Spirit of the Mountains

Spirit of the Mountains

Here is the penultimate installment of the Wandering Mountains saga! It started with Child of the Plains and continued in Man of the Mountain, then again in Legends of Old. It picks up with Council of Silver and The Traitor’s Trial. The stunning conclusion will go live two weeks from today!

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.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think of the series so far!
. . .

When Ylyea departed for the Heart of Twilvern, she insisted on traveling alone. She would not have another Ruger.

His fate remained undecided the day she loaded her saddlebags and mounted her horse. She rode away from the homestead without looking back, without allowing herself to look back, though she had no idea how long it would be before she saw it again.

If she saw it again.

By the time she stood in the heart of the great mountain, at the center of the range surrounding her home, Ruger’s punishment would no doubt have been carried out. If the mountains knew, they didn’t respond. Perhaps they didn’t care. He had rejected their offer. Even if the elders decided to sacrifice him to the heart of the mountains, it was unlikely to make a difference.

Or so the old man said when she visited his hut a week before.

He rocked backward when Ylyea told him the story, as if the revelation had been a physical blow. He caught himself on his table, wincing as he lowered himself into a chair. But it was enough to make Ylyea think that he would have to shoulder some of the burden, fair or not.

“The fault was mine,” he said softly, folding his hands in front of him and shaking his head. “I should have prevented the knowledge from falling into the wrong hands. The price he pays for stolen knowledge will be awful.”

Ylyea hadn’t had the heart to tell the man that Ruger had already been tried for treason. And that the council heavily favored the idea of execution when she departed. She had played her role and served her purpose, delivering her testimony about the power of communion with the mountain spirits, though she hadn’t provided any details of the method. Now she considered it out of her hands and beyond her concern.

“But can it be corrected?” she had asked, settling into the seat across from the mountain sage. “Can I still win the confidence of the mountains, despite what my foolhardy companion has done?”

“Nothing is impossible, child,” he had replied, reaching across the table to set a gnarled old hand on her wrist. “Even coaxing the mountains into moving wouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility. It is simply a matter of cost. And I beg of you not to ask anything for which you are not willing to pay. You have already seen the result.”

So Ylyea had spent most of her travel time contemplating just how much she was willing to pay to ensure the future of her people. Unlike Ruger, she wouldn’t consider something like war or famine. The effects of such disasters would be too widespread, impossible to predict, and involved the sacrifice of lives with which she had no right to barter.

But something told her the mountains would never have asked such a price. Ruger had been foolish to think he could gamble with the forces of the universe and escape unscathed. Ylyea rode to her fate with her eyes open. And unlike her former companion, she was willing to sacrifice a great deal on behalf of the plains people, even if she wouldn’t live to see the result.

She had left her horse near the base of the final trail, hobbled so that she could graze. She tried not to think about what would happen to the beast if she never passed that way again. A lucky drop of a dead tree branch might just free the mare to roam as she pleased. But if Ylyea was to return to her homestead and report on her mission, she would need some form of transportation.

She didn’t know, yet, how the mountains perceived time. Ruger appeared to have spoken to them and received his response in short order. But if the mountain spirit asked something complicated of her, it might be some time before she was free to leave. Perhaps she could find a way to bargain for the safety of her mare, though if the mountains would care about the life of a lesser creature, she had no way of knowing.

She made the final part of the journey with climbing gear she had taken from her father’s chest. The same climbing gear she had carried on her initial foray into the mountains, though she had only rudimentary knowledge of its use. How Ruger had made the final climb without such equipment was beyond her, though it may have accounted for part of his rough appearance upon his return.

Ylyea would make no claims to the grace of her ascent; she cared only about its success. Heading carefully the words the old man had given her, she folded her rope and returned it to her pack. Then she set the few belongings she had carried with her against the entrance to the cave and ventured further with only a small pouch bound at her waist.

When first she spoke to the mountain sage about communion with the mountain spirits, she assumed it would involve some sort of ritual sacrifice. That she would have to bring a goat or a sheep to the heart of the mountain and use its blood to open communications. She had imagined some kind of mirror pool filled with blood which allowed her to see the face of the great Twilvern.

Barring that, she assumed she would have to at least slice open her palm and offer a few drops of her blood to gain an audience with the sleeping giant.

But the ritual was far simpler than she could have imagined, which may have been why Ruger was so willing to undertake it.

There was a fire pit in the central cavern, already set with wood and ready for use. Either Ruger had obeyed the rules of the mountain sage and restocked it before his departure, or the old man had somehow made the journey ahead of her in order to maintain the sacred space.

Ylyea took careful note of the placement of each log and run-carved rock. She would need to set them back this way when she was finished. Then she moved about the room, aligning the runes according to the old man’s instructions and removing the logs she would not need from the fire pit. A small fire was all she would need, the sage had assured her. And she should never use more than she needed, not when it came to the mountains.

When her preparations were finished, Ylyea wasted no time on second thoughts. She used a flint and steel from her pouch to light a fire, carefully nursing it to the proper size. Then she pulled a small handful of herbs from the same pouch and crushed them into the fire.

Wait for the smoke to turn ruddy red, the sage had said. Then breathe deeply of its scent. Not too much, not enough to choke your throat or burn your eyes. Just enough to let the heady sensation of their magic seep into your head.

Then she was to make note of which direction the smoke flowed and lay herself on the floor so that it would wash over her while she communed with the mountains.

The scent was stronger than she anticipated and she was forced to draw away from the fire, coughing to regain her breath. But she would not be deterred. She inched back to the fire’s edge and breathed more carefully, letting the scent of wood and herbs wash over her.

When she began to feel woozy, she inched away from the fire and watched the rising smoke. She hadn’t expected it to move in any direction. The air was still here, though it hadn’t been stale. Which meant that it must be well ventilated.

Sure enough, the smoke flowed back toward the direction she had come. Probably it made its way out through the cave entrance while fresh air flowed inward.

She splayed herself on the cool ground several feet from the fire, mindful that her clothing wouldn’t be able to catch while the fire was unattended. Then she let her eyes drift about the cavern while the heady smoke flowed around her.

The heart of the mountain was nothing like what she expected. Just as everything else since this the start of this crazy venture. She had imagined the cavern sprinkled with gemstones that gleamed in light with no source. She had expected to see rubies, emeralds and sapphires so thick her breath would catch in her throat, a veritable cache that no looter would dare touch for fear the mountain spirit would strike them dead in the act.

Failing that, she had expected some sort of bioluminescent fungi or moss to cover the walls in spectacular patterns, clear evidence of the magic that must flow through the mountain and make it work.

But she could see now what the sage meant when he said that magic had nothing to do with the mountains. They were living beings, that followed the same logic everything else had to. The walls here were just plain rock, and the herbs in the fire were just plain herbs, though she had mixed them carefully and according to the sage’s recipe.

No, the heart of the mountains was more like a home. There was even a hearth carved into the far wall, set with a wide mantle, though it seemed no fire had burned there in a long time. She imagined the space set with a table, chairs and a bed. It would be quite comfortable, especially if she could block the cool draft that flowed from the entrance during winter.

The greatest marvel was the smoothness of the stone, carved with greater precision than she had ever seen. Smoothing her fingers along the floor revealed no hint of bumps or dips. It was as if someone had perfectly cleaved the interior from the mountain’s heart, leaving polished rock in its wake.

She got no further in her examinations before her mind began to drift. She did not fight the sensation; the sage had warned her against that. Instead, she let sleep take her, though she had no idea where she would be when she woke.

Despite the sage’s instructions, she steadfastly believed she would wake in the heart of some cavern far away from where she started. There might be an underground river there and glowing crystals that hung from the ceiling. And there she would find Twilvern, humanoid in shape, the spirit of a once-great warrior, sealed in the mountain for all eternity.

But she did not wake. And she was keenly aware of the fact that the entire conversation took place while her body dozed beneath the smoke of the fire in the heart of the mountain. In many ways, she was aware of the room, of the stillness of her body and the steady rise and fall of her chest. But at the same time, she was somewhere else, as was often the case with dreams.

She found herself sitting in the heart of the mountain. But instead of an empty room and a clean hearth, she found it  filled with all the objects that made a house a home. A tapestry hung over the mantle place, though she couldn’t quite discern the subject it depicted. A fire burned brightly within the stone fire place, filling the space with brightness and warmth.

But it wasn’t until she turned to look at the massive table and surrounding chairs pressed into the corner that she realized the massive scale of the dream version of the mountain’s heart. The furniture was impossibly large. Ylyea couldn’t even fathom a creature that could make use of it. And the more she looked at the tools spread across the various surfaces, the more she realized said creature’s limbs must bear less than a passing resemblance to her own.

When  her eyes fell on the room’s sole other occupant, however, he did, indeed, bear human form. He was tall and lean, chiseled from muscle, his skin weather worn and rough. His face was stern, his features sharp, but he did not look cruel or mocking.

He sat across from Ylyea, his legs folded in the same fashion, his arms resting on his legs in front of him.

“Twilvern?” she breathed, barely daring to believe it.

“That is my name in the language of your kind, yes. To say it properly, your mouth would have to have a different shape.”

“Then this is not your true form?” Ylyea was somewhat relieved by that revelation, though she couldn’t say why.

The tall man chuckled lightly. “It is not. Though I must say I like the form your mind has chosen for me much better than the one crafted by my last visitor.” He shivered.

“Rugger,” Ylyea said softly. “I’m terribly sorry for what he did,” she added, the words flowing from her mouth in a rush. “I must tell you that he did not speak for the people of the plains. We have condemned his actions, though I do not know if that will bring you any solace.”

The incarnation of the mountain spirit held up one massive palm as if to forestall further explanation. “You need not speak so quickly, child. We have as much time as we need. I am not the vengeful sort, though I will admit to being pleased your people have punished this Ruger, as you call him. He did not strike me as an enlightened individual.”

“I hesitate to call him simple,” Ylyea replied, a little defensive. She had known Ruger a long time. And aside from his foolhardy ploy, he had been a decent man. “But he sees the world a certain way. He has no room for anything that doesn’t fit his simple rules.”

“But you do?” The words were not mocking and not a challenge, but Ylyea sensed that there was a hard edge underlying them, a warning, perhaps. She would have to tread carefully.

“My name is Ylyea. I was not exactly chosen by the homestead to speak with you. I chose myself. My father was a world traveler and he spoke with awe about the mountains, though I don’t know if he ever visited you. It was I who purchased the knowledge of the mountain sage, because I hoped to barter with you. We are plains people. We know little of hills let alone mountains. It was my hope that we could work together, plains people and mountains, so that the time you spend here would be fruitful.”

“That is not the true wish of your heart,” Twilvern replied, though his voice was soft and thoughtful rather than harsh and stern.

Ylyea bowed her head. “No,” she admitted, seeing no reason to lie to someone who had already peered into the depths of her soul. “Originally, I wanted to ask if you would mark the homestead when you left, so the mountains would not trouble the plains people again. Our way of life is precious to us, as I’m sure yours is to you. I wanted to ensure future generations would not lose the traditions that have guided us until your arrival. But I fear that Ruger has ruined all hope of such a beneficial relationship. It would be enough for us to simply live in peace.”

“Enough for your people, perhaps. But not enough for you.” Twilvern folded his hands in front of him and bowed his head, spilling waves of raven hair across his shoulders while he contemplated his response.

“When your companion fled the heart of my mountain, I vowed that I would hear no more from your people. But I like you, Ylyea. You understand what your companion did not. You give me hope that our people could live in harmony.”

Ylyea was wise enough not to answer when he paused, merely bowing her head again to acknowledge the words.

“I believe we can come to an arrangement that will please you, though I do not believe the generations you wish to preserve the plains for will thank you when it’s done.”

“Their judgment would lie on my head,” she replied quickly, “not yours. I only want the best for my people. If you can see into my heart, you can see that.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Twilvern agreed. “For instance, you want us to retract our configuration so that your herds will have space to graze without having to cross the peaks at great risk to themselves. Is that correct?”

Ylyea blinked, startled. It was one thing to read the measure of a person through sight, but another entirely to read their mind. Perhaps it had something to do with the dream state. Perhaps she and Twilvern were connected via the herbs and the fire. She wasn’t entirely certain she wanted to know how he knew what she intended to ask, though it did make things easier.

“Yes. Our horses do seem able to navigate your pathways, but the cows are not so clever. The goats will be just fine. Their footing is clever. But the sheep are far less so. It is true that our wellbeing is tied to the wellbeing of our animals, so this is not an entirely selfless request. But it isn’t just the size of the herds and the wellbeing of their keepers that will suffer if the animals are injured.

“I have tried to consider only the changes that would be absolutely necessary for our survival. A path to the capital, for instance, would be convenient, but if we can make the journey over your kin with relative ease, then that is more than sufficient. I did not know what would be difficult or even insulting to you, so I did not want to settle on anything until I asked.”

Twilvern lifted his head and much of the tension seemed to leak from his muscular body. “I do like you, Ylyea. You are much wiser than your age suggests. I think it might be wise of us to converse before we make any decisions. Though as a show of our good faith, and a reward for your clear head, I will arrange so that your herds have proper grazing grounds.”

Ylyea drew a deep breath and released in a rush. “Thank you, great Twilvern. I cannot properly express how grateful my people will be for your understanding.”

“Don’t thank me just yet, child. You ask a great deal of me if you wish our clans to have a long-standing relationship. I wonder if you have considered the price?”

Ylyea swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry even outside the dream. “Tell me,” she said softly. “If it is within my power to grant, it will be yours.”

“Your companion said the same, you know.”

And an image of Ruger rose into her mind. Not as she had last seen him, wallowing in misery in the corner of his cell, but splayed across the center of the room in which she now lay, a sacrifice upon an invisible altar, waiting for the knife to fall.

She shook her head. “Forgive me, great Twilvern, I mean no insult when I speak my answer to your request. But it is not within my power to grant.”

“No?” Again, there was a warning edge to the mountain giant’s voice. “And why is that?”

“Because his life is not mine to offer. I could carry your request to the council, and they might answer, if they have not already carried out the sentence they set for him. But even if I did, it would be under protest. Ruger came to you expecting to sacrifice other lives to save his own. I have only one life to offer, and only because it belongs to me.”

She expected anger and outrage. She expected to be expelled from the dream and for a voice to echo into her head that she should never dare return to this place.

Instead the giant sitting in front of her smiled. “You are wise, Ylyea. Wise indeed. But you know what I am going to ask of you if you have only one life to give.”

Ylyea closed her eyes. She suspected the visions would have come to her either way, but they seemed easier to accept without the strangely massive room sharing the same visual space.

“What you ask, I will do. I came here willing to die for my people. I see no reason why I shouldn’t be willing to dedicate my life to them too.”

She opened her eyes in time to see the giant smile as he dipped his head in acknowledgement. “I only hope you will not come to regret your dedication. The term of our agreement is bound to be far longer than you anticipate.”

“If I am not equal to it,” Ylyea replied softly, “I will find a way to make myself equal.”

To her surprise, the mountain spirit laughed. “I believe you will, Yly. I believe you will.”

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