Legends of Old

Legends of Old

This is part three of the story I started in Child of the Plains and continued in Man of the Mountain.

I got the idea for this particular story during our drive to Calgary. It was my first time passing through the Canadian Rockies and I was stunned by the majesty and diversity of the mountain faces. In fact, the more I looked at them, the more I saw faces. Each mountain looked like it’s own odd creature with its own unique characteristics.

Of course, being a writer, my mind went to work on this idea. Could these faces come from the spirits of the mountains? Or could the mountains be giant sleeping creatures? I actually have a ton of different ideas related to these concepts that might get sprinkled into a couple different fantasy worlds. As for this particular story, I think it might be the prologue for a future series.
. . .

The mountain man’s hut was not what Ylyea expected. Sages were known to be humble creatures, even in the lands of her birth. But the fear and awe they inspired in others often led to generous donations which ensured a life of comfort and luxury by the time they reached an advanced age.

Perhaps the people of the mountain man’s former haunt had feared him more than they revered him, and preferred to keep their distance. Or perhaps he was more isolated on his mountain peek by the land mass’s former configuration.

Whatever the case, Ylyea kept carefully silent as she and Ruger released their horses to graze on his front lawn beside the white-furred goat. The house was built from aged wooden planks, carefully fitted together by way of notches cut into each end. Ylyea wasn’t entirely convinced it could survive a stiff wind. But then, the trees seemed to mute the wind here on the mountain compared to the strength with which it tore across the plains.

Hints of faded paint clung to the wood planks, indicating that it might once have boasted a bright façade. The space between the wood was filled with some kind of hardened plaster. A few holes had been cut in the structure, each filled with thick panes of glass. From a distance, they looked bright and clear but, from up close, Yelyea could see how they had bubbled around the edges. Even so, glass panes were expensive, no matter their quality. Perhaps this was how the Sage had been rewarded for his wisdom.

From the outside, it seemed the hut couldn’t support more than two rooms in its interior, but it did have a wide, wooden awning built out front, covering a dilapidated porch set with two weathered rocking chairs.

“Come in, come in,” the mountain man urged, tugging at his beard as he made the journey up the small step and through the front door. “It won’t do to delay. Not at all. I’ll put the kettle on right away.”

Ylyea patted her mare’s shoulder one last time, then turned to follow. Ruger stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“Are you really certain about this?” he hissed, glancing nervously toward the hut. “We do not know what we will find inside. Or what will be waiting when we leave.”

Instantly, Ylyea understood his fear. She set her free hand on Ruger’s hand for a moment before gently prying his grip free. “It does not sound as if the mountains will move again. The homestead is not going anywhere. And neither are the homesteaders if we do not do something. But…” she hesitated a moment here, reading the anxiety in her fellow scout’s features before she finished, “if you are really that worried, you may wait with the horses.”

The offer tempted Ruger. She could tell by the way he glanced toward his horse, looking for a soft place in the shade beneath one of the trees where he could lounge. But a moment later, some savory scent drifted from the doorway of the hut, and Ruger shook his head.

“The elders will skewer me if I let something happen to everyone’s beloved Yly.” He smiled when he said this, his tone affectionate.

Ylyea smiled in return. She didn’t know when she had so endeared herself to the members of her clan, but she was not bull-headed enough to dismiss the honor of their esteem. Still, as she followed Ruger up the two stairs that led into the hut, that trust settled on her shoulders with heavy weight.

No one explicitly stated they were waiting for her to solve the problem of the mountains. But as the organizer of the caravan, the responsibility would inevitably fall to her. More than that, the only member of the homestead who had seen or experienced a mountain prior to this morning had been Ylyea’s father. And he had passed all of that knowledge on to her before his untimely death. That made her the closest thing to a mountain expert the plains people had.

Maybe in the city they had scholars better equipped to handle the sudden change. And surely some of the out-land traders had crossed mountain terrain to reach the fabled market. But they could not get word to the homestead until they solved their own problems, and Ylyea did not think it wise to wait on them.

The interior of the hut was surprisingly bright. Sunlight filtering through the forest canopy struck the bubbled glass panes and spilled across the floor in brilliant rays. A black cat lounged in the center of one of these sun spots, it’s yellow eyes tracking her and her companion as they made their way to the singular table.

The hut had no floor. Like the tents where Ylyea’s people made their homes, packed earth served. But scented rushes covered certain areas, providing padding for the feet, and a worn rug rested beneath the table, allowing its occupants to eat in comfort.

Four chairs waited around the sturdy wooden square. Ylyea would have wondered if there had only been three. Perhaps the mountain man wasn’t as magical as she assumed.

While she and Ruger settled into their chairs, their host bustled about one corner of the hut. Both a kettle and a cauldron hung over the central hearth, the latter bubbling merrily while the former’s lid began to shake as its contents rose to a boil. The wall just inside the door was covered in neatly organized shelves, packed with jars of liquid and baskets of herbs. Several bundles of herbs and vegetables hung from the shelf edges, and several ingredients were spread across a wooden counter, as if their host had stopped in the middle of preparing something.

The quickness of his fingers seemed counter to his age. He chopped an onion almost absently and tossed it into the cauldron, then pulled the kettle from its perch and set it on the counter.

A fresh bundle of herbs went into the kettle, then the old man tugged at his beard as he glanced at the rest of his stock.

The far side of the hut sported two comfortable chairs set either side of a smaller table. That table held both candles and a lantern, and Ylyea spied a bound leather book tucked against one of the chair’s arms.

A small door lay open opposite the chairs, revealing a modest bed chamber. From her position, Ylyea could see only one corner of the rush mattress topped with a heavy quilt, but it was enough to convince her the old man lived in relative, if modest, comfort. Odd that everything seemed designed for two, though perhaps the old man’s partner had recently passed. Or perhaps he was merely used to keeping guests, in the way of all sages.

By the time she turned back to their host, he was pouring tea into earthenware cups he set in front of his guests. A few more vegetables went into the pot, then the old man of the mountain sat down across from Ylyea with a cup of his own.

“Now,” he said, tugging at his beard, “where was it you wished to start?”

Ylyea didn’t dare hesitate, though no mention of payment had yet been made. She would simply have to accept that the sage would call on her to do something at some point in the future, and she would have to comply without complaint.

“Can you tell us how it is that Twilvern came all the way to our plains when it should have been farthest from this location?”

The mountain man replied with a hearty laugh. “For the mountains, distance is not so great as it is for us. Their true forms are even larger than what you see while they are at rest. Their legs are long and their strides are swift. When the lust to wander takes them, they have only a single night to satisfy it. Thus, they travel quite far.”

Ylyea nodded, wondering how far the Amestane had traveled, and if people who had once looked on Twilvern with awe would now traverse those peaks instead.

“And you say there is no way to convince them to move once they have settled?” she pressed, though she already knew the answer.

“You could ask them,” the old man replied, sipping from his cup. “But I advise heavily against it. There are certain questions the mountain spirits detest to be asked. And if you anger them, they are hesitant to reverse their opinion.”

“Good to know,” Ylyea murmured, casting a glance in Ruger’s direction. They could only hope their fellows weren’t shouting to the mountains, cursing their names and demanding they retreat. But then, she doubted communicating with the mountain spirits really worked that way. There was always some kind of ritual involved in these sort of things, which spared every poor fool the misfortune of a quick and disorderly tongue.

“And how would one go about gaining the favor of a mountain spirit?” Ylyea asked after a moment to sip her tea. It had a smoky flavor, deep , rich and soothing that she instantly liked. Perhaps she could trade a grassy blend for some of this, though she’d have to go home and fetch it to make the trade.

“Ah…” Again the old man laughed. This time, though, he did not tug at his beard. Instead, he wrapped both hands around his cup and smiled as if he had just recalled some fond memory. “Tell me… I’m sorry, what was your name again?”

“Ylyea,” she supplied without hesitation.

“Ruger,” her companion added, setting a hand against his chest.

The old man did not offer his name. He simply nodded to each of them in turn. “Tell me, Ylyea, do you know the legend of the mountains?”

This time, she considered her words carefully before answering, wondering if there would be some consequence for answering incorrectly. “When I was young, my father told me that the great spirits of the earth sleep in the hearts of the mountains. That each was once a great personage among their people – a warrior, scholar or healer – and once they had fulfilled their earthly tasks, they were called to sleep. So that they would be available to the people when they were needed again.”

“Mm hmm, mm hmm,” the old man murmured, nodding as she spoke. “This is a common tale, though not the most popular. There are some who believe the mountains came from elsewhere. They were giants, drawn to our world by its vast, open spaces, and decided to make their homes here. But the passage of their movement carved great harm into the earth’s great face, and they were forced to cease their wanderings in order to preserve it.”

“If these are only stories,” Ruger interjected when the old man fell silent, “what do you think is the truth?”

“I cannot say for sure,” the old man admitted, letting this sink in for a moment while he sipped from his tea. “But this is what I believe; the mountains have always been here. They were born with the rest of the world, born from its movements and cycles in the same way that man was, though they must be much older.

“Once, they lived as we lived, taking their sustenance from the earth’s abundance and building great works to prove their knowledge and understanding of the world into which they were born. And among each of the great mountain clans, there was an exceptional individual.

“Twilvern was said to have the heart of a warrior and none could match his prowess in battle. But he was also known to be a protector, ensuring that none of his clan fell into danger.

“Amestane, whom you are familiar with, was known to be the most skilled healer in all the land. There was no wound or illness she could not cure. But her knowledge was so complete that she could also create illness and knew how to craft every sort of poison, which she often used to keep her enemies at bay.

“Emscord, it was said, knew all the stories of the stars. And because of this, he was wiser than any being who has ever lived, before or after. If anyone had a question that needed answered, Emscord could provide the wisest course of action. And it is said that he gave such answers to the other great mountains – though sometimes, if he was angry with one of his fellows, he would lie and cause them to come to misfortune.”

“You seem to know a great deal about these matters,” Ylyea said during a lull in the conversation. She hoped the statement conveyed her interest as well as her respect for the sage’s considerable knowledge.

The old man tugged at his beard. “It is wise for a man of the mountains to learn the truth of his home. I could go on at length about the history of the mountain people. Dorbalt was a craftsman. Chanvos a gardener. But I think it safe to say that the souls of the mountains always inhabited these earthen bodies. That is why you can see faces splayed across their surfaces, if you look from the right angle and distance. The gods did not call them to ascend to some higher level of existence. They are merely part of the natural world. But because they are different from us, we find them difficult to understand.”

“And what made them sleep, do you think?” Ruger pressed, his tone more insistent than Ylyea liked.

The mountain man grinned so widely, his eyes nearly disappeared into the folds of his face. “They got tired, I would imagine. Living forever could have that effect.”

“Mountains cannot die?” Yelyea asked, intrigued by the idea of beings who did not experience the regular cycle of life. “Does that also mean no new mountains are ever born?”

“Oh, they can die. And some are born, I think. But it takes a long time.”

Vague; exactly the sort of answer she should have expected from a sage. She considered her next words carefully, draining most of the tea from her cup before she dared speak again.

“The mountains must not sleep completely if they experience desires. Perhaps they grow tired of the lands and people surrounding them and wish to experience something new. That is the very purpose of what we call wanderlust. In order for them to gain these experiences, they must be aware of what lays beyond them, of what surrounds them and happens on their surface.”

“An astute observation,” the mountain man replied, eyeing her sharply.

“Then, as you say, it would behoove us to strike a good relationship with these mountains.” Ylea sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. Once she made this decision, there would be no turning back. “For the mutual benefit of their people and ours.”

“I can teach you the way to speak with the mountains,” the sage agreed, folding his hands in front of him on the table. “But the cost is greater than you may wish.”

“Some sacrifices must be made to ensure the future of the clan,” Ylyea replied calmly, proud that she kept her voice even. “My father was a world traveler and he taught me thus.”

Ruger rose from his seat and gently pushed his empty cup toward the center of the table. “I will wait for you outside with the horses,” he said. Then he glanced at the old man. “Thank you for the tea and hospitality.” He bowed his head a few seconds, then turned and hurried from the hut.

The old man leaned forward now, all pretense of his absentminded nature melting away. She could see the effects of his age in his eyes; and he was far older than he looked, Ylyea could say that for certain. But mostly she was aware of his keen intelligence and the depths of his cleverness. He could do everything he claimed the mountains could, and more. This was the secret of the mountain sage; great power and heavy burden, neither of which could be borne lightly.

“You think me the remnant of an older world. And perhaps I am, but not like you think. I am a remnant of a remnant. You must understand that if you wish to proceed.”

“Tell me the cost,” Ylyea replied, lifting her chin to show her determination.

“That comes later,” the mountain man said, making a sharp gesture with one of his hands. “That is why you must be sure before I teach you the ritual.”

Ylyea knew better than to dismiss these words. She closed her eyes and summoned the face of her father. She recalled how pleased he had been when he spoke of his travels. But his smile had always been broadest when he spoke of the mountains and his attempts to tame their wild ridges. He had so desperately wanted her to follow in his footsteps, she couldn’t help thinking he had somehow called to the spirits of the mountains, summoning them to her doorstep since she refused to meet them elsewhere.

Now they were here and she had to embrace her own statement; she was a mountain child now. As her children would be. And their children.

But if they were wise and cunning, the children of their children might, one day, be people of the plains again.

“Do I pay full price for the knowledge?” she asked softly when she opened her eyes. “Or is the cost of speaking with the mountains separate?” She already owed the mountain man for what he had given them. There was no reason not to owe him a little more, even if she never needed the knowledge he imparted.

She could tell she had answered correctly. The old man’s features softened and he nodded once. “You have the right of it.”

Ylyea tilted her empty cup. “I should very much like to drink some more of your tea.”

The old man rose, crossed the small interior of his hut and came back with the kettle. He refilled both of their cups, set the kettle aside and folded his hands in front of him.

“Very well child. Let me teach you the ritual of speaking with the mountains.”

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