Miroaster said.

“I never saw an arm that big,” Byron said. “Not even on Baruwan.”

“It belonged to a giant, once,” Miroaster said. “And now for the reason I went to Sogfarrow. I was there to see a gnome who knows about such things. He is long learned in artifacts and has a special interest in the lore and customs of the giants. By its make and mixture he surmised that this band was crafted in the third generation after Borántu. From him I learned that it belonged to a giant of the Maug tribe, a fact I had guessed myself, because of this symbol: the full moon eclipsed. The Maugs were followers of Borántu and remain strong even now.”

“Strong,” the Whispermere said, with a deep, windy whisper. “Their drums have never stopped. But what further answer can I give you, Miroaster?”

“The taxim’s haunt was in the woods of Farnan, west of the mountains, in the fold above the Antler Spur. What can you tell me of a battle that happened there, in which the Maug tribe was present or represented?”

The Whispermere breathed another long, deep, windy sigh, but it was not sad. There were tones in the sigh, sonorous and clear. The vines shimmered and hissed, lifting from the stone.

“I can tell you,” the Whispermere began, “that the woods of Farnan were not always woods. Once they were a plain of green and gold until the feet of warring giants thundered there.”

“Of course,” Miroaster said. “I had forgotten.”

“The fog of forgetting spreads even to the Lore Tracker,” the Whispermere said.

“The tides of the giant wars are not part of my learning, but I should have remembered that much at least by now. This is not a natural forgetting, for my mind has grown sharper and not less so. No, this fog attacks memories and knowledge of its choosing.”

“It is so,” the Mere said. “But I can tell you further that it was on the Farnan Field that Lotigrund, the first true king of the giants, was sundered by the tribes that opposed him. Many sought to prevent the alliance of giants under one king. Even now many reject such a leader. In those days the opposition was fierce and civil war erupted after Lotigrund’s death, which left his young daughter as heir to the sovereignty. So sudden and great was the fighting that the dead of Farnan were left to be reclaimed by the soil.

“No doubt the taxim crept in among the fallen,” the Whispermere continued, “and took from them whatever the scavenging Fellsmen did not claim for themselves. And above all it gathered the list of their names, and never stopped reciting it, not in all its long, sleepless years.”

“Reciting the names?” Byron said.

“It is the way of the taxim to be obsessed with its haunt,” Miroaster said, “with names of the dead who lay there, what they wore, the color of their hair and eyes. No doubt this poor wretch was drawn by the drums before the battle began. He would have watched, memorizing everything that happened, and could have described the battle in detail. But once a taxim claims its ground, it cannot leave on pain of its life. Yet this one did so, as did one of its friends, for so it muttered with its dying breath.”

“What did it say?” Byron asked.

“It swore never to leave its hole again,” Miroaster said. “And it promised to kill me in my sleep for dragging Lucrece away.”

“Who’s Lucrece?” Byron said. “The dead creature you found in the wagon?”

“Unlikely,” Miroaster said. “But it could be another taxim who was pressed into service on some other occasion. I found many places where the soil had been disturbed, as if by digging. It seems that someone has been stealing the remains of the giants who fell on the Farnan Field. That, together with the markings painted on the poor young girl I found in the wagon, has put a fear in me I have not felt in a very, very long time.”

“Fear of what?” Byron asked.

“Wytherban,” the Whispermere said.

“Yes,” Miroaster said.

“Who is Wytherban?” Byron asked.

“The Lord of Fear,” Miroaster said. “The most powerful of the Wegs.”

“What does he want with the bones of some giant?” Byron asked.

“That girl was in the early throes of lych magic,” Miroaster said. “Someone intended to rouse that giant through a Lychgate. All the greater Wegs have skill with lych magic, but only Wytherban has the mastery it would take to rouse a creature that has been dead since the battle of the Farnan Field.”

Byron shrugged. “So, what’s the taxim got to do with it?”

“The taxim are often used to start the process,” Miroaster said. “And if one has claimed the ground on which the wülken fell, it must accompany the remains into the Lychgate or the deathmagic, no matter how powerful, will not work.”

“It could be that Wytherban was searching for the bones of Lotigrund himself, the first king of the giants,” the Whispermere said. “Before he fell, Lotigrund was a great and terrible warrior. He was feared by all who opposed him, and even by many who did not. His sword arm was untiring, his stride unstoppable, and there was no end to the cunning of his war-craft.”

“Lotigrund roused to serve as a wülken would make a bitter enemy,” Miroaster said. “Such a feat would require deep UnMagic, hex work of great power. Yet such a thing might well be within Wytherban’s reach.”

“Perhaps,” the Whispermere said. “At its height, Wytherban’s magic was truly terrible. But to rouse a giant king would require something else, also.”

“What?” Byron asked

“The living flesh of Lotigrund’s line,” the Whispermere replied. “A descendent.”

Miroaster blinked and a look of realization came over his face. “Do you mean to say that the giant princeling is descended from Lotigrund?”

“The succession is not unbroken, and has followed a winding path,” the Whispermere said. “The sovereignty has shifted from house to house, but the blood of Lotigrund has continued to flow and has come to the throne once more. Prince Grudner’s father, King Grudnevar of the giants, has in his veins the blood of the first giant king.”

“And now his son has been kidnapped,” Byron said. “And poor Nosh. I wonder if we’ll ever find either one of them.”

“You must keep hoping, Byron,” Miroaster said. “It is part of your great strength. It lends possibility to things that might otherwise fade and die.”

“What happened to the girl?” Byron asked with a shrug.

“She is safe now,” Miroaster said. “In the keeping of Warra.”

Byron nodded. “Mr. Whispermere” he said, “Is there war in Woody Deep?”

“Wodys Dyp is far,” the Whispermere said. “Little news comes from there that is not many weeks and months gone by. But even at that I have heard nothing, for as I said, the paths of knowledge are stilled of late.”

Byron’s gaze went blank and fell to the surface of the water. Miroaster laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Take heart, Byron,” he said. “We will stay here tonight and perhaps hear from the Whispermere a tale of ancient Everándon.”

 

It was still dark and starry when Byron woke. Miroaster was crouched beside him, shaking him by the shoulder. Byron sat up and blinked. The stars shimmered in the mere and the water was flat and still.

“What is it?” Byron asked.

“News,” Miroaster said. “A group of bats has emerged from the Whispermere’s mouth. They spoke of a young showdra in sinister company. The party emerged two days ago from a tunnel on the west side of the mountains.

“Showdra?” Byron said. “What’s a showdra?”

“A dwarf, Byron,” Miroaster said. “Showdra is one of the old words for dwarf.”

“Nosh!” Byron said, and he sprang to his hooves. “The bats weren’t afraid to tell you?”

Miroaster shook his head. “That is often the way. The night will tell what is feared by light of day. Stirrings in the dark are sometimes overheard by friendly ears.”

“How far is it?” Byron asked.

“Six days, south and west.”

“And it’s two days already since they emerged?”

Miroaster nodded. “The trail will be cold, but that does not concern me. We have a place to begin.”

“That’s something,” Byron said.

“We should set off at once and take food as we go. Eight days is nine too many. We will be hard pressed to gain them back, but gain them back we must.”

 

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