Man of the Mountain

Man of the Mountain

This is part two of the story I started in Child of the Plains.

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.
. . .

“When you said to send scouts, I didn’t realize you intended to be one of them.” Ruger’s horse stamped his feet, as if to highlight his rider’s impatience.

Ylyea’s mare flicked her ears in response, as if silently chiding her companion for his childish behavior. Ylyea didn’t even glance in Ruger’s direction; she was too busy studying the bushes lining the edge of the trail. “We cannot learn about the mountains by staring up at them,” she replied sternly. They were her father’s words, summoned from the depths of her memory by the sudden appearance of the mountains on her doorstep. “We learned the plains by roaming them and experiencing them. We must be like our ancestors now, must learn the shape and feeling of these new lands if we are to master them.”

Ruger snorted. Ylyea didn’t fault him for his ill mood. He had just returned from his circuit with the cattle and had been looking forward to wallowing in the high summer heat before he was called upon to work again. But there was no rest in the homestead today. It would likely be a long while before the homestead found peace again.

Of course, Yelyea hadn’t been among those called to scout for mountain pathways. As the organizer of the caravan, everyone had expected her to soothe frazzled nerves. But she had not the patience for egos. And besides, as she had argued, the best way for her to get the caravan moving was to find a path it could take. That meant riding the mountain until they found a path wide enough for wagons to pass.

Ruger was her escort, though most everyone agreed she didn’t need one. Still, scouts rode in pairs for a reason. These were unfamiliar lands. If someone fell from horseback and became stuck or injured, they would need someone to send for help, or pull them from the brambles. Ylyea might even have been glad of the company, if Ruger had been able to stop complaining for longer than ten minutes.

She had expected to hate these mountains. Had been determined to hate them, in fact. They had stolen her precious plains away from her, blocked the open air, choked the sky, and placed a solid wall of earth between her people and their sources of trade. Yet it had barely taken an hour for the mountains to melt the ice in her heart.

Her fingers trailed across unfamiliar leaves, searching for a specimen worth collecting. When she found a pair of unblemished leaves, she clipped them carefully from the bush and tucked them into a pouch at her belt. She had collected a dozen such samples now; she suspected their shaman would be eager to get his hands on them. Some were sure to have medicinal properties, while others would surely invoke the spirits of the mountains. Like the rest of this new landscape’s features, Ylyea’s people would have to forge a relationship with these unfamiliar spirits, unless they wanted to spend the next several years at war with their surroundings.

In silence, she mounted her mare. With a slight squeeze of her heels, she set the horse in motion and they continued their ascent. They had been shocked to find hard packed trails already cut across the mountain’s face, obviously worn from steady passage of foot and hoof. But the longer Ylyea road, the more sense she made of their discovery. Wherever these mountains had come from, there must have been people to travel them. The assumption that all people would avoid mountains because she had never been near one was foolish. And perhaps the people who cut these trails had no choice but to travel the mountains, just as the people of her homestead would have no choice if they wanted to survive.

Heeding her father’s old stories, Ylyea had tucked rope and climbing gear into her kit. She didn’t plan to be away longer than a day – two at most – but she didn’t know how far her horse would be able to carry her. She recalled her father’s warnings that the air would grow thin as she ascended the mountain’s face and that her horse would be unable to reach the tallest of the peeks. But despite her preparedness, she doubted she would experience those aspects of the mountain today. After all, a path incapable of accommodating wagons was ill-suited for trade. Already, she thought their best option might be to craft smaller, narrower wagons and split their  cargo between them. That should allow the same number of horses and traders to make the journey through these high passes. But Ylyea remained concerned about the crooked, switch-back nature of the mountain paths. They were littered with rocks and cracks forged by the spread of roots from the trees towering on either side of the trails. There was great risk of a horse stumbling or a wagon wheel breaking, which would only cause further delay.

For a moment, she dared to close her eyes, trusting the sure-footed nature of her horse to avoid whatever obstacles might lie in her path. She listened to the sound of the mountain. To the patter of her horse’s hooves, less muffled by the soft grass of the plains that she was used to. To the rustle of wind through the leaves, so much louder than the soft swish of the wind on the grass. And yet the wind felt fuller when it rushed across the plains, less restricted by the gnarled, clutching fingers of the trees.

Beyond the wind and the horses, Ylyea heard the distinct chirp of insects. Birds called to each other, their songs filling the silence. Every now and then she heard a crackle or a crack, as if the trees were shifting into more comfortable positions.

Opening her eyes, Ylyea scanned the edges of the path. Sometimes it grew narrower and sometimes wider. Sometimes it was steep and sometimes it was flat. Sometimes bushes and trees crowded the clear space and sometimes they fell away, revealing sheer drops that no man or horse could hope to survive. The mountain was inconsistent and unpredictable. One thing seemed certain; while the plains revealed all within their domain, the mountains seemed to conceal their secrets. Only the clever and industrious would thrive here.

A sharp, dry snap echoed through sudden stillness. It was as if every creature on the mountain slope, large and small, had frozen while it tried to identify the source of the sound. Ylyea and Ruger did not glance at each other, their eyes busy scanning the shadows on either side of the path.

“There!” Ruger grunted, jerking his head to the right as the wet squelch of crushed leaves reached their ears.

Shadows shifted and Ylyea caught a bright flash of red and yellow among the lush green and earthen brown. Her hand moved to the knife at her belt and Ruger’s followed a moment later. The plains people were peaceful, but each learned how to fight as soon as their elders deemed them ready. Ruger had a reputation; he had never lost a scrap. But Ylyea was truly formidable when she put her mind to it.

Another twig snapped and the horses shifted, pawing the ground, responding to the sudden tension of their riders.

“Show yourself,” Ylyea demanded, speaking on a whim. Her voice echoed through the trees, disturbing the birdsong.

With one more rustle of the shadows, the threat revealed itself. Short in stature but broad of shoulder, a man made his way through a pair of twisted trees. A smile lit his face. The deep etching of wrinkles on either side of his lips and eyes suggested that he smiled often, though Ylyea had long since learned that smiles did not equate with kindness.

The old man’s skin was weathered and worn, but his clothing was well-kept. At his side strode a lazy goat. Its fur was white and one of its horns was broken. It nibbled at something it found between the leaves littering the side of the path, showing no interest in the pair on the road.

Ylyea suspected it was the goat that had snapped the twigs and crushed the leaves beneath its careless hooves, though they were meant to think it had been the man taking a casual stroll. She flicked her eyes toward Ruger. He hesitated then, after a moment, nodded ever so slightly. As one, the scouts released the hilts of their knives and forced themselves to relax.

“Ah,” the old man said, apparently taking this as his cue to speak, “newcomers! Welcome! Welcome!”

Ylyea and Ruger shared another glance, then Ylyea inched her horse forward half a step. “You know these mountains?” she asked, careful to keep all hint of hope out of her voice.

The old man laughed. It was a pleasant sound, good-natured instead of sinister, and this allowed Ylyea to further relax.

“I have lived on this mountain my entire life,” the old man proclaimed. “Do I know it? Why, yes.” He tugged at his long, graying beard. “Yes I do. I know it backwards and I know it forwards. I know it inside and I know it outside. Upside down and inside out, yes I know it that way too. Round and round, I know the mountain. Know it like the back of my hand.” He held up one aged and wrinkled hand, as if to demonstrate.

Ruger breathed a soft sigh of relief, perhaps seeing an end to the duties he had not wanted to undertake in the first place. He ignored a sharp glance from Ylyea and pushed his horse forward. “Then you can show us a path to cross?”

“A path?” For a moment, the old man seemed surprised. His eyes widened, almost seeming to pop from the depths of his wrinkles before settling back among them moments later. “Yes.” Another tug at his beard. “Indeed. I can show you many paths to cross the mountains. If that is what you really want.”

Sensing that there was great potential to ruin this meeting and lose all chance at discovering what the old man could actually do for them, Ylyea cleared her throat. Ruger cast a glance over his shoulder, then frowned. The struggle of wills was brief. Ruger knew that Ylyea was better suited to this negotiation. And if he returned to the homestead having fouled a precious negotiation, it would not gain him any esteem. He yielded, drawing his horse backwards so that Ylyea and her mare stood a little ahead of him on the path.

Ylyea smiled at the old man, a careful smile, though not an unkind smile. “First, I wonder if you could tell us which of the great mountains lies at the center of this range. Is it Amestane?” As the closest mountain to their plains, it seemed the most likely answer.

“Ah…” the old man breathed, the word half a sigh as he tugged again at the base of his beard. “So the motion of the mountain through the night was no dream. The mountain spirits have finally awakened to resume their wandering.”

“Resume?” Ruger scoffed. “The mountains have stood steady for thousands of years-“

Ylyea held up a hand to cut him off. “Do you mean that the mountains will move on again as soon as night falls?” Now there was hope in her voice. A single day of delay for the caravan would cause little more than consternation. And if the city was also affected by the mountains’ shift, the market would proceed as planned, albeit with a slight delay and many grand stories to share.

But the shake of the old man’s head was enough to dash her hopes as quickly as they came riding. “The mood rarely strikes them more than once every couple of millennia,” he said, his voice soft and not without a hint of mourning. “But to answer your original question, the great peak at the heart of this range has long been known as Twilvern.”

The breath rushed from Ylyea’s lungs. She did not know much about maps beyond the plains. But if her father’s stories were to be believed, Twilvern once lay half a world away from the homestead. How could the mountains travel so far in a single night if, indeed, they could travel at all?

“You seem to know much of these matters,” she said as air finally returned to her lungs. “Perhaps there is much we could tell each other of this new situation.”

“Perhaps,” the man agreed, inclining his head slightly to one side. “Though no trade comes without cost.”

“We have ever known it to be true,” Ylyea agreed without hesitation, for she could easily recognize a sage when she saw one. For all she knew, his years might number far greater than she could imagine simply by looking at him, especially if he knew of a time before the mountains’ former configuration.

The old man tugged again at his beard, an absent habit, Ylyea guessed, in the same way herdsmen often fiddled with their belts or adjusted the straps of their quivers when they made idle conversation. His face was impossible to read now and Ylyea assumed there had been far more to his smile than she first surmised. Perhaps he had even been amused that they had dared to finger their weapons. If he was old enough, wise enough and powerful enough, he might be able to destroy them without lifting a finger of his own.

A sobering thought to be sure. But if he was anything like the sages of the plains, there were rules he would have to follow. And so long as they remembered their manners, Ylyea and her companion should be fine.

“Come with me,” the old man said at last. Turning, he tugged on the rope fastened loosely around the white goat’s collar. The creature snorted, perhaps annoyed by this disturbance of its foraging, but it fell into step beside him none-the-less. “Conversations like this are best held over tea. My table is modest, but always open to friends.” He glanced over his shoulder, seeking confirmation that his guests would follow.

“We would be honored,” Ylyea replied, bowing her head respectfully.

Satisfied, the old man turned and began to make his way up the trail. He moved swiftly for a man of age and the goat trotted in his wake.

Ylyea was just about to nudge her mare forward when Ruger caught her arm and gently squeezed her wrist.

“Are you sure this is wise?” he hissed, casting a sharp glance at the sage’s back. “We do not know who we are dealing with.”

“Would you rather map every inch of the mountain yourself?” Ylyea retorted with a slight smirk.

Ruger blinked and released her arm. Clearly it had not occurred to him that their choices were limited. Children of the plains were not used to working outside of their home territory. They were used to having the advantage, to knowing how the plains would serve their whims. Now they were at the mercy of the man who understood the mountain and, for Ruger, it obviously chafed.

At length, her companion nodded and motioned for her to take the lead.

“Be on your guard,” Ylyea murmured. “The old man speaks in riddles. Do not allow your heart to answer before your mind has unwoven the tangle.”

Ruger nodded, but Ylyea suspected he would leave her to do most of the talking. He was a simple man. He would ride anywhere when told, would smash anything he was told to attack. But he was not a man of patience or strategy. He knew his limits and he was wise enough to abide them.

Ylyea clicked her tongue and, with a swish of her tail, her mare started in the old man’s wake. Like Ruger, she intended to remain on her guard. The fact that these mountains were not the Amestane, the only range with which her people had any familiarity, meant that what few rules she had been counting on to hold true were likely lost to her. Until she learned the laws of this new world, she would have to be careful that she did not bargain away more than she cared to pay.

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