The Council of Murnoth
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(2)

Perhaps hours passed. Perhaps a thousand years. But when she lifted her head the moon had moved but a little across the sky. In its cold light could be seen the gaping field, wreathed all round in the forest's shadow; and blank save for the faint glimmer of water in the distance. The wind breathed soft, haunting tones through the grass. It was not at all a comforting place, and Endel felt suddenly roused to flee back into the prisonous darkness of Lurwood. But her body ached, and her wounds burned like fire. Too great was her pain, and too broken her heart to even imagine rising and walking another step. She rolled on her back and stared into the clear, jewelled sky. The moon was now inclining toward its grave in the West, and its flame caught her tangled, sun bleached locks and her grim expression. Young was her face, young and fair, yet browned by years in the ocean sun, and hardened by days in the wilderness. Her eyes were not human eyes. The forest had made them sharp and wild like the glance of a cat in the night, yet underneath was hidden a heart of longing and of grief. She stared thither the northern constellation and memories of starlight on the still, winter ocean drifted through her thoughts. Then, pained and exhausted, she swooned into a dark sea of dreamless sleep.

It was a shadow that woke her. Silent it fell, silent out of the night-vieled sky, an enormous winged shape descending and devouring the moon's flame. A beast that loomed even in the darkness of her sleep. She opened her eyes in a sudden moment of eclipse as a vast shadow passed swiftly over and circled the air. It stared down upon her, a piercing and spirit-chilling glance. But even as she caught the cold glimmer of its grievous eye she did not fear; instead, drawn and enchanted; and for the moment blind to her pain, she rose to her feet and hastened after the creature as it turned and sailed into the distant gloom.

On a long stone washed in moon silver, leaning over the dark borders of a deep, silent pool, the looming night bird finally descended; a huge, fearful silhouette stretching then folding its wings in the light like black, smothering waves upon a silver strand. Endel moved low and nearby in the grass, up behind the shadow of a great rock where she crouched and peered around at the beast. For long it seemed to stare into the ghostly waters, hunched sadly over the edge of the stone; and in the silence her heartbeat echoed, and the grave rhythm of her breath rung out into the darkness. But suddenly it raised its head, and rent the frozen air with a long, strange cry. No, a song. A song sung in a haunting tongue that split into a thousand eerie echoes, and shivered through every dark hollow and space of the encircling wood until night swallowed up the last ghastly note. At that the beast lowered its head, choked and trembled, and in a moment of enchantment, took the form of a towering, darkly-robed and hooded man.

Endel creeped into the moonlight and watched on, as though in a dream.

Far off and from every corner multitudes of entwining cries, wails, and croaks all at once divided the air, and the distant beat of many wings drummed like approaching thundercloud. Louder came the fearful noises, louder and high above the wood. She cringed back into the shadows. A haunting wind awakened, howled and twisted from every direction, wrenching and heaving cruelly at the treetops; and as sudden as lightning, thick and terrible shadows thundered over either side of the glade.

The figure loomed over the pond, still and silent, even as the moon eclipsed and the skies choked with flocks upon flocks of strange, dark birds. But he suddenly turned and looked up. and let out a long, welcoming laugh. "Come children of the night, while there is yet darkness!" he called in the eerie tongue of the flock.

It was none other than Murnoth, the ancient and ageless Master of Shadow, the keeper of night's gate; mysterious, almighty and full of terror, yet all the same wise and gentle. He rent and cast off his dark cloak, and all at once, a glow as gentle as the dawn seemed to illuminate from him and scatter the shadows. And down came the birds in long and ordered rows; nightmarish creatures with long talons and wings of tempest, and shrill, blood-curdling sounds in their cries. But as they passed into the Night Lord's light they seemed strangely beautiful, and a great silence fell upon them.

To Endel, Murnoth was a mystery. She gazed at his glory from the edge of her stone, and in his radiance a great longing grew in her heart. But it was not the longing of the spell, the yearning that had seemed to drag her through unending days and darknesses; it was a love born in the womb of her own spirit. For a moment he glanced back, straight at her, and saw beyond the wildness of her eyes. Endel felt a sudden urge to run out and kneel before him, but for fear of the descending birds, she fell down flat in the grass, behind the concealment of the rock.

In devout rings the innumerable multitude assembled around the dais of stone where Murnoth stood, majestic and terrible. He was by all appearances lordly; a sparing, radiant form all clad in a gown of soft sun-set fire that gradually waned into the hue of eventide. Neither young nor old was his face but filled with stories of days and ages long passed, and in his flowing beard was a silver as gentle as the first moon-beams. His eyes were ancient, sad and full of shadows, and in his glance was a knowledge, as though he read what was in the hearts of the creatures gathered before him. And upon his brow sat an even star, that shone out like the fingers of dawn and struck all with a silent awe. For Murnoth, whom no light would touch, was the Light of the lands.

A long while he stood silent, stern yet smiling, as the colours of his raiment deepened into a grey twilight. Then he raised his head and spoke.

"Friends of the night winds! In haste have I called you hither, for but a little while and you must leave your hiding places in the shadow, and become as creatures of the day once more; though it may be your fate to see only but part of that day."

His voice was as the sound of wind in the mountains, gentle yet majestic; and Endel listened mesmerised, though his speech was strange and foreign to her ears.

"For an age have I wandered black skies, fearful and grievous to behold under the enemy's spell; accursed with a raiment of shadowed feathers that choked the Light I was ordained to bear. Yet in that darkness I read the tablets of many sunless hearts and learned much of the secret of Norvulith's new strength."

At the sound of the name 'Norvulith' a stir and a restlessness spread through the flock. Some fluttered their wings and cried in panic as if the Night Lord had thrown a serpent at their feet as he spoke. His face turned grave.

"Aye, my allies and friends, Norvulith is indeed nigh and her venomous hand stretches even into Lurwood's shadow. There are some things only the eyes of the heart can perceive. Norvulith's renewed reign is unseen."

"Hark! She whispers evil and ensnaring words even in these winds. No blade can pierce her heart, and no talon however sharp can rent her skin; for now she is beyond mortal form. Verily she seeks you all on the battlefields of your soul; to seduce you away from the Light and make you servants of her darkness. Aye, men and creatures will slay one another's flesh, but Norvulith is one who can wrought true destruction, that is, death of the spirit."

"So therefore I say be wary, even when there seems to be peace over the lands; for no eye sees Norvulith nor her ranks, and only the keenest of hearts can sense her reign of death all about them. But I ask you, is the darkness stronger than the light? When night comes will one say, 'The day star has died; when it is only the earth passing for a moment into shadow? Verily darkness is but the absence of light, it is no more. And as quickly as a flame is born, so does the shadow about it die. It is appointed unto me for a time to be a niche for the Living Light, and I summon you all as friends and as equals to be as torchbearers of the Flame also. Children of the night, stay nigh in your heart to the Fire, and all will be well; for Norvulith fears you not, but she is terror-stricken at the Light now with you."

He paused and seemed to glow all the more brighter. "But come now, all this talk of evil is not the greater purpose of why I called a council. For this night I speak to you as a herald to proclaim that there is one among us who bears a Flame greater and more terrible than mine."

A long silence followed his words, and there were murmurings amongst the multitude. Then the flock parted as a great bird, almost featherless yet full of majesty, limped up and bowed before Murnoth's stone He stared reverently at the Shadow-Lord for a moment then spoke in a weary yet mighty voice.

"Master, long have we tarried as night-creatures and guardians of Lurwood's shadow, afraid of the day under Norvulith's spell; and our spirits are full of songs that you, the hallowed bearer of Living Light, have overcome her dark rule once more and delivered our hearts from her evil hold. O Lord and Keeper of the Night! Strength is in your hand and wisdom upon your brow, and mighty is the counsel in your mouth, yet verily you speak to us in riddles. For who is there that shines greater than He who is the Light of the lands?"

But Murnoth answered him naught. Instead he turned thither the stone where Endel hid, and stretching out his hand, whispered, "Nyl'lel-su meernas."

None of the creatures understood the strange words he sighed. But Endel heard them clearly, for Murnoth the Master of many things had spoken fluently in her kindred's tongue, "Come, Sea-girl." Indeed, such was the shock that she woke suddenly from the enchantment of beholding the Night-Lord, and all at once felt the days of travail and agony overtake her heart. She cried out like a pregnant woman in labour, and stumbled into Murnoth's light, her legs barely holding her. Long and painfully she stared into his eyes, and the flock was still, not by awe, but by perplexity at this broken man child whom the Master had proclaimed to be so great a light.

"Why have you thieved me?" she wailed in a cracked and quivering voice. But even as she spoke these words she sensed a soothing coolness like water heal her withered heart, and caress and salve her torn skin.

"Nyl'el-su," answered Murnoth gently, "I did not thieve you. My beckoning was weaker than your will to come hither, and my spell cannot work on a frail heart. Few have come forth from their mother's womb with a spirit like unto yours."

Then he smiled and bowed, and in his radiance her tattered raiment turned to silk and shone gently as if it were an ocean touching the rising moon. And Endel, young yet hardened and wild, was revelled as one of great beauty and strength. But in seeing her beauty, the creature of old that had inquired of Murnoth's words all at once understood the Night-Keeper's riddle, and he bowed his head in grief. For the coming of the Greater Light could only mean that the Shadow-Lord's Fire was withering, and his time to pass on was nigh at hand.

 

Simon Avery
Copyright, 1999.
All rights reserved.

(The next chapters of The Council of Murnoth will be published when permitted.)
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