Wednesday 9 March 2011

Lost Words - Part 5-8

This is the last section of Lost Words that I will be posting for now. Hopefully I'll catch up with some audiobook files soon but on Sunday I'll post something completely different.

Lost Words

Varan stepped into the sunlight,
Emerging from the cliff into crisp, clean air.
His midnight masked mentor motioned him on
And he saw below, spread to the south, a city.

The tallest towers seemed to touch the clouds,
Made of glittering gold and glistening glass;
And marble monuments, majestic and magnificent
Were placed in perfect circles across the plain;
And in the centre stood a silver dome,
With a carved column at each corner.

“It’s beautiful!” he breathed in awe.

“Are you so quick to judge?”
The masked one replied,
“Look once again,
And then decide.”

Varan looked closer.
The soaring spires, so splendid at first sight,
Were cracked and crumbling;
And the monuments formed a mausoleum,
Dedicated to the dead.

“What happened here?
What terrible fate?
That so fair a city
Lies in so fallen a state?

“Go and find out,
You continue alone,”
Culann stepped back,
And melted into the stone.

For only an instant Varan was afraid
But curiosity gave rise to courage,
And soon he was stepping down the slope
Towards the tumbledown towers.

An eerie hush seemed to hang over the land
An unsettling silence.
With just the gentle sigh
Of the whispering wind.

An arrow thudded into the ground,
A few steps from Varan’s feet.

“Hold!” cried a voice,
“Are you friend or foe!”
“A friend, I hope,
Though I’m not sure I know.”

“What is your name then,
And what brings you here?”
“My name is Varan
And it’s somewhat unclear -

“You see - I was brought by another
I don’t really know why,
And now he is gone,”
Varan said with a sigh.

“Who was this other?”
The female voice asked.
“His name was Culann,
The Lord of the Masks.”

An archer stepped out into the light,
An arrow set on her string.
By her side hung a sword in its scabbard,
And on her back was bound a buckler.

“And the Lord of the Masks,
What face did he wear?”
Varan was surprised
And answered with care.

“It bore the shape of an owl,
It was blacker than night.
His mask was sinister,
An ominous sight.”

“Could it be true?
Are you the one?”
She relaxed her string -
The tense moment was done.

“Please come with me
To the great banquet hall,
You must meet the council
Before nightfall.”

“I am sorry warrior,
But I don’t understand.
What do you mean?
What is this land?”

“The council will explain,
Then all will be clear.
Any questions you have
They’ll be ready to hear.”

The warrior turned and walked down the road,
Varan came after, wondering where he was.

After a while, they entered the city
And as they strode through the streets,
People peaked at him from every peephole.
While many seemed to watch him warily,
And others with fear or with fire in their eyes,
Some eyes there were, heavy with hope.

The warrior woman led the wordsmith
Through stained streets and silent squares,
Round crumbling corners and fallen fences,
Down to the central dome
That loomed so large above them.

As they neared, Varan noticed
That each colossal column
Supported a stone statue,
That snared his sight,
And held his heart.

On one was a pack of wild wolves,
Hunting and howling,
Braying and barking up to the sky.

The next held an eagle’s nest,
But the bird himself had been badly burnt.
With arrows through his eyes,
He slumped in solitude.

And on the third were thirty thin scrolls
That seemed to swirl like snow.
Signs had been sculpted into the scrolls
But he could make no meaning from them.

On the fourth and final pillar
Were stone flowers, so finely carved
One could almost feel their fragrance.

Made with silver, the dome shone in the sunlight
Yet it was blackened and burnt in places.
The smooth surface
Marred with the marks of some monster -
For they were too massive to be man-made.
At many points, the platinum dome had been punctured
And the tiles teetered on the brink.

The shadows stretched out before the setting sun,
The darkness drew in.

As night fell, he followed the warrior
Through the threshold and under the arches,
Into the door of the dome.

Under his feet were finely woven, faded carpets,
That must have been soft and sumptuous once,
And high above his head
Were once perfect paintings
In rich reds and bright blues,
Now beginning to flake and fall.

The warrior went to the once white walls
And grabbed a gloomy gong,
She struck it with her full strength
And its ringing resounded a great while.

When the din had died away,
A servant or steward came sprinting towards them,
Dressed in dour tones,
Obviously just awoken
And visibly vexed.

“I must speak with the council.”
The warrior said.
“I’m afraid that is impossible,
They have all gone to bed.”

“To speak to the council
You must follow the rules.
You cannot simply
Burst in
And demand to…”

“He was sent by Culann.”
Her words were like a song.
The servant paused, ran,
Then hammered the gong.

The council was convened;
Sixteen sat silently upon the stage
And the bard stood bravely before them.
In the centre of their semi-circle
Sat the First Councillor, cloaked in crimson cloth,
His bushy beard was black as pitch
While his hair was white as winter;
There was a burst of brightness to his eyes
Though their lustre had almost left them.

The rites and rules were read out,
A long, languid list of laws
An endless account that went on and on.
Eventually, each was announced before the assembly,
First the archer, with Varan following.

As the quiet cut into the council room
The crowd looked to the lyrist,
The newcomer they did not know
Who stood so strangely before them.
But the council concentrated on the warrior woman.

“Hail brave Ana,
Guardian of the land.
Strength to your sword arm,
May Culann guide your hand.”

“Thank you First Councillor,”
She kept her words terse,
“Here is the poet,
Varan of the verse.”

“Thank you Ana,”
He turned with a frown
“Welcome brave bard
To our meagre town.

“Let me tell you our tale,
Our story of woe,
For it is urgent you hear it:
It was four years ago
In the dead of winter,
When the ground was white with snow.

“We lived without pain,
Without hatred or fear,
Our land had had peace
For hundreds of years,

“No enemies without
No violence within,
Our army grew fat
While their arsenal grew thin.

“The day was clear
The sky was bright,
Midwinter’s day
Was a perfect delight

“When descending upon us,
Lightning fast,
Came a dragon
dark and vast.

“His eyes were cunning
Cold and cruel,
Sharp as a crystal
They glittered like a jewel.

“His body was layered
In the thickest black scales,
From the lips of his maw
To the sting in his tail.

“His fangs were ghastly,
His jaws were so wide,
He could swallow a house
And all the people inside.

“He laughed as he landed,
And called out with scorn -
‘You call yourselves men?
Your are like lambs new born.’

“Then with a deep breath
And a shuddering sound
Fire leapt from his mouth
And scorched the ground.

“Biting and burning
He ravaged our city,
Slaying and killing
Without shame, without pity.

“On that day he murdered
A hundred or more
Burnt alive by the fire
That rushed from his jaws.

“‘My name is Clanun’
He roared with glee,
‘I am the Claw of the Clouds
None can kill me.’

“He declared he would return
On midsummer’s night,
So we mustered our soldiers
And prepared for a fight.

“True to his word,
The beast came again;
He cut down our soldiers,
Our best fighting men.

“But worse, far worse,
He took some to his lair
Still breathing, still screaming,
Their cries echoed through the air.”

The speaker ceased his sad story
His voice glutted with guilt,
Tears touched his eyes.

“For four midwinter nights
And four midsummers in turn,
The Dragon has come
To butcher and burn.

“But the Oracle of Culann,
Prophesied thus,
Before next midwinter’s night,
He would deliver us;

“Culann would appear
In his mask of the night,
He would lead from the shadows
And remain out of sight,

“Yet the Masked One promised
He would bring here a man,
A warrior of the light
To fight for our land,

“And the one that he brought,
Would be the one to prevail,
To crush the beast
And end the tale.

“So now, brave wordsmith,
You have heard of our sorrow,
And midwinter’s night
Will be here on the morrow,

“And you are the one,
There can be no doubt,
When tomorrow night comes
You shall win out.”

Varan was lost for words.

He could but stare at the Speaker
Who had pinned all his hope
On a failed poet.

The smith sat on a stone, silently.
Wayward thoughts formed a whirlwind
Inside his misery-ridden mind,
While rain water washed down his hair
And coursed across his back.

How could he defeat a dragon?
Face down a monster in a fierce fight?
How could he save a city,
When he couldn’t help himself?

“Will you sit out here,
Sulking all night?
What is the use
If you look without sight?”

As Varan turned towards the voice
He saw Ana was there, arms folded
With a growing grin.

Then she spoke softly,
In a warm, gentle, tone,
“I thought you looked lost,
Sitting here all alone.”

“I’m alone no longer,”
Varan replied,
“Though I fear I’m still lost.”
And slowly he sighed.

“You cannot be lost,”
Ana joked, “you are here!
And now you’ve been found
There is nothing to fear.”

“But I am afraid
And chilled to the bone.
For too much now hangs
Upon my skill alone.

“I cannot win out,
Cannot prevail.
We all will die,
I will fail.”

“You doubt yourself
But I have trust -
Culann has promised,
And his law is just.

“If he says you are able,
Then able you are,
You will reach your goal
No matter how far.”

“I am nothing, nobody!
I cannot wield a sword.
I am just another poet
Who cannot even write a word.”

Ana sat beside the bard
Watching the world together.
Seconds seemed as hours.
The whispering water washed the city walls
And pooled around them in puddles.

“Your name is Varan,
A name I never knew.
Where are you from?
What work do you do?

“Do you have any family?
Any children? A wife?
What brought you here
At this point in your life?”

“From those mountains I came,
Or at least from below,
I’m a long way away
From all that I know.

“I once was a poet,
In a former life,
When I had a home
And had a wife

“Nimue’s voice
Was the most beautiful sound.
But now she is dead,
And rots in the ground.

“And since she died
I have devised no tales,
And taken no action
That has not failed.

“My heart went numb
Right down to the core,
And neither joy nor sorrow
Do I feel any more.

“And your name is Ana?
I’d never heard that name.
To me, that is foreign,
This whole place is the same.

“How long have you lived
In this city so vast?”
To avoid the near-future
He spoke of the past.

“I was born in the city,
Where I’ve lived all my years -
It has witnessed my smiles
And also my tears.

“My father would travel
For weeks without end,
I stayed many days
With my father’s friend.

“He had no love for me -
I was alone many nights
And the onset of evening
Became a terrible sight.

“I cried myself to sleep
In the fire’s harsh glare,
Alone in the dark,
Wrapped up in my cares,

“But the dawn always came,
The sun always rose.
The longest of nights
Must come to a close.”

“Had you no other family?
No sister or brother?”
“I had none at all.
I never knew my mother.”

“I’m sorry.” “Don’t be,
The hurt passed long ago.”
And while they spoke,
Rain became gentle snow.

Varan’s heart warmed in the winter,
His spirit - dancing in death.

“I know much of this,
Of being alone,
While throughout it all,
I was always at home.

“My parents busy,
My siblings underfoot,
While they sang and played
I lost myself in books

“But, as luck had it,
Nimue’s eye turned to me,
We were married in June,
Amidst the oak trees.

“And my words flowed forth
LIke water, like fire,
LIke the sun, like the stars,
They rose higher and higher

“But now I am alone -
Nimue has passed away -
And so I am afraid
That I will be so every day.”

They spoke of the past,
On subjects more pleasant,
They laughed and they smiled,
To escape the fear of the present,

They talked for hours,
All through the night;
Warming their hearts
In each other’s light.

But in the back of Varan’s brain
He still felt the pain where his finger had been stung.

With the dawn and the daylight
The sun rose and the snow subsided;
The clouds cleared from the sky.

A messenger moved among the masses,
Declaring a banquet for the bard
And many hundreds hurried to meet him,
Crowding to catch a glimpse of the conqueror.
It was all too overwhelming.
Varan’s comfort came from Ana’s closeness,
She stayed by his side, and thus he stayed smiling.

All day long they lingered,
Merrily eating their way through the meal,
Talking till their tongues tired.

Yet Varan was uneasy - he felt the underlying air
Of the stresses and strains in their souls,
The new hope in their hearts -
Their tension was twinned with his,
But their hope was terrible.

All too fast the feast was finished.
The fires were fuelled
But the dark drew on determinedly.
With the setting of the sun
It seemed that the world stood still.
All eyes were fixed on the firmament,
All eyes searched the sky.

And then they saw him.

Clanun, Claw of the Clouds, climbed the sky,
His clarion call rang clear through the cold
With the clamour of a thunder clap.
The dragon made a steep dive, darting down,
Landing lightly.
He stood taller than the towers,
High above all their heads.
He was immense - imposing and overwhelming;
Both entrancing and enchanting.
His towering talons were black as tar -
While in his menacing maw
Ferocious fangs flashed with flames.
The beast’s broad back bristled with black barbs,
His leathery wings were wide and wicked.
When he breathed his burning breaths,
Fierce fumes foamed from his nostrils,
Coiling and curling, up, into the cold.
But the monster was full of menace, not malice,
And his eyes were cunning, not callous -
He was Clanun, the Claw of the Clouds,
The most dangerous of dragons,
The mightiest of monsters.

Varan froze with fear,
Petrified and paralysed in his place,
Utterly overawed.

For a second all were still,
No one dared move a muscle.
Then the Speaker stepped forward:

“O Claw of the Clouds,
Behold your doom!
Varan of the Verse
Will send you to your tomb.”

The Speaker stepped back swiftly,
Forcing Varan forward,
And he braced himself before the beast.
A soldier shoved a sword into his hand -
Varan could hardly hold it.

Clanun considered the creature before him,
His sapphire sight taking stock.
Varan watched the wyrm warily,
Expecting a swift slaughter.
The dragon’s tail twitched to and fro.
Varan thought he could see some sorrow
In the serpent’s sparkling eyes,
But why, he could not comprehend.

“Clanun,” said Varan,
His voice sad and low
“Why do you do this?
I have to know.”

“Varan,” said Clanun,
His voice incandescent,
“Look up to the moon,
Its razor thin crescent.

“Would you ask why the moon
Must shine in the night?
When the day turns to darkness,
Making dark into light?”

And the serpent spoke no more.

A brave archer, bow bent,
Let loose an arrow at the lizard.
It struck the serpent’s scales
And fell to the floor.
The missile was followed by many more;
A barrage of crossbow bolts
Bounced off the beast’s back;
The air was alive with arrows,
But Clanun noticed nothing.

Turning, he tilted his head,
And gently opened his jaws -
His breath brought death.
Great gouts of fire gushed forth,
Immolating all they embraced.
An immense inferno
Swirled through the city,
Torching the towers themselves.
All the people panicked
And tore away, terrified, in all directions.
Behind, the black beast still breathed fire.
The fallen were trampled in terror
As chaos took control.

In the centre of the storm,
While all around him burned brightly,
Varan was unhurt, unharmed;
He wept till he had no tears left.

“What are you doing?
Can you not see?
I’m standing right here
Just kill me!”

But the serpent spoke not a sound.

And then Ana was at his side,
Her blade and buckler ready for battle.

“You must stop this!
Before we’re all killed!”
“I can’t do a thing!
I have not the skill.

“I can’t use a sword
Or fire a bow,
I just wrote poems,
That’s all that I know.”

“Stop complaining and act!
Or we all die tonight!”
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly,
His eyes black as night.

“Then I will,” she said,
“If you won’t, then I must.
If I die then at least
I’ll have died for what’s just.”

And without delay, she charged the dragon,
Voicing her vengeance.
With a flick of his claw, Clanun cut her down.
She was flung to the floor,
Scarlet blood spurting from her side;
Varan did not know if she lived or died.

The beast lifted her broken body,
Clenching her close with his claw.
Leisurely, Clanun leapt into the sky,
Laying waste to the world in his wake.
His wide wings carried him westward;
Behind him, all was ablaze
But where Varan stood,
All alone.

For a second he just stood staring.
He had failed his only friend,
The fierce fires were his fault.
Why should he be left when so many had lost their lives?
So many stronger in spirit than he,
Braver, bolder and brighter,
Of much nobler natures -
How could he have survived?
He had had their hope and their trust,
And he had betrayed them.

Varan saw the sorry sword in his hand,
Its silver steel still strong.
Newfound courage coursed through him
As he pierced his palm with its point.

“By my lifeblood I swear,
And by all I hold dear,
I will find Clanun’s lair
And face him without fear.

“If I die, then I die,
I deserve nothing more,
But before I succumb
He will feel my claw.”

Varan hoisted a helm on his head
And donned gauntlets to guard his grip.
With a shield at his side, Varan set out,
Winding his way west, following the wyrm,
Heading for the hills.