The Mountain’s Price

The Mountain’s Price

This is the final installment in my Wandering Mountain’s series. If you need a refresher, 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 followed by Spirit of the Mountains.

Here’s the story: 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.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! I never imagined it would be this long!
. . .

A fine sheen of frost coated the thick panes of window glass behind which a pair of dull candles flickered. Outside, the wind howled, rattling the walls of the rickety storage sheds built along the outside of the lane. But no one inside the cottage paid it any mind.

They were all focused on a smaller sound, a more urgent sound. That of a soon-to-be mother mewling in distress.

“Go and fetch the midwife,” the wrinkled grandmother commanded the stout young lad perched at her side.

“Papa already sent for her,” the boy replied. “But you know she won’t be able to help. She said the same thing when Tesir was born four moons ago.”

The old woman sighed and clenched her fists at her side. Why did this seem to be happening more and more often? Things were so easy just a decade before. Was it something in the water? Something in the air? Or had the world simply grown more complicated since her childhood?

Damn the mountains. It must have something to do with them. Or so her grandmother would always say whenever she became frustrated.

“Fine then,” she snapped, barely daring to glance at the boy. “Go and fetch the mountain witch.”

The boy swallowed hard. “You know she doesn’t like to be called that.”

“Do you see her standing here?” the old woman retorted, fixing the boy with a savage glare.

This time, the boy shrunk two steps backward, carrying the lantern with him. “But we don’t know for sure she can’t hear all the way down here-“

“Give me that,” the old woman snarled, snatching the lantern from the upstart’s grasp. “Take the most sure-footed horse when you go, child. The journey is treacherous enough in the winter without having to go in the dark.”

The boy’s eyes widened as realization swept over him. Not just that they needed the witch, but that his sister might well die if he didn’t bring her quickly. He tore from the room, nearly tripping over the door frame at the threshold. The old woman heard his heavy footsteps tromping down the hallway. They paused briefly when he reached the doorway, no doubt so that he could pull on his boots. Then the door creaked open and slammed.

The old woman sighed, set the lantern on the table beside the bed and captured the young woman’s hands between both of hers. “There now,” she murmured, brushing sweat-matted locks of hair from her face. “Just hold on a few hours and everything will be all right.”

But as the old woman glanced out the window at the darkness of the sky, she wondered at the truth of her own words. It would take half a day’s ride at a steady pace to bring the mountain witch to the village, and there was no way the boy could ride at speed in the darkness with the path shrouded in snow.

*   *   *

It had taken a couple of years, but the cold had seeped into her joints, making them feel fragile and brittle whenever she moved. Now that ache had taken root in her bones, making every drop of rain or snow that fell feel like a knife or a spear.

She still remembered the way Twilvern laughed when she suggested her new home was bound to be warmer than her old one. After all, it was higher up, which meant it was closer to the sky.

Between great bouts of belly laughter, the mountain spirit informed her that was not how the sky worked. That the higher you traveled, the colder it got. But she had not believed him until she experienced the change for herself.

Once, she asked the great mountain warrior why it was that the higher portions of his slopes were colder than the base. He had said something about a thinness in the air, about altitude and pressure. Ylyea had even pretended to understand it, but it had slipped out her second ear as soon as it entered her first.

There was too much knowledge in her brain now anyway. It was best to hold on to the truly important details, such as the properties of various herbs, rather than worry about things she could never hope to affect.

The old man’s hut was shockingly comfortable, even in the winter, sealed against the clawing winds and icy storms. There were many nights that Ylyea on in her sweet-straw filled mattress beneath the thick layers of her quilts and listened to the windows rattle while the trees scraped each other’s branches and shook dead twigs loose. But she never worried one would come crashing through the roof or careening through the window. Nor did she worry about her mare in her small stable outback. Even if not for the clearing around their humble abode, she trusted the mountains would never let true harm come to them. They didn’t make her life easy, gods knew. But they had never given her reason to curse their names.

Not since Ruger, anyway.

A thin line of blue graced the sky as the sun peeked over the horizon, rimmed with white on one side and grey on the other. Even after all these years, the image was still striking against the jagged outcrop of the sleeping mountains. Her eyes moved instantly to Twilvern’s peaks, which rose steeply above the rest, piercing the sky like a great arrowhead.

She let the last few sips of her tea warm her as they slid down her throat. She savored each taste, never knowing when an interruption would prevent her from making the next batch.

For the most part, Ylyea was happy with her new life. She didn’t mind the stillness or the solitude of living alone, with only her faithful steed as company. There were always the mountains, and she had long since learned to make communion with their sleeping spirits without making the arduous journey to Twilvern’s cavern.

Still, there were many things she missed about her old life. She missed the summer festivals, missed riding across the plains with open grass in front of her and blue skies behind her. She even missed the hustle and bustle of organizing the summer caravan. She wondered who managed now, though it hardly mattered. If there was a problem, she was still the one they called.

Just as she set her mug back against the wooden table, a flurry of knocks shattered the stillness. Ylyea drew a deep breath and released it as a sigh while she pushed herself to her feet. Whenever she resigned herself to a few weeks of quiet introspection, bad news would arise. She could almost predict it, and wondered if it was the last step to becoming a true sage. The old man certainly hadn’t told her everything when he turned over his home and his position. But then, he had been quite eager to depart. To find his wife and children in the spirit realm.

A second flurry of mad knocking echoed through the living room as Ylyea slid the latch and opened the door.

A single young boy stood outside, probably about thirteen years of age. His eyes were wide as buttons when she met his gaze. He swallowed hard and took a half-step backwards before he gathered the courage to speak.

“The old mother bids you come, Lady,” he said, clearly not knowing how he should address her. “It’s another birth complication, I’m afraid.”

Ylyea cursed under her breath. She remembered when children would run to her with delighted grins. How they would call her Yly and grasp her hand as they led her to the source of the disturbance. But she couldn’t expect the new generation to regard her the same as the old one had, when they had spent less time around her.

It was part of the mountain’s price, and the only part that still sometimes chafed.

“Someday, your old mother is going to learn to summon me before the labor starts,” she grumbled, motioning the boy to move around the side of the house. “Go and saddle my horse child. Hold out a hand to her so she can sniff you before you try to touch her and you’ll be fine. I must gather the appropriate herbs.”

The boy did as he was bid without needing a second set of urging. Ylyea closed the door against the chill and stepped back into the kitchen. She kept most of the herbs bundled for quick transportation. It had taken her a long time to learn how to do it properly, but now she simply snatched bundles from hooks and jars from shelves, wrapping them carefully in cloth before sticking them into the leather satchel she always carried. Then she made her way to the bedroom and pulled a few thick articles of clothing from a drawer, adding them to the pack.

By the time the boy led her mare around the house, Ylyea had tucked herself into her thick winter cloak and pulled the hood over her head, concealing her face. For some reason, this seemed to comfort the boy and he smiled when he held her mares reins toward her.

She smiled back, though he wouldn’t be able to see it, and swung herself into the saddle with practiced ease.

“Stay behind me child,” she commanded gently. “I have ways of making the path clear. We’ll make the return journey in half the time, I promise.”

*   *   *

It snowed more on the mountain than it ever did in the village. She never noticed until she had to make the descent. The great peaks seemed to catch the clouds before they could cover the valley, diverting much of their burden to the high slopes.

Ylyea wondered how the people of the homestead would react when the mountains shifted their formation, allowing the old amount of snow to return to the plains. It was one of the things they were unlikely to thank her for, just as Twilvern once warned. But even without the markers the mountain warrior had promised to place, it was unlikely mountains would stop here again during their next round of wandering. And no one alive then would be around to care about the next migration. Not even her.

Only one of the original homesteads had survived the arrival of the mountains without change. The people there still maintained the old ways, though many changes had been required of them. They were almost as large as the great city, or so she heard. It had been many years since she ventured that far, and she expected it to be many years before she did so again. Since the mountains did not touch their territory, they had little need of her.

The second homestead still remained open to the plains to the north. But the mountains sat between them and the great city, forcing them to become hybrids, to learn the way of the mountains even while they maintained the ways of the plains.

But it was the great city that had suffered the most. In a few years, she expected the king would shift the seat of his throne, and the inhabitants of the great city were sure to weep bitter tears for many years to come.

But the only homestead about which she was concerned today was the one she had originally called home. The Ruger had nearly doomed to destruction with his ill-conceived plan to speak with the mountains. No one spoke of it anymore – and Ylyea was glad of that – but she had never been able to forget his final fate.

So many things would have been different if the mountains had never come.

“The babe is fine,” she told the old mother as she washed her hands in the rapidly cooling water basin. “It’s the mother I’m worried about. You will need to watch her closely. The signs that her condition has turned will not be easy to spot. After two days, the danger to her life can be considered passed. I will stay in the inn until then, but I cannot watch her every moment.”

“Understood,” the old mother replied. She shooed away the boy holding the basin and passed Ylyea a towel herself. When she wasn’t speaking, the old mother kept her lips pressed into a thin line, which was probably why her jowls were so wrinkled they waggled like leaves in the wind whenever she spoke. “And what price will you expect for these services?”

Ylyea paused before she handed the towel back. She hated the way this woman spat price as if it were a dirty word. As if she asked more than was fair. She wondered if the old man of the mountain had ever had to deal with such and knew without having to ask anyone that he must have.

“My grain stores have run low,” she said after a moment to dispel the bitter response gathering on her tongue. “If you could see fit to replenish them, it would satisfy the debt.”

“It will be done,” the old mother relied, her tone one of both relief and resignation. Clearly she had expected Ylyea to ask for more. Even more clearly, she had hoped to protest.

But Ylyea never asked more than she offered in exchange. The old man had been very particular about that when he explained the rules of her new position, and Twilvern had long since outlined what he considered fair. She had overestimated a few times in the early years, but had quickly compensated when the mountain spirit informed her. Now she knew the prices so well she barely had to think about them.

She turned toward the door, ready for a hot meal and a few hours of rest, but she paused before she went through it, glancing over her shoulder. “You will observe the old traditions, of course?”

The old mother scoffed. Every time Ylyea asked about tradition, the woman grew more dismissive. “We always do,” she replied primly, “though there seems to be little point.”

“Without the old traditions, what do we have?” Ylyea replied, her tone sharp and cutting. “If we do not observe them, what will we do when the mountains leave?”

“The mountains will never leave,” the old mother spat, her eyes flashing with righteous anger. “They have always been here and there will never be an after, no matter what the Council of Silver preaches.”

Ylyea smirked. So that was why the woman entrusted with maintaining the health of the homestead had never been permitted to join the Council. She was a naysayer. And probably a troublemaker too. As soon as Ylyea packed her saddlebags and returned to the mountain slopes, she’d be stirring up trouble. But from the looks of it, no one would have to deal with this old mother much longer.

“We used to say the opposite when the mountains came,” Ylyea said softly, her smirk becoming a grin. “We stood on the outskirts of the homestead and peered up at the slopes from their shadows and spoke of how impossible it was for mountains to move. Why would we uphold the traditions of the plains if it wasn’t the way our ancestors lived? I still remember that grassy sea. Next time you hold a story fire, I’ll sit in the chair and tell the old tales as they were spoken when I was a child. We spoke of mountains then the way you speak of plains now.”

The old woman clenched her fists, balling the towel into a knot between them. “Whatever plains you remember, these children will never see them.” She motioned over her shoulder in the direction of the sleeping mother beyond the closed door.

“No,” Ylyea replied. “They will go where everyone else I remember always goes, onto the plains of the nether world where memory lingers much longer than it does here. But someday, their great-great grandchildren may see the movement of the mountains, or the great-great grandchildren that come after them. And we should make certain they are ready for the life they will lead.”

“Did the plains mean that much to you?” the old woman sneered. “Will you harry generations of your ancestor’s descendants to ensure their future lives up to the one you envision?”

Ylyea turned away from the door and stepped toward the old woman. Shocked, the woman took a step back, but Ylyea moved faster than she did. She might be older than anyone in the village could boast, but she still had her youthful vitality, still looked the same as she had on that day, thousands of years ago, when she pledged her life to the service of the mountain warrior.

She did not stop until she had cornered the old mother against the wall, until she could lean in and hiss directly into her ear. “I loved the plains and their people so much that I devoted my entire life to them. It was not the life I dreamed of, living in service to the mountains, but it was the price they demanded for ensuring that our children would one day roam the lands once promised to us. I have no desire to watch you repeat the mistakes we made when the mountains came. One day, they will leave us. I know that to be true. And when they do, you must be ready.”

She thinks you are stealing her life, the soft voice of Twilvern drifted through the vaults of her mind. Many of the elders believe that stealing years from them is how you maintain your youth.

There was nothing Ylyea could do about those beliefs; to make the homesteaders aware of her knowledge would only convince them the rumors were true. But it might be best if this old mother and her followers feared the lady of the mountain just a little bit. It would certainly make her life easier.

The old woman offered no response and Ylyea stepped back, making her way to the door. She paused in the frame and glanced again over her shoulders. “The mountains know where we came from,” she said. “And they know where we will go. At the very least, you would be wise not to anger them.”

Then she turned her back and left without waiting for the woman to respond.

A thousand years she had watched over the village to which she was born. And a thousand years more would have to pass before she could contemplate the end of her servitude.

But if Twilvern ever asked whether she would go back and change it, whether she would shed the fear that had replaced the love and adoration the plains people had once showered upon her for the life of a simple mountain woman, Ylyea wouldn’t have had to think about her answer.

She was a plains woman at heart. And when the time came for her to follow the old man to wherever sages eventually roamed, she would do so on the plains beneath the blue skies and amid the green grasses where she grew up.

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