Tale one: Old Grimr of Highcliff, told in Maeldun tavern on the eve of midsummer.
Many and fearful are the tales told of Caranarak, but more fearful are those told of his wife Tariband! Whilst Caranarak moved in the shadow world, willing the shadows to do his work until he himself vanished into the shades, many a man was seduced by the proud lies of that she-devil and the sword of Tariband still burns in the memory of this storyteller at least.
Many years ago, when I was still a young man, before I lost my teeth, my strength, and had to resort to retelling old tales to earn my keep, I travelled with Gunvar the strong far up the North road. He had a mind to visit a relative who had gone up to Bree, distant kin, but kin none the less so a group of five of us travelled North. Of the five only I returned.
Our journey to Bree passed without event. In the inn
we drank and feasted to our success and flattered ourselves, proud to
be men who had travelled. One night while we were in full flow, describing
to Gunvar’s relative just why no bandit or wild animal could face
the five of us, an old farmer challenged us from the corner of the room.
I’ll not bother you with the story of our adventures in the ruins of dead mans dyke, or of the dangers we faced, the strange creatures, deadly traps and … ghosts … who haunt the ruins of that long gone city. But fill my horn with some more of that fine mead, and I’ll continue my story of Tariband – then you’ll hear how Gunvar the strong was bested by a WOMAN, and how my other three friends met their doom as well.
As I was telling you, the old ruins called dead mans dyke in Bree, are a terrible dangerous place. But we survived the dangers and discovered items of great wealth. Fearful lest we should be robbed of them in Bree we never returned to the prancing pony or Gunvar’s relative, but instead skirted round the town and headed straight south. During the day we rode without greeting anyone, and avoided camping near any farms. Only when the sun had set would we open our packs and gaze upon the treasure we had won at such risk and hard adventure.
Of course now I know that our behaviour aroused more suspicion than we would have attracted if we had just sung and drunk as usual. Hindsight and the wisdom of years are unfortunately only given after they would have been of use however, and as I sit here and remember the glitter of gold in the firelight, or the workmanship of the silver inlay on the wonderful daggers, I have no anger for the younger me who tried to hide from any shadow that would steal them from him.
I use the word shadow with care, and look over my shoulder even now when I mention such things. Young man, remember your charms! Break the surface of the water before you drink, respect the guardians of forest and mountain before you take from their realms, and above all treat the dead with respect for otherwise their shadows will seek you out! We did not offer any gifts to the guardians of the treasure, and in our youthful pride we thought that the strength of our arms would keep us safe.
As well as enough ancient silver and gold coins to buy ten farms and pay for labour on them for a year, each of us found a treasure of greater worth. From the barrow of some dead King, Gunvar obtained two daggers. Light as a feather they were, but sharp enough to cut iron and both encased in sheathes of tooled leather painted in some ancient runes of power that had prevented the paint from fading, the leather from rotting or the blades from even tarnishing. Njal, the youngest of us treasured two pearls he had dug from the eyes of a ruined statue. These pearls would glow in the moonlight, and even in the deepest dark they would continue to glow and give off light for several hours. Hengst claimed a ring for his portion. None of us understood why he chose such a trifle, until he borrowed a dagger from Gunvar and slashed at his hand. Before our very eyes the blood stopped flowing from his injured hand, and the flesh nit back together as if the cut had never happened. Erik found a crystal rod, that when he held it to his eye let him see a great distance and I chose a silver fire striker. Ah, I hear you say “but no-one can strike a spark from silver!” yes, that is true, but I tell you this striker was made of soft silver and when I struck it, such sparks as you would dream of getting from an iron striker fell onto my tinder.
So it was me who lit the fires for us on the journey back home, and although we moved as quietly as we could during the day, at night we would burn a large fire to keep the dark at bay and to try to drive the cold memories of the deep places where we found our treasures at bay. It was on one such night that I remember Njal waking me early for my watch. He said that he had heard something and that he was off to investigate. I warned him not to go, but he was the quietest of us and had often before spotted a danger and helped the rest of us avoid it. Besides he reminded me, he had the pearls. After he had been gone for an hour I roused the others and we started to search for him. We did not find him that night and when we returned to our camp in the dawn our horses were gone.
We spent a pretty miserable morning sorting out what to keep, what to leave, and what to hide so that we could return for it another day. We buried most of the silver and some of the gold, disguising where we hid it as a grave. Then we set out south again hoping to pick up Njal’s trail. After all he had the pearls and was the best we knew at hiding, maybe he was still alive and just tricking us! Thus it was that we arrived at Tharbad ford on foot that evening. We camped quietly, having gathered extra firewood. All the time keeping one eye on the ruined fortress that brooded over us from the high ground to the east.
It was a particularly dark night that night. Clouds obscured the moon. Each of us, during our watch, sensed .. things … moving on the edge of our perception. About midnight when Hengst was on watch a plague of spiders rushed through the camp. He screamed like a girl! Well at least he screamed like a girl would scream if she was six foot tall and built to wield a felling axe. Anyway it woke the lot of us in a hurry and we stamped and jumped and shook ourselves to be clear of the wretched things. To this day I can’t explain it, and hope I never have to see it again. Not one of us was hurt, and we must have squashed hundreds of the little, very creepy, crawlers. Then Gunvar mentioned that during the commotion he had heard a splash and did anyone want to come with him to check the ford.
Huddling round one of our diminishing stock of torches we cautiously advance down the road towards the water. We could dimly make out a shape crawling towards us from the river. It didn’t look too big, but our group took up a defensive formation anyway. Hengst and Gunvar in front with their axes, Erik bringing up the rear and me in the middle with the torches. We could see enough of the figure now to know that it had arms and legs. Glancing around we made sure that nothing else was approaching from our flanks and began to close with it. Memories of our last aquatic encounter lingered unwelcome in our minds and we fought off the tentacles of dread that clung to us as we steeled our selves to fight to the death.
Suddenly Gunvar dropped his axe and ran forward. Stunned, we didn’t know what to do, then Gunvar called us. Imagine our shock and surprise, it was Njal! We carried him back to the fire and quickly dried and clothed him. It was whilst we did this that we noticed that it was not just his clothes that had been taken from him. Gunvar ranted at the wind and the darkness, Hengst moaned quietly and Erik just stared. I started to regret ever leaving to go north, and not for the last time. What had shocked us so much good listeners? Whoever had done this to Njal, and although we could not find out then from Njal then we were soon to find out first hand, had cut out his tongue and … eyes.
Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep during the rest of that night, and early in the cold drizzle of the next morning we attempted to cross the ford. None of us talked. Lost in our individual numbness we stumbled on. Gunvar almost carrying Njal, as well as his already heavy pack. That night we found shelter in a thicket, just off the road and tried to work out a plan of action. We felt hunted. We were only two days ride from lands that we knew, but this brought no hope. We were without horses, and all of us knew that this was outlaw territory. A land where the only rule was the rule of the name we had been taught to fear as children – Tariband. The next day we left the road and walked south, hoping to hide in the wilds until we could reach the river Isen which we could then follow east to Maeldun. We made slow process. We hid our tracks during the day and kept our fires small at night. Huddling round the smouldering embers we would discuss what we would do with the treasure when we reached safety. Occasionally we would try and work out what Njal was saying as he stared blindly into the darkness. The next day we would continue south with extreme caution. Little did we know that as we did this we walked closer and closer to the warrior queens lair. Little did we know that our efforts to hide did nothing to remove us from her gaze and merely isolated us from any hope of rescue.
Our fears increased when we discovered that at night Njal wasn’t randomly mumbling. As he stared he chanted “dead things”, occasionally pointing too! One night when we made camp I could indeed make out shapes like faces in the mist. That evening Gunvar made an offering of half of the gold which we still carried, throwing it into a pool in a stream. Erik complained about this, saying that he was an old women to be worried about water spirits and ghosts that only blind men could see. But we all feared Wights, after all we had fought one in the barrow where Gunvar found the daggers. Each of us dealt with the fear in our own way, Eriks was to dismiss any danger he couldn’t defeat with a sword. On that occasion Gunvar stayed quiet, I made no comment. One day later Gunvar buried the rest of the gold at the roots of a giant oak. Without a sound, while he kept watch during the night, Erik had disappeared.
All the next morning we heard horses and screams in the woods and valleys around us. Soon we took no head of which direction we were running in, we just avoided the noises and tried to stop Njal from falling over things. Suddenly we emerged from a thicket into a clearing. At the far end rose a timber stockade. warriors stepped forward from their hiding places to form a ring around us. At their centre, casually looking at us through a crystal rod stood Tariband.
“Thankyou for carrying my treasure this far”
she walked towards us as she spoke “but as you are thieves and
grave robbers, it is now time for you to face justice.”
Of course Gunvar chose to duel. He was not called Gunvar the strong for nothing! It was said that as a child he had killed a wolf with nothing more than a rock. It was an impressive feat then, and there were few who could stand after a blow from his fist as an adult – let alone stand against him when he wielded his massive axe. I have seen a long axe such as his hit a man on the shoulder, plough through his body and out the groin. Gunvar wielded his weapon as if it were as light as a toy. Five feet in length it was, and when he swung in a figure of eight he formed a wall of steel round himself. To touch him you had to walk through the wall.
Tariband drew her sword and almost nonchalantly walked towards Gunvar. The clearing fell silent as they joined each other in the preliminary steps of a dance of death. Time seemed to stop as the studied each other, trying to search out some weakness of defence. Gunvar was no amateur, new to this dance, and well he knew not to strike unless certain. Tariband matched step for step in the slow circling, coiled like a snake ready to strike. Then with a flash of Gold she was inside his guard. The axe, shaft cut cleanly in two, fell to the ground as he grappled for his lithe assailant. He grabbed her arm, twisting to force the sword from her grasp, but using his strength against him she cartwheeled into the air knocking him off balance onto the ground where she relieved him of consciousness with a headlock.
Her fight with Hengst lasted no longer, and only served to prove to the assembled throng of bandits that their leader had lost none of her skill. I, I am afraid to say, surrendered without a fight. “Serve the sword or be marked by it” was what she said, and you can still see the scars from the branding wrought by that blade on my skin. Still, I successfully hid my treasure when we were searched. I kept hidden under my slave clothes the true heart of a free man. While Gunvar and Hengst fought and feasted and were seduced by Taribands lies about rebuilding the Kingdom of Numenor, I watched the shadows grow. I observed how Caranarak manipulated the spirits of the restless dead to conjure illusions. All on my own I worked out how he had tracked our path with the aid of those who have fallen into shadow and now cluster round magical treasures like moths to a candle flame. Guarding my secrets, I watch for the chance to avenge my friends deaths, or to escape. I tried to convince Gunvar and Hengst to help, but they were too far gone. All too ready they were to give up their treasure, their kith and kin for a full belly and a smile from Tariband.
This is why only I escaped, and not without great difficulty
I can tell you. And perhaps another night I will tell you if you give
me enough mead to wet my throught. But in my escape I helped bring about
the downfall of Tariband, and sit before you this evening to tell my
tale. And for proof, should you want it, I still have my treasure. Granted,
it’s not as fair as it once was, and the sparks have worn out.
But it is the proof that I have travelled the world and seen things
most people round here only have nightmares about. Now where’s
that mead gone.