A MULLOG MYTH: NAULE AND THE ANCESTORS' SONG

STORY 

This mullog myth concerns the silverwood bug hivelings which occasionally occur in the Silvermarshes. Like many mullog myths and legends, it forms part of a complex and interconnected web of stories making up the vibrant oral culture of this secluded race. Concerning the popular hero Naulé, this myth focuses on the ancestors and their relationship with living mullogs, giving it great significance to the mullogs, who worship their ancestors as sources of sacred heritage and wisdom.

It should be noted that this version of the myth was taken down as a literal translation by the scholar Lumbe Bloggson, and it has therefore lost a lot of the lyrical quality that characterises mullog stories. In this story, characters such as Stalker are not strictly representative of an individual creature, but would be better described as representations of the way mullogs view swamp stalkers in general. Thus Stalker’s ability to talk, and other non-naturalistic qualities, could be better said to represent the Eru of swamp stalkers as a whole, rather than individuals.

For those not familiar with mullog culture, there are a few terms that might need clarification: “Ehpi” denotes a spirit of place, a powerful kind of spirit which embodies a physical area. The Ehpi “Galumbé” is the spirit of the whole marshland on which the mullogs live, although he is usually said to be a spirit of past times, and has “gone away” lately. ”Eru” is a word meaning something between spirit and soul. Every living creature has an eru, and it is this which is able to travel the spirit world. “Ohs-er-Dan” is the practise by which a mullog induces a trance which will allow them to leave their physical body and travel the spirit world.

Story. The story about Naule and the Ancestors' Song is told as follows:

Naule and the Ancestors' Song. You will remember, my friends, how Naulé, first of our leaders and greatest of our shamans, ventured into the spirit world to seek the aid of the Ehpi. You will remember, my brothers and sisters, how he found aid and allegiance in the great Ehpi Galumbé, and the people of the Silvermarsh began a new era. You will remember, people, how in his first journey through the spirit world, Naulé was greatly troubled by pale ghosts who spoke to him in mournful voices which he could not understand, how these were the first ancestors – the great ones and tender ones who had perished in the marshes before, and who now dwelt without understanding in the spirit world.

You will listen, my children, to this shard of the ever-extending story of the marshes.

When the marshes were still new to us, there were spirits that drifted lost and alone and afraid in the spirit world. Ancestors of the first mullogs, the great ones and tender ones had died a long way from the homes they remembered. They did not understand the marshes their children grew to love, and they could not speak the language of the dead. All they could do was call out in drowned voices to the one mullog who strayed within earshot, whenever he undertook Ohs-er-Dan. They pleaded with him to listen, railed against his inability to understand, whispered advice that could be of no use, told him their secrets and promised to protect him. But none of their words could reach green eyed Naulé, who heard their voices as if they were singing underwater, the song of a drowning creature.

To Naulé, they were fearful and sorrowful spirits; drifting like morning fog on the edge of fading, always moving yet never seeming able to muster a clear shape.
Blurred of limb and pale of eye, they were like dolls made of spider-silk, and then torn ragged by the wind of their own movements. Yet in all this pallid fragility, there was a core of burning strength, like the bright sap that courses through a slender sapling, so fierce and determined it can push soft roots through rock to find water. Naulé saw this, and it added to the dismay he felt when they flocked round him, singing like dead things and smelling of teardrops in winter. He fled when they clustered around him, he cried out to them to let him be, he flailed at their insubstantial forms and scattered them like clouds before a gale. Time and again they sought him out in the spirit world, and time and again he ran, kicking up arcs of water with his angry feet. But there was nothing else the ancestors could do, so they persisted.

Something watched, as they tried again and again to speak to Naulé. Something watched as he fled and cursed and hit out at the pale ghosts. Something watched, eyes bulging and intent, as the ancestors reached out forever-fading hands to their child, and its eyes smiled a smile, ancient and insipid and cunning and hungry.

This was Eru Swampstalker, prowling the spirit world. Mind him, my children, he walks softly and his words burn.

Eru Swampstalker crept slimy-slow down to where the ancestors watched Naulé flee once more away across the marshes. He stood stony-still whilst they murmured after him their last few sad words, too forlorn to think that he would not hear them even if he could understand. He was waiting, friendly and charming as a toad, when they turned from watching Naulé’s escape.

“Who are you?” they asked in their underwater voices, not greatly expecting any reply. But Eru Swampstalker is cunning as much as he is ugly, and when he heard their strange murmuring, he spread his spindly hands ever so welcoming, and said, in his wheezy bubbly voice;
“My name is Stalker. I’m sorry, my friends, but I couldn’t help but hear how that rude creature ignored you so pitiless cruel. You all seem a little lost- is there not something I could do to help you, my dears?”
The ancestors trembled and their pale eyes widened in astonishment. The bravest amongst them, a great one who had been called Ironmaw, drifted forwards to speak for them all; “You can understand our speech?”

Stalker may not know what they said, but he could make a good guess. “It is my gift to understand even the strangest languages– I have a great many talents. But please, let us not talk of my power, I wish only to know how I can help you... ah! I have it! As you were so clearly keen to talk to that little mullog thing, I could help you with that. Would that be useful?”

Every one of the ancestors fixed him with a gaze of such desperate hopefulness that it was all sly Stalker could do to keep from drooling in anticipation. He had them now. “You will have to lead him to me- that is easily done, if you come to him when he is alone. Bring him to my home on the edge of the marsh as soon as you can, and I will tell him everything you need him to hear.”

Naulé returned to the here and now, and busied himself in the tasks of leading the mullogs, so as to avoid any journeys to the spirit world. Of course, to the ancestors, this posed a great problem, as in the here and now, they were quite invisible. How could they lead Naulé to the home of their friend Stalker, if he never ventured into the spirit world? But then, the ancestors are not entirely powerless, even when lost and alone. They waited and watched until green-eyed Naulé went hunting alone. They followed him as he stalked through the marsh, spear in hand and eyes keen.

Watching him, the great and tender ones were astonished, despite themselves; the children they had left, fearful and exiled in the harsh land of the Galumbe, had grown into a new kind of people who wore the marsh like a marvellous second skin. Silent and invisible, they watched Naulé walk through pools with feet so soft they made no ripple, and fishes swam undisturbed alongside him. They watched how his pale grey skin seemed to fade into the misty distance, so that only when he moved was he noticeable. They watched as he picked fungi that would have killed his ancestors, hunted with his teeth and nails like a kaimun, with his deft spear like a fishing bird, how he picked what was good to eat with the confidence of one truly at home.

Still, watching Naulé hunt was no substitute for speaking to him. As he moved further from the village, the ancestors grew more eager. Finally, they saw their chance; a young stilted elk was grazing a short distance from Naulé, but he had not seen it yet. Quick as only spirits can be, they came to the young elk and filled his mind with subtle ideas. The elk, never having had so many thoughts in his head at one time, was startled and jumped up, so that Naulé saw him, and froze, ready to move closer and strike as soon as he could. But the ancestors whispered in the elk’s ear “run a little this way,” and so he did, and Naulé had to creep closer, nailsbreadths at a time, until he was again close enough to strike. But the ancestors were not finished. “Again, little one! Run again!” and so he did, and Naulé once more had to creep after.

Time and again, Naulé patiently edged up to the little elk, and time and again the ancestors spurred it on, at the last moment. But determined Naulé would not give up so easily on such a great feast. By the time the elk crossed into the edge of that grey land that is called Despondmire, he was far too absorbed in the chase to notice how far he had strayed. For hours he followed after the little elk, but by night fall, he was beginning to realise that he was very weary and a long way from home.

Too late, for now it was too dark even to see the elk! Nights on the miserable moors of the Despondmire are fearful dark, and within them lurk malevolent spirits of many forms. One of them was already very close behind poor Naulé. Too late, he felt clammy, itchy breath on the back of his skull, and too late he turned to see the horrible oozing face of Swampstalker, long spindly hands stretching out to take Naulé, like a long awaited gift. All he could see before Stalker’s poison sent him to sleep was those pale, bulging eyes round with greed and happiness.

As Stalker dragged Naulé’s unconscious body to his rocky lair, the ancestors could do nothing but watch, the cold realisation of how they had been tricked slowly dawning. Stalker seemed oblivious to their outraged cries, for of course, in the here and now, he could neither see nor hear them, and wouldn’t have cared if he could; he had his prize. His eyes seemed as round as the moon as he bustled Naulé into the damp rocky nook that was Stalker’s larder. Stalker has no teeth, like an old man, and likes to wait for his food to rot before he started to eat it, so that it was runny and soft. So he left Naulé in his horrible larder, and rolled a great stone over the door, so that he couldn’t escape.

But my friends, you all know, I am sure, that it is not so easy as all that to poison a mullog. Naulé woke with the grey dawn of Despondmire, and though he felt ill and weak and most terrible miserable, he was by no means dead yet. He looked about his prison for some means of escape, but in truth, my friends, I cannot think of a more hopeless place than Stalker’s larder, nor one I would less like to be trapped in. The space was very small, made of old stones that had stood on the Despondmire since forever, slowly sinking into the cursed mud of that place. The stone walls were covered in green-black algae, and dripped stinking water on poor Naulé, making him shiver with cold. Bones and scraps of skin and gristle remained on the miry ground, reminding Naulé that if he did not escape, he would soon become one of Swampstalker’s meals. The stone sealing the door was far too big for Naulé to think of moving it, but he wondered if maybe he could pry a gap, if he had something to wedge in the crack between the stones. But that was no use, for his spear lay out on the Despondmire, under the dismal grey sky.

Naulé realised, then, that he had nothing at all, nothing in the whole world except for the little protect-me-from-lost-hope talisman that hung around his neck. He looked at it for a long time. It was small, made of pale stone carved into the shape of a little beetle. He wished he could run and hide in the spirit world now, seek refuge behind the protective figure of Ehpi Galumbé. What did it matter if sad pale ghosts followed him like shadows? They never tried to eat him. He tapped the little talisman against the stone blocking his entrance. It made a happy chinking noise, like the first note of a new whistle, and it calmed poor Naulé, easing his despair enough for him to sleep.

Imagine, my friends, the torment of those ancestors, as they watched their own Naulé, hopeful green-eyed leader of the mullog people, face a terrible end at the slimy hands of forever-hungry Swampstalker. They watched him, silent and solemn, knowing that it was their efforts, however innocent, that had led Naulé to stray from the marshes that were his home and refuge. They turned to each other, with sad pale eyes filled with the fire of the great ones, and the love of the tender ones, and resolved to rescue Naulé, no matter what stood in their way.

The ancestors may have been lost, but they were still ancestors, and knew secrets that are kept from the living, even from many of the ehpi. In their strange drowned voices, they called to the little stone amulet that lay clasped in Naulé’s hand while he slept. At their call, it unfolded six stone legs, and scuttled over to where the ancestors huddled in the corner of the prison. There it stood for some time, hopping from one leg to the other as if in a great hurry to be away. Finally, the soft sound of the ancestors’ voices ceased, and the beetle unfolded delicate crystal-veined wings, and flew up, and out, through a tiny gap in the rocky walls, its wings making a flinty purr as it flew.

Naulé woke some time later, to a strange sight indeed; a creature was standing over him, and seemed to be watching him, though it was hard to be sure, as it had no eyes, that he could see. It was a figure, tall and lean, almost like a man in size and shape, but formed entirely out of silverwood bugs, swarming together to make a glittering shape in the air. “I must be still dreaming” said Naulé, and he was surprised to see the creature shake its head, contradicting him. The rustle of those many many wings beating together made a soft sound, like a sigh. And then, the strangest thing of all, the silverwood-creature began to talk, in a voice that floated into Naulé’s mind without seeming to come from any mouth, for the face of the creature remained blank as ever.

“So you are Naulé, leader of the mullogs? I thought you would be bigger – no matter, though, I suppose the beetle was exaggerating.”
Naulé realised, at this mention of beetles, that his amulet was missing. “What beetle? And who are you, please? Not another monster wanting to eat me?”
“No, oh no, how nauseating. I don’t eat anyone, much less anyone who has the protection of their ancestors. I came here because I was asked to – a little stone beetle came to me with a message, saying that I must come quickly to the aid of Naulé the hopeful, who was trapped by the terrible cunning of Swampstalker. Well of course I couldn’t refuse – Stalker is a foul creature, as I’m sure you know.”
At these comforting words, Naulé couldn’t help but smile. Help had arrived! But a word used by the silverwood creature caught his attention. “I’m sorry, what do you mean by “protection of their ancestors?”

The silvery sprit laughed, with a sound like falling leaves and sunlight. “Well who do you think sent me such a message? Beetles are simple little creatures; they never do anything unless they are asked to. It’s very strange that you don’t know your ancestors when they protect you so fiercely – they’re here right now, see?”
Naulé looked, but the little prison was empty except for himself and the silvery figure. “No, I don’t see anyone. They are really here? What do they look like?” in truth Naulé was a little scared at the thought. He had seen some of his ancestors die, and did not think he would like to see them again afterwards.

“They look like cobwebs and marsh mist, bound up together into shapes of people. Some are bigger than you and some are smaller, but they all have pale, lost eyes. You really can’t see them? How sad, but I suppose it explains why they couldn’t help you by themselves.”
Naulé was shocked. Suddenly he understood – the fearful ghosts who had plagued him for so long were ancestor spirits! How could he be so blind? For a long time he stood silent, too stunned to know if he was happy or scared.

The silverwood spirit seemed thoughtful as well. It milled around the prison on feet that never touched the ground, glancing about as if very doubtful. Finally it stopped, and spoke in a voice steely with resolve, but also with regret ringing in its echoes.
“I have lived in this marsh for longer than I can remember. I’ve seen Swampstalker feed off whoever he pleases, seen him gloat over their hopeless tears as they sit in his pantry waiting to die. I told myself that, if I ever saw a chance to cheat him of even one meal, I wouldn’t let it slip by. And now I know exactly what to do. Ancestors, Stalker is a coward, you must remember that, because I won’t be able to explain everything. All I can give you, is this – “

And then, the silverwood figure, glittering as it moved like a wonderful dream around the space in that gloomy prison, began to sing. It sang, in a song without words, of rain and the smell of it and the fierce joy it felt in falling. It sung of earth and the taste of it in the roots of plants. It sung of darkness and the feel of it on your throat, of caught breaths on cloudy nights, when the air is built out of heavy silences. It sung of life, of the rushing, dizzy intensity of it, the defiant, impossible love that is held in every heartbeat of every creature, the echoes that each thought leaves in the earth and the sky and the water, in the leaves of trees and the colour of clouds and the ripples in every pool. It sung of death, in a ringing, silent song so loud and sweet and sad that Naulé found tears running down his cheeks, and that, too, was part of the song. And finally, it sung of a different kind of life, made up of all the echoes, all the feelings and secrets and memories, and a thousand kinds of experience that no-one, not the most gifted storyteller in the world, could describe, that make up the lives of spirits.

The song ended, as quickly as it had begun, and Naulé saw that it had changed everything. All around him, clustered around the room like an army of great pale carvings, his ancestors stood, still misty and faraway, but now a little more real, a little more recognisable for the people they had been when they were alive. And strangest of all, as they each woke from the spell cast by the song, they soon found they could speak, not in the lost drowned voices they’d so despaired of, but in voices clear and cool and bright as fishes, so Naulé could hear and understand every exclamation of wonder, every amazed whisper, that they uttered. The silverwood creature had sung them their own voices. Naulé turned to thank it, but even as he opened his mouth to speak, he saw the last few silverwood bugs that made it up go pouring through a crack in the rock. It was gone.

Naulé was not able to wonder about its sudden departure for long, though, for the ancestors, eager to make quick use of their newfound voices, began to construct plans of escape, bidding their child “listen closely; you are about to see the power of your ancestors at work!”

Now all this time Swampstalker had been getting hungrier, and at the thought of
Naulé’s tender flesh he had been getting droolier, and his long fingers twitchier, and his belly emptier. Swampstalker is a vindictive creature, and he likes nothing better, when he’s feeling hungry, than to go and whisper to his prey. He likes to sit and talk to them about this and that, and to hear them quiver and wail and beg for release. So Stalker crept up to his larder, and put his horrible slimy face to the door, and looked inside to see poor Naulé sitting all alone and huddled like a little child in the dark. Stalker’s big eyes bulged with greed, as he thought what a good meal Naulé would make. Naulé looked so lost and scared, that sly Stalker thought he would have some fun with him. He put his back against the big stone door, and pushed on it, until it shifted aside, just a chink, but enough for a small mullog to squeeze through. Just for a second, he let that gap stand clear, so that surely his prey would think he was saved, and then he slid, quick and mean, into the gap, blocking out the light and smashing any hope of escape.

Or so he thought. He was a little upset to see that Naulé hadn’t so much as gotten up when the door opened, and he didn’t seem nearly so scared and miserable as Stalker’s prey usually were. Still, Stalker could still enjoy taunting little Naulé. He leaned down, dripping his burning slime on the ground, and stared his ancient, hungry stare. “Are you feeling lost, little mullog? Are you feeling alone? It must be very fearful for you, to be so far away from all your friends and relatives.”

And Naulé smiled back, a quiet, bright smile that matched his clear, green, hopeful eyes, and said, quiet and clear and honest, “I don’t think so, sir. My people have all followed me, can’t you hear them coming?”
Stalker stopped, and listened, but he couldn’t hear anything. He said so, with a smug look as poisonous as his breath.

“Oh? I can hear them – all those footsteps, they must all be coming to find me. But I suppose mullogs tread very light, so maybe you can’t hear yet.”
And at this Stalker hesitated a little, and yes, he could hear something. Just very quietly, a rustle and a splash here and there, spread out all around, as if a great many people were moving with utmost stealth across the Despondmire. He told himself it was just the wind, but Naulé continued, in his calm, smiling voice:

“Yes, they are very close now. I expect any minute now they will begin the battle cries.” At this Stalker actually flinched, for just as Naulé said those words, a terrible noise grew from all around the little lair. There was a fearsome rattling, exactly like a great many spears and tridents being clashed together, and a great storm of shouting, the words all melted into one so that no single voice was heard, but instead a huge voice, speaking for all with a wordless shout of rage. Stalker was terrified. The defenceless mullog he had captured had called up a whole army of fearsome friends! Without a thought for his prisoner, he turned and scurried away into the marshes.

I think, my friends, that Stalker still sometimes looks back on that moment, and wonders why he saw not another soul as he fled, despite the fearsome racket coming from all around him. But I don’t think he has worked out the truth, just yet. And even if he did, don’t you think that the idea of an invisible army of ancestors, powerful and proud and protective of their children like nothing else, would scare him even more?

That is nearly the end of that tale – Naulé escaped, having learnt the truth about his ancestors, and how to speak to them. Speaking to our ancestors has since then been a special gift of the mullogs, and speaking to us a special gift of the ancestors. Swampstalker is still greedy and hungry, and still waits for a lonely mullog to stray within his reach, but he is a good deal more cautious about it now.

And what of the strange silverwood creature, which gave up its voice to the ancestors? Well, maybe it won’t sing again, but the ancestors made sure it got something in return. Their joy, at being free and at home and of understanding their world, was so great that it overflowed, and spread, along the paths still ringing in the air from the ancestors’ song, back to the silverwood spirit. They may never have told us their name, but we call them Joyful Eru, because to this day they dance, forever happy in being alive. And in that, they are among the wisest spirits of all.
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 Date of last edit 30th Sleeping Dreameress 1669 a.S.

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