Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, thelands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold thesea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, for everuntroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted withshadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lyingin the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to thewest by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and angerof the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to thewest. It comes up out of the distance and goes down intothe distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder ofOcean. To the northward red rocks, smooth and bare of soil,and without any speck of moss or herbage, slope up to thevery lips of the Polar wind, and there is nothing else therebut the noise of his anger. Very peaceful are the InnerLands, and very fair are their cities, and there is no waramong them, but quiet and ease. And they have no enemy butage, for thirst and fever lie sunning themselves out in themid-desert, and never prowl into the Inner Lands. And theghouls and ghosts, whose highway is the night, are kept inthe south by the boundary of magic. And very small aretheir pleasant cities, and all men are known to one anothertherein, and bless one another by name as they meet in thestreets. And they have a broad, green way in every citythat comes in out of some vale or wood or downland, andwanders in and out about the city between the houses andacross the streets; and the people walk along it never atall, but every year at her appointed time Spring walks alongit from the flowery lands, causing the anemone to bloom onthe green way and all the early joys of hidden woods, ordeep, secluded vales, or triumphant downlands, whose headslift up so proudly, far up aloof from cities. Sometimes waggoners or shepherds walk along this way,they that have come into the city from over cloudy ridges,and the townsmen hinder them not, for there is a tread thattroubleth the grass and a tread that troubleth it not, andeach man in his own heart knoweth which tread he hath. Andin the sunlit spaces of the weald and in the wold's darkplaces, afar from the music of cities and from the dance ofthe cities afar, they make there the music of the countryplaces and dance the country dance. Amiable, near andfriendly appears to these men the sun, and as he is genialto them and tends their younger vines, so they are kind tothe little woodland things and any rumour of the fairies orold legend. And when the light of some little distant citymakes a slight flush upon the edge of the sky, and the happygolden windows of the homesteads stare gleaming into thedark, then the old and holy figure of Romance, cloaked evento the face, comes down out of hilly woodlands and bids darkshadows to rise and dance, and sends the forest creaturesforth to prowl, and lights in a moment in her bower of grassthe little glowworm's lamp, and brings a hush down over thegrey lands, and out of it rises faintly on far-off hills thevoice of a lute. There are not in the world lands moreprosperous and happy than Toldees, Mondath, Arizim.

From these three little kingdoms that are named the InnerLands the young men stole constantly away. One by one theywent, and no one knew why they went save that they had alonging to behold the Sea. Of this longing they spokelittle, but a young man would become silent for a few days,and then, one morning very early, he would slip away andslowly climb Poltarnees's difficult slope, and havingattained the top pass over and never return. A few stayedbehind in the Inner Lands and became old men, but none thathad ever climbed Poltarnees from the very earliest times hadever come back again. Many had gone up Poltarnees sworn toreturn. Once a king sent all his courtiers, one by one, toreport the mystery to him, and then went himself; none everreturned.

Now, it was the wont of the folk of the Inner Lands toworship rumours and legends of the Sea, and all that theirprophets discovered of the Sea was writ in a sacred book,and with deep devotion on days of festival or mourning readin the temples by the priests. Now, all their temples layopen to the west, resting upon pillars, that the breeze fromthe Sea might enter them, and they lay open on pillars tothe east that the breezes of the Sea might not be hinderedbut pass onward wherever the Sea list. And this is thelegend they had of the sea, whom none in the Inner Lands hadever beholden. They say that the Sea is a river headingtowards Hercules, and they say that he touches against theedge of the world, and that Poltarnees looks upon him. Theysay that all the worlds of heaven go bobbing on this riverand are swept down with the stream, and that Infinity isthick and furry with forests through which the river in hiscourse sweeps on with all the worlds of heaven. Among thecolossal trunks of those dark trees, the smallest fronds ofwhose branches are many nights, there walk the gods. Andwhenever its thirst, glowing in space like a great sun,comes upon the beast, the tiger of the gods creeps down tothe river to drink. And the tiger of the gods his fillloudly, whelming worlds the while, and the level of theriver sinks between its banks ere the beast's thirst isquenched and ceases to glow like a sun. And many worldsthereby are heaped up dry and stranded, and the gods walknot among them evermore, because they are hard to theirfeet. These are the worlds that have no destiny, whosepeople know no god. And the river sweeps onwards ever. Andthe name of the river is Oriathon, but men call it Ocean. This is the Lower Faith of the Inner lands. And there is aHigher Faith which is not told to all. According to theHigher Faith of the Inner Lands the river Oriathon sweeps onthrough the forests of Infinity and all at once fallsroaring over an Edge, whence Time has long ago recalled hishours to fight in his war with the gods; and falls unlit bythe flash of nights and days, with his flood unmeasured bymiles, into the deeps of nothing.

Now as the centuries went by and the one way by which aman could climb Poltarnees became worn with feet, more andmore men surmounted it, not to return. And still they knewnot in the Inner Lands upon what mystery Poltarnees looked. For on a still day and windless, while men walked happilyabout their beautiful streets or tended flocks in thecountry, suddenly the west wind would bestir himself andcome in from the Sea. And he would come cloaked and greyand mournful and carry to someone the hungry cry of the Seacalling out for bones of men. And he that heard it wouldmove restlessly for some hours, and at last would risesuddenly, irresistibly up, setting his face to Poltarnees,and would say, as is the custom of those lands when men partbriefly, "Till a man's heart remembereth," which means,"Farewell for a while;" but those that loved him, seeing hiseyes on Poltarnees, would answer sadly, "Till the godsforget," which means "Farewell."

Now the King of Arizim had a daughter who played with thewild wood flowers, and with the fountains in her father'scourt, and with the little blue heaven-birds that came toher doorway in the winter to shelter from the snow. And shewas more beautiful than the wild wood flowers, or than allthe fountains in her father's court, or than the blueheaven-birds in their full winter plumage when they shelterfrom the snow. The old wise kings of Mondath and of Toldeessaw her once as she went lightly down the little paths ofher garden, and, turning their gaze into the mists ofthought, pondered the destiny of their Inner Lands. Andthey watched her closely by the stately flowers, andstanding alone in the sunlight, and passing and repassingthe strutting purple birds that the king's fowlers hadbrought from Asagehon. When she was of the age of fifteenyears the King of Mondath called a council of kings. Andthere met with him the kings of Toldees and Arizim. And theKing of Mondath in his Council said:

"The call of the unappeased and hungry Sea" (and at theword `Sea' the three kings bowed their heads) "lures everyyear out of our happy kingdoms more and more of our men, andstill we know not the mystery of the Sea, and no devisedoath has brought one man back. Now thy daughter, Arizim, islovelier than the sunlight, and lovelier than those statelyflowers of thine that stand so tall in her garden, and hathmore grace and beauty than those strange birds that theventurous fowlers bring in creaking waggons out of Asagehon,whose feathers are alternate purple and white. Now, he thatshall love thy daughter, Hilnaric, whoever he shall be, isthe man to climb Poltarnees and return, as none hath everbefore, and tell us upon what Poltarnees looks; for it maybe that thy daughter is more beautiful than the Sea."

Then from his Seat of Council arose the King of Arizim. He said: "I fear that thou hast spoken blasphemy against theSea, and I have a dread that ill will come of it. Indeed Ihad not thought she was so fair. It is such a short whileago that she was quite a small child with her hair stillunkempt and not yet attired in the manner of princesses, andshe would go up into the wild woods unattended and come backwith her robes unseemly and all torn, and would not takereproof with humble spirit, but made grimaces even in mymarble court all set about with fountains."

Then said the King of Toldees:

"Let us watch more closely and let us see the PrincessHilnaric in the season of the orchard-bloom when the greatbirds go by that know the Sea, to rest in our inland places;and if she be more beautiful than the sunrise over ourfolded kingdoms when all the orchards bloom, it may be thatshe is more beautiful than the Sea."

And the King of Arizim said:

"I fear this is terrible blasphemy, yet I will do as youhave decided in council."

And the season of the orchard-bloom appeared. One nightthe King of Arizim called his daughter forth on to his outerbalcony of marble. And the moon was rising huge and roundand holy over dark woods, and all the fountains were singingto the night. And the moon touched the marble palacegables, and they glowed in the land. And the moon touchedthe heads of all the fountains, and the grey columns brokeinto fairy lights. And the moon left the dark ways of theforest and lit the whole white palace and its fountains andshone on the forehead of the Princess, and the palace ofArizim glowed afar, and the fountains became columns ofgleaming jewels and song. And the moon made a music at hisrising, but it fell a little short of mortal ears. AndHilnaric stood there wondering, clad in white, with themoonlight shining on her forehead; and watching her from theshadows on the terrace stood the kings of Mondath andToldees. They said:

"She is more beautiful than the moonrise."

And on another day the King of Arizim bade his daughterforth at dawn, and they stood again upon the balcony. Andthe sun came up over a world of orchards, and the sea-mistswent back over Poltarnees to the Sea; little wild voicesarose in all the thickets, the voices of the fountains beganto die, and the song arose, in all the marble temples, ofthe birds that are sacred to the Sea. And Hilnaric stoodthere, still glowing with dreams of heaven.

"She is more beautiful," said the kings, "than morning."

Yet one more trial they made of Hilnaric's beauty, forthey watched her on the terraces at sunset ere the petals ofthe orchards had fallen, and all along the edge ofneighbouring woods the rhododendron was blooming with theazalea. And the sun went down under craggy Poltarnees, andthe sea-mist poured over his summit inland. And the marbletemples stood up clear in the evening, but films of twilightwere drawn between the mountain and the city. Then from theTemple ledges and eaves of palaces the bats fell headlongdownwards, then spread their wings and floated up and downthrough darkening ways; lights came blinking out in goldenwindows, men cloaked themselves against the grey sea-mist,the sound of small songs arose, and the face of Hilnaricbecame a resting-place for mysteries and dreams.

"Than all these things," said the kings, "she is morelovely: but who can say whether she is lovelier than theSea?"

Prone in a rhododendron thicket at the edge of the palacelawns a hunter had waited since the sun went down. Near tohim was a deep pool in where the hyacinths grew and strangeflowers floated upon it with broad leaves, and there thegreat bull gariachs came down to drink by starlight, and,waiting there for the gariachs to come, he saw the whiteform of the Princess leaning on her balcony. Before thestars shone out or the bulls came down to drink he left hislurking-place and moved closer to the palace to see morenearly the Princess. The palace lawns were full ofuntrodden dew, and everything was still when he came acrossthem, holding his great spear. In the farthest corner ofthe terraces the three old kings were discussing the beautyof Hilnaric and the destiny of the Inner Lands. Movinglightly, with a hunter's tread, the watcher by the pool camevery near, even in the still evening, before the Princesssaw him. When he saw her closely he exclaimed suddenly:

"She must be more beautiful than the Sea."

When the Princess turned and saw his garb and his greatspear she knew that he was a hunter of gariachs.

When the three kings heard the young man exclaim theysaid softly to one another:

"This must be the man."

Then they revealed themselves to him, and spoke to tryhim. They said:

"Sir, you have spoken blasphemy against the Sea."

And the young man muttered:

"She is more beautiful than the Sea."

And the kings said:

"We are older than you and wiser, and know that nothingis more beautiful than the Sea."

And the young man took off the gear of his head, andbecame downcast, and knew that he spake with kings, yet heanswered:

"By this spear, she is more beautiful than the Sea."

And all the while the Princess stared at him, knowing himto be a hunter of gariachs.

Then the King of Arizim said to the watcher by the pool:

"If thou wilt go up Poltarnees and come back, as nonehave come, and report to us what lure or magic is in theSea, we will pardon thy blasphemy, and thou shalt have thePrincess to wife and sit among the Council of the Kings."

And gladly thereunto the young man consented. And thePrincess spoke to him, and asked him his name. And he toldher that his name was Athelvok, and great joy arose in himat the sound of her voice. And to the three kings hepromised to set out on the third day to scale the slope ofPoltarnees and to return again, and this was the oath bywhich they bound him to return:

"I swear by the Sea that bears the worlds away, by theriver of Oriathon, which men call Ocean, and by the gods andtheir tiger, and by the doom of the worlds, that I willreturn again to the Inner Lands, having beheld the Sea."

And that oath he swore with solemnity that very night inone of the temples of the Sea, but the three kings trustedmore to the beauty of Hilnaric even than to the power of theoath.

The next day Athelvok came to the palace of Arizim withthe morning, over the fields to the East and out of thecountry of Toldees, and Hilnaric came out along her balconyand met him on the terraces. And she asked him if he hadever slain a gariach, and he said that he had slain three,and then he told her how he had killed his first down by thepool in the wood. For he had taken his father's spear andgone down to the edge of the pool, and had lain under theazaleas there waiting for the stars to shine, by whose firstlight the gariachs go to the pools to drink; and he had gonetoo early and had had long to wait, and the passing hoursseemed longer than they were. And all the birds came inthat home at night, and the bat was abroad, and the hour ofthe duck went by, and still no gariach came down to thepool; and Athelvok felt sure that none would come. And justas this grew to a certainty in his mind the thicket partednoiselessly and a huge bull gariach stood facing him on theedge of the water, and his great horns swept out sidewaysfrom his head, and at the ends curved upwards, and were fourstrides in width from tip to tip. And he had not seenAthelvok, for the great bull was on the far side of thelittle pool, and Athelvok could not creep round to him forfear of meeting the wind (for the gariachs, who can seelittle in the dark forests, rely on hearing and smell). Buthe devised swiftly in his mind while the bull stood therewith head erect just twenty strides from him across thewater. And the bull sniffed the wind cautiously andlistened, then lowered its great head down to the pool anddrank. At that instant Athelvok leapt into the water andshot forward through its weedy depths among the stems of thestrange flowers that floated upon broad leaves on thesurface. And Athelvok kept his spear out straight beforehim, and the fingers of his left hand he held rigid andstraight, not pointing upwards, and so did not come to thesurface, but was carried onward by the strength of hisspring and passed unentangled through the stems of theflowers. When Athelvok jumped into the water the bull musthave thrown his head up, startled at the splash, then hewould have listened and have sniffed the air, and neitherhearing nor scenting any danger he must have remained rigidfor some moments, for it was in that attitude that Athelvokfound him as he emerged breathless at his feet. And,striking at once, Athelvok drove the spear into his throatbefore the head and the terrible horns came down. ButAthelvok had clung to one of the great horns, and had beencarried at terrible speed through the rhododendron bushesuntil the gariach fell, but rose at once again, and diedstanding up, still struggling, drowned in its own blood.

But to Hilnaric listening it was as though one of theheroes of old time had come back again in the full glory ofhis legendary youth.

And long time they went up and down the terraces, sayingthose things which were said before and since, and whichlips shall be made to say again. And above them stoodPoltarnees beholding the Sea.

And the day came when Athelvok should go. And Hilnaricsaid to him:

"Will you not indeed most surely come back again, havingjust looked over the summit of Poltarnees?"

Athelvok answered: "I will indeed come back, for thyvoice is more beautiful than the hymn of the priests whenthey chant and praise the Sea, and though many tributaryseas ran down into Oriathon and he and all the others pouredtheir beauty into one pool below me, yet would I returnswearing that thou wert fairer than they."

And Hilnaric answered:

"The wisdom of my heart tells me, or old knowledge orprophecy, or some strange lore, that I shall never hear thyvoice again. And for this I give thee my forgiveness."

But he, repeating the oath that he had sworn, set out,looking often backwards until the slope became too steep andhis face was set to the rock. It was in the morning that hestarted, and he climbed all the day with little rest, whereevery foothole was smooth with many feet. Before he reachedthe top the sun disappeared from him, and darker and darkergrew the Inner Lands. Then he pushed on so as to see beforedark whatever thing Poltarnees had to show. The dusk wasdeep over the Inner Lands, and the lights of cities twinkledthrough the sea-mist when he came to Poltarnees's summit,and the sun before him was not yet gone from the sky.

And there below him was the old wrinkled Sea, smiling andmurmuring song. And he nursed little ships with gleamingsails, and in his hands were old regretted wrecks, and mastsall studded over with golden nails that he had rent in angerout of beautiful galleons. And the glory of the sun wasamong the surges as they brought driftwood out of isles ofspice, tossing their golden heads. And the grey currentscrept away to the south like companionless serpents thatlove something afar with a restless, deadly love. And thewhole plain of water glittering with late sunlight, and thesurges and the currents and the white sails of ships wereall together like the face of a strange new god that haslooked a man for the first time in the eyes at the moment ofhis death; and Athelvok, looking on the wonderful Sea, knewwhy it was that the dead never return, for there issomething that the dead feel and know, and the living wouldnever understanding even though the dead should come andspeak to them about it. And there was the Sea smiling athim, glad with the glory of the sun. And there was a haventhere for homing ships, and a sunlit city stood upon itsmarge, and people walked about the streets of it clad in theunimagined merchandise of far sea-bordering lands.

An easy slope of loose crumbled rock went from the top ofPoltarnees to the shore of the Sea.

For a long while Athelvok stood there regretfully,knowing that there had come something into his soul that noone in the Inner Lands could understand, where the thoughtsof their minds had gone no farther than the three littlekingdoms. Then, looking long upon the wandering ships, andthe marvellous merchandise from alien lands, and the unknowncolour that wreathed the brows of the Sea, he turned hisface to the darkness and the Inner Lands.

At that moment the Sea rang a dirge at sunset for all theharm that he had done in anger and all the ruin wrought onadventurous ships; and there were tears in the voice of thetyrannous Sea, for he had loved the galleons that he hadoverwhelmed, and he called all men to him and all livingthings that he might make amends, because he had loved thebones that he had strewn afar. And Athelvok turned and setone foot upon the crumbled slope, and then another, andwalked a little way to be nearer to the Sea, and then adream came upon him and he felt that men had wronged thelovely Sea because he had been angry a little, because hehad been sometimes cruel; he felt that there was troubleamong the tides of the Sea because he had loved the galleonswho were dead. Still he walked on, and the crumbled stonesrolled with him, and just as the twilight faded and a starappeared he came to the golden shore, and walked on till thesurges were about his knees, and he heard the prayer-likeblessings of the Sea. Long he stood thus, while the starscame out above him and shone again in the surges; more starscame wheeling in their courses up from the Sea, lightstwinkled out through all the haven city, lanterns were slungfrom the ships, the purple night burned on; and Earth, tothe eyes of the gods as they sat afar, glowed as with oneflame. Then Athelvok went into the haven city; there he metmany who had left the Inner Lands before him; none of themwished to return to the people who had not seen the Sea;many of them had forgotten the three little kingdoms, and itwas rumoured that one man, who had once tried to return, hadfound the shifting, crumbled slope impossible to climb.

Hilnaric never married. But her dowry was set aside tobuild a temple wherein men curse the ocean.

Once a year, with solemn rite and ceremony, they cursethe tides of the Sea; and the moon looks in and hates them.