Stories on the Mountaintop

How shall I describe Valax? Perhaps by saying that it reminded me somewhat of my home in the mountains to the east, though the mountain beneath Valax was not so high nor the air so cold as those peaks. Olive trees grew on its slopes, and sweet-smelling herbs too. After our ordeal in Dumun, it was bliss to be able to rest here. We were honored guests of the king, whose council was eager for any information about their southern enemies.

I remember one evening in particular, when we ate at the king’s table and afterward reclined on couches to tell stories, which was a favorite pastime in Ramzun just as it was in Dumun. Rosédan told the first story, her voice quiet as she recalled her time on the shores of the Irlasa lake. I translated for the king whenever she paused.

“I was confused when I first came there; I didn’t know where I was at all, and I didn’t know the language. More than confused, I was terrified. I could tell that they were a cruel people in that city, but they didn’t hurt me. They only took me to a room, that upper room where we hid. They sang songs to me that I didn’t understand, and they showed me strange pictures. It was women, mainly, which was some comfort to me, but they were not pleasant company in the least. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything more.”

The king shook his head. “That’s all right,” he said, offering her a cup of wine. “The Father of the Fates will not salt a wound, and neither will I.”

“But there is one incident that I remember clearly, though it wasn’t especially significant in itself. The women who were guarding me took me out for a walk by the shore of that horrible lake. It was early in the morning and the sun was just starting to rise. A bird landed on the ground in front of us, which greatly amused my companions. They laughed and pointed for no particular reason that I could see. It reminded me of a story I heard when I was young, and this is how the story goes.

“There was a young girl who had a pet bird that she cossetted and pampered as if it were an infant. But it happened one day that she was playing with it in her garden that it looked up at her and spoke in human words. ‘Why did you clip my wings?’ it asked her.

“She accepted this without wonderment, since she was a small child. ‘Because I wanted to keep you here,’ she told the bird, in the simple way of children.

“‘But I want to be free,’ the bird said, in the simple way of birds.

“‘I love you,’ said the child, hugging the bird to herself.

“‘I would rather have the love of my mate and my flock. Heaven did not give us our wings to be clipped, but gave us the sky as our inheritance. The earth is yours with all its rivers and mountains; let me have the sky.’ As this didn’t persuade the child, the bird went on to say, ‘Let me go free, and I will tell you your fortune.’

“‘All right,’ said the child. ‘I’ll let you grow your feathers back, and when they do, you must tell me my future before you go.’

“So the child and the bird made an oath before Heaven. Time passed until the bird was at last ready to fly again. The child was sad, but she had given her word. She bade farewell to the bird and asked it for the fortune it had promised.

“‘You will come to a room with two doors,’ the bird said, tilting its head to one side and looking directly at her. ‘Whichever door you choose, you will lose your way for a time.’ But before it could say anything more, the child grabbed it and tried to tie its leg to her finger. The bird cried out and bit her, then flew up to the wall of the garden.

“‘Come back!’ the child cried.

“‘I will not. We must part now, I to the sky and you to the earth. And now you will never learn your future from me.’” Rosédan clapped her hands and sat back on the couch.

“Is there a meaning to the story?” asked the king.

She shook her head. “It is just a story.”

“I’m afraid that there is a meaning to the story I have to tell. It will make some things clear for you, I hope. There were once three sisters, born to the same parents and raised in the same home. When they grew to womanhood, men came from all over the world to their father’s house to seek to marry them. The oldest was named Odhūmk, and she was distant and pale of skin. The middle sister was named Oramzix, and she was buxom and cheerful. The youngest sister was named Olusin’ārk, and she was the most beautiful of them all.

“‘Very well,’ said their father. ‘When you were young I betrothed you all to the prince of the mountain, but I will not hinder you in your choice. You may see your suitors and decide for yourselves.’

“The three sisters went out onto the roof and looked out over their hundred suitors. After a moment’s contemplation, Olusin’ārk sprang up from her seat and went to her father. ‘I will marry the man with the purple crown. Purple is a rare color, and he must be rich indeed. He is handsome as well, so handsome that my heart races when I look at him.’

“So Olusin’ārk went to her chosen husband with joy. He was a wealthy merchant and she had many children with him, but after a time her heart became restless and she found more lovers. Now no one can tell her legitimate children from her bastards, not even she herself. She taught them to sing this song.

I love life; I adore the life of the world.
My leaves grow green; my flowers bear fruit.
Grow from me; O blossom from my body!
The world is mine; I am of this earth.

“As for Odhūmk, she went to her father and told him, ‘I choose the older man with the fringed cloak. He seems to me to be wise.’

“She had always longed after hidden knowledge, and she thought that her chosen husband would be able to teach it to her. He gave her what she wanted, and more. Under his tutelage she became a mistress of potions and poisons, so that no one was surprised when he died suddenly. She had no children, nor any new husband except for perhaps the shades that slipped into her house at night. Everyone in the town knew to keep their own children away from her house, and the shadows swallowed it. But to any child who was unwary enough to approach her, she taught this song.

Old Man Ār built a house; Old Man Ār locked the doors.
Who will break down that old house? Who will tear open those old doors?
Take the left and make it the right; take one hand and make it the other.
Take the outside and make it the inside; take the skin and make it the heart.
Take love and make it hate; take the blessing and make it the curse.
Take the world and make it the house; take the sky and make it the doors!

“Oramzix was the last sister to choose. After much contemplation she asked her father who was the prince of the mountain to whom she was betrothed. Her father took her away from the crowd and to an inner room, where a man sat waiting for her. His face was veiled, but a light shone from his skin. They were married that hour, and he took Oramzix to his palace on the mountain. There she bore many children, to whom she taught this song.

When the people passed through the mountains, ye opened the door.
When the people passed across the river, ye made a path.
Ye set the heavens above the earth; ye framed the depths under the earth.
Ye divided the light; ye cut the brilliance with a knife.
Ye fashioned the sun; ye worked the moon.
We have built a city for you; we have made a home for our children.
They shall dwell in it forever, they shall live in it until the end of the age.

A cloud passed over the king’s face as he finished speaking. He made a motion with his hand, the first sign of hesitation I had seen in him since we met, and went on to say, “There are some of the northern priests who prophesy that Oramzix’s husband will prove cruel and abandon her and her children to beg in the wilderness. There are some of our own priests who prophesy that Oramzix will grow wayward like her sisters, will abandon her husband herself and thereby lose everything she has. But I pray that neither prophecy will prove true, at least not as long as I rule in Ramzun.”

Iddan had been listening to the king’s story with a faint smile on his face. Now he glanced at me and said, “I have a story to tell, if Kësil doesn’t mind my going first.” I didn’t, so with his smile gradually broadening, he began. “There was once a man who wandered from shore to shore seeking his fortune, since he was an orphan and had no home of his own. He happened to spend the night in a village on the coast where the men were all fishers and the women were all gardeners, but when dawn woke him, he discovered that the humble guesthouse where he slept was in truth a rich palace, and the village was a royal city. The men were all great lords and the women all great ladies.

“He was alarmed to learn that the woman he had laughed with the previous evening was in truth the king’s daughter, and was even more alarmed to learn that he was summoned to stand before the king.’”

I myself was somewhat alarmed by the direction this story was taking. I had heard jokes about travelers who dallied with young women as they passed through town, and most of these jokes were not especially suitable for the ears of maidens or really anyone’s ears.

But Iddan went on regardless of my concerns. “‘So,’ said the king. ‘You want to marry my daughter?’

“I suppose I do,’ said the man, because he was certainly not a fool. Anyway, he did love the girl.

“‘Are you of royal blood? No? Then you must accomplish three tasks to prove yourself worthy of my daughter. First, you must pull the sun down from the sky and give it to me. Second, you must slay the Bull of Fate that ravages my kingdom. Third, you must bring me an apple from the garden in the east where the sun rises.’

“‘Easy enough,’ said the man. With a bow for the king and a salute for his daughter, he left the palace. As he walked, he saw a sparrow caught in a fowler’s trap, and feeling compassion for the creature he freed it. After all, he was caught in a remarkable kind of trap too.

“He continued walking, and saw a snake with a wriggling toad in its mouth. Feeling compassion for the creature, he struck the snake and pried the toad free to hop away. After all, he’d be lucky not to be swallowed up himself.

“He continued walking, and saw a beautiful young woman standing by a tree wringing her hands. Her skin was pale and her hair was silver, and though she was not as beautiful as his intended wife, she was beautiful enough that he stopped and asked her what her trouble was.

“‘I’ve lost my pearl in the branches and I can’t get it back down.’

“So the man climbed up into the tree, found the pearl nestled between two twigs, and threw it down to her. But by the time he had climbed back to the ground, she had run away.

“He reached a high point from which he could survey all the land around him, and yet the sun still seemed impossibly far away. He sat and pondered until night fell. Then, as the moon shone brilliantly down on him, he felt the touch of two hands on his shoulders and heard a soft voice in his ear. ‘You did well to retrieve my pearl. Now accept this gift that I give you in thanks.’ Something fell down around him, which he discovered to be a net woven from fine silver threads.

“He slept, and in the morning when the sun was just beginning to rise, he threw the net over it and wrapped it up. When he brought the sun into the palace, the king was amazed by his success, and his daughter smiled to take his breath away. But since people were starting to complain about the darkness, the king told him to throw it back up into the sky. Yet something of its light remained within him, and from that day forward his hair was a golden yellow in its color.

“After this he went to find the Bull of Fate, which was not difficult, as its bellowing could be heard for miles around. When he saw it he was amazed by its size and ferocity. ‘My people are taught from infancy how to leap the backs of the wild bull,’ he remarked. ‘But killing it might be trickier.’

“From the mud nearby he heard a tiny voice. ‘This might help. It came from the bones of the earth and the strength of the earth is in it.’ He knelt and found the toad half-buried in the mud, holding up a stone knife twice its size.

“‘So it might,’ he said, and thanked the toad. He went down to battle the Bull, and it was a remarkable battle that I cannot tell in full or even in brief. But he leaped over the back of that bull and slew it with the stone knife, then carved out one of its horns as a drinking vessel to show the king what he had done. When the life passed from the Bull of Fate and its vision faded, that vision passed into the eyes of the man, and from that day forward he was granted visions of what was to come.

“After this he went south and east to the holy mountain where the sun rises. At the peak of that mountain was a garden where sacred apples grow. It was a difficult climb to the top, but the truly difficult part of his task was to get past the dragons that guarded it. He thought it over, watching the dragons as they watched him.

“Then he heard a high voice in his ear. It was the sparrow that was speaking to him, and it told him to drink water from the horn of the Bull of Fate. So he scooped up water from the stream that flowed down the mountain’s side, and as soon as it went down his throat, he found that he was able to understand the speech of the dragons. They were at that moment commenting on how delicious he looked, so he thought it prudent to interrupt.

“‘Excuse me, sirs and madams,’ he said, ‘but may I have an apple?’

“The dragons made a remarkable sound that he didn’t recognize, seeing as after all he had never heard a dragon laugh before. ‘A polite morsel, aren’t you? But since you are so polite, and you are the first man in a very long time to address us in our own tongue, you may have two apples.’

“The man took one apple to bring back to the king and one apple to eat himself. He ate, and the holiness of the apple passed into him. It is said, therefore, that his line will never disappear from the earth. He returned to the palace of the king, who was astounded by his success and gladly gave him his daughter in marriage. They lived, as the old saying goes, happily ever after.”

“I enjoyed that story very much,” said the king, then looked to me. “But now it is your turn, Kësil.”

During Iddan’s story I had been pondering what I should tell, with little success, but now that the decision was upon me, I made it quickly. “This is the story of how one of the Shimases was lost and then found again.”

“I’m sorry, the Shimases?” asked the king, leaning forward. Apparently my Bird had decided not to translate the name, leaving me only able to speculate as to what sounds the king had heard.

“The Shimases are the gods of my people. Well, not gods exactly. Messengers, perhaps. Ideals, you might say. But I suppose the story will make the most sense if you think of them as gods. There are eighteen of them, and it happened in one age that they were summoned before the vice-regent of the Flame.”

“What is the Flame?”

“I believe it is what I call Heaven and you might call the Father of the Fates,” said Rosédan in a murmur.

“All of them were there, or almost all of them. There was indomitable Ibkilis and pure Laras and Ris with his helmet and spear. There was Aras with the flower of her navel bared and Makiprun with her blazing tongue and Shis with his cauldron. There was Tagsis with his scales and Saras with his harp and Tagzanas with his club. There was Kizuskar at the helm of his ship and Liktus the sorceress and Fasan mounted on her horse. There was Uilas with her bow and Tis on her pillar and Kizusilun with his mirror. There was Unizal and there was Dubas, but frail Aral was not there.” I was not at all sure that I would be able to remember them all, but I did. If I have made any errors, may the Flame forgive me!

I continued. “The vice-regent of the Flame looked over their number and counted them twice to be sure, but each time the total came up to seventeen. ‘Where is Aral?’ he asked.

“Kizusilun peered into his mirror, but he saw nothing. Liktus consulted her invisible companions but they were unable to help her. Even Unizal and Dubas with all their insight into things both seen and unseen could find no trace of Aral and no hint as to where he had gone. ‘Very well,’ said the vice-regent. ‘If Aral will not come to you, you must go out into the world and find him. There is a different section of the world for each of you. Go, and do not return until you find your brother or the Flame bids it.’”

I remembered at this point that this was a very long story and it would take me a great deal of time to go through each of the eighteen adventures. Thinking quickly, I settled on the portion of the world that, if my knowledge of geography does not fail me, includes Magharun. “This is the story of what Shis found. He descended from the heavens to the land of, well, you wouldn’t recognize the name, but he came to a mountain overlooking the sea. It was a long way to the base of the mountain, so he brought out his cauldron, climbed into it, and slid down the slope to the foothills.” The stories about Shis are often on the lighter side. ‘In the first village he passed through, there was a famine, so he gave them food out of his inexhaustible cauldron. In the second village, the sheep were barren, so he laughed and waved his hand so that the flocks increased. In the third village, the people were afflicted by leprosy, so he poured out water from his cauldron on their sores and healed them.

“Shis came to the sea and set out in his cauldron to cross it. Nowhere had he found any sign of Aral, not on the land or the sea or the air. The waves kept him from crossing to the other side, but bore him to a place on the coast to the north, where he set out on foot again. There was a great city here, where he spent some time feasting and drinking and giving generous gifts to his new friends.

“One of his new friends was a young woman who always seemed to be on the melancholy side. He asked her what it was that saddened her, and she told him that she was in love with a young man.

“‘Why on earth would you be sad about that?’ he asked, roaring with laughter.

“She smiled, but said, ‘Because I cannot marry him. I have no dowry.’” Here I had to pause to explain what a dowry was to the king and to Rosédan.

“‘That is no difficulty,’ said Shis. ‘Is there any other problem?’

“‘My father hates him.’

“‘Well, fathers can change their minds. Is there any other problem?’

“‘He is a slave.’

“‘And what of that? If a freeman can become a slave, surely a slave can become a freeman. Come with me and I will take care of all these little problems. First, your dowry.’ Shis reached into his cauldron and took out bags stuffed with gold coins for the woman.

“‘Next, that father of yours.’ He led the woman to her house (for he knew exactly where it was) and greeted her father with a boisterous slap on the back, congratulating him on the marriage of his daughter.

“‘What are you talking about? My daughter is not getting married yet.’

“‘Of course she is!’ Shis said, and gave the groom’s name (for he knew exactly what it was).

“‘Nonsense! Not as long as I have anything to say about it!

“‘Very well,’ said Shis, and stuffed her father in his cauldron. While no doubt he had plenty to say from in there, none of it was audible to those outside.

“‘He was easier to deal with than I thought. Now lead me to your husband.’ Again Shis knew exactly where he was without the woman saying a word. This unfortunate man had sold himself into slavery to pay his debts, and Shis found him toiling under a heavy burden. ‘Straighten your back!’ said Shis, clapping his hands and laughing. ‘You are a slave no longer.’

“‘Tell that to my master,’ said the man. ‘He is cruel, and his whip is cruel, and his brand is cruel.’

“‘I will!’ Shis found the man’s master and struck him with a heavy hand until he yelped and begged for mercy. ‘Set free that slave of yours!’ he said, and the master agreed at last.

“The wedding was a happy one, which is always the case when Shis is present. I’ve heard that even the woman’s father relented once Shis let him out of his cauldron and he saw the festivities. Shis blessed their marriage bed and then went on his way.”

I realized as soon as I reached this point that I couldn’t remember how or even if Shis found Aral in the end, but fortunately this was a good place to stop without giving away my unfortunate failure of memory.

“We have all told stories, and I at least have enjoyed them all,” said the king, leaning forward from his couch. “I am grateful that the Father of Fates brought you to my city. Please take some bread. In Dumun they love to reverse things, and so they mistreat their guests, but we honor and give thanks for our guests.”

“And we’re certainly grateful beyond words for your hospitality,” I said.

“We had a taste of Dumun’s hospitality,” said Rosédan once I had translated the king’s words. She shuddered and leaned against me, so I did my best to comfort her.

“Take some wine,” the king, and refilled our cups himself. “I see that your fate will lead you away from here soon. Wherever you go, remember the time you have spent in Valax. The name of the city is said by the elders to mean peace, and peace is what I hope you take from here.”

Blossoming Flowers

The Waters of Death and Life

I suppose I should begin with Iddan’s lectures before we reached the Magharun coast, but I’ve forgotten half of what he told me, and the other half I doubt will particularly interest my readers. It will suffice, I hope, for me to say that there are three kings among the Magharun, one in the north, one in the south, and one near the mountain in between. Rosédan was in the southern kingdom, which was called Dumun. I didn’t like Iddan’s expression or his tone when he talked about Dumun. “The coastal towns aren’t that bad, but the closer you get to the royal city, the darker the rumors get. I doubt even half of them are true, but there is an awful darkness hanging over that place.”

“Worse than the Crocodile?” I asked, hoping he would give me a negative answer.

“Oh, I really couldn’t say. My sense is that they’re different: the Crocodile came from outside Dūrī, but whatever sits at the heart of Dumun is from within.”

You can understand, therefore, that I was fairly gloomy by the time we reached our destination, the town of Ġhomurk. It didn’t help that the crew of our ship was mainly from the northern Magharun kingdom, and they had nothing good to say about Dumun.

I can’t put into words quite what I was expecting in Ġhomurk, but the reality of it proved to be far worse. When I visit a town I enjoy talking to as many people as I can, aided by my Bird and its gift of languages. I had not liked the silence of Uruki and the fishing village in Mimiris, but that was in keeping with the air of aloofness and stillness that lay over that island. In Ġhomurk, the looks we were given were distinctly unfriendly, from men and women alike.

A group of young men approached Iddan and me as we wandered up from the shore. They were obviously looking for trouble, as young men often are, and we were very obviously strangers.

“And who are you?” their ringleader demanded, stopping in front of us and crossing his arms across a wide chest. I wondered if it was his size that made him the leader.

“Do you know what he said?” Iddan whispered to me. “My understanding of the Magharun language isn’t what it should be.”

“Just an inquiry for our names,” I replied. “Should I answer him?”

“You might as well. I don’t see what harm it could do.”

“What are you whispering about?” asked the curious young man. “Who are you? What do you think you’re doing in Ġhomurk?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m Kësil and this is Iddan, and we’re looking for a friend.”

“I don’t think you’ll find any friends here. Go back to your ship, or better yet, go back to your homes. Dumun isn’t safe for the uninitiated.” He smiled, showing his teeth, but no hint of the smile touched his eyes, giving him a vaguely piscine look.

“I’m willing to take that risk,” I said. I noticed that all the other men had the same dead-eyed appearance and I was unnerved.

“Maybe you’d like to be initiated. That hair on your friend’s head is astonishing, isn’t it?”

I tried to smile, even though the conversation didn’t seem to be going in a promising direction. “I don’t think we do.”

“I don’t think you have a choice.”

I quickly explained the situation to Iddan as the men drew closer. He looked alarmed, as was only proper. “Should we return to the ship?” I asked. “We’ll have more numbers there, at least.”

“Do you have any magic under your hat to help us?” said Iddan.

The Bird is a marvelous creation of the fair folk’s magic, but it is strictly limited in its usefulness. “Do you have any lore of Mimiris to help us?” I asked in turn.

“The lore of Mimiris is ancient and profound, but not much good for trivial things like this.”

I was not sure I shared Iddan’s view of what was trivial and what wasn’t. The men were getting awfully close by now, and nothing good was promised by their hungry grins and empty eyes. I dread what would have happened had a stranger not intervened at that moment, greeting us in a loud voice. “You didn’t tell me you were arriving today! I would have prepared a feast for you! But come along anyway and I’ll offer you what I have.”

He put his arms over our shoulders and hurried us away, and it was only once we were in his house and the doors had been barred behind us that he addressed us again.

“So,” he said, his friendly expression melting away. “What brings you to Ġhomurk? What brings you to Dumun, especially now of all times?” (From here on, let it simply be assumed that I was translating on Iddan’s behalf).

“We’re looking for a friend of ours,” I said.

“In Dumun? Good luck! If you’ll take my advice, leave in the morning and never come back. You will not find any friends here.”

“But we will find her,” said Iddan with an intensity that startled me. “Or we will die trying.” While this was true, I’m not sure I appreciated the casual way he spoke for me.

“There are worse things than death.” The man’s wife entered then, a thin pale woman who bowed when she saw us. The man made a gesture I didn’t understand and exclaimed, “But I should introduce myself! I am Illoẋ’ār and this is my wife Vlīs’irda. I have lived in Ġhomurk all my life, but she was born in the city itself. Our children are in the inner rooms and no doubt will be out to greet you shortly. Now tell me, where are you from and how did this friend of yours come to Dumun? You are from the north, I judge, by your complexion, yet you speak perfect Maghorun. I have no idea where you’re from, however.”

“I am from the north, from a place whose name you wouldn’t recognize if you heard it,” I said. “My name is Kësil.”

“I am Iddan of Mimiris,” said Iddan. I thought Illoẋ’ār’s eyes widened when he heard the name, but it didn’t particularly show in his voice.

“And your friend?”

I was not at all sure how to explain the situation. Rosédan had been lost to me in another world, sent somewhere far away, so that only with the help of Iddan had I been able to find her. I myself had only the vaguest grasp on the magics involved, so how was I to explain all this to Illoẋ’ār?

“Her name is Rosédan,” said Iddan, “and she is definitely in Dumun, by the shores of the deadly lake.”

“Then you will never be able to help her, and you should count her as already dead.”

“If she’s dead, I may as well be dead too,” said Iddan with surprising conviction. I was starting to wonder at this point why exactly he was so interested in Rosédan. I was desperately in love with and wanted to marry her, but what was Iddan’s excuse?

“Stay here until the morning, then,” said Illoẋ’ār with a sigh. “When the sun rises you should return to your ship, if it hasn’t left already. If you insist on dying, then there is a road straight from Ġhomurk to the city, and you should stick to it. There are those in Dumun who know neither law nor light.”

“Like those men outside,” I remarked.

“They, at least, have light.” This did not seem likely to me, unless there was some meaning to the word “light” that I failed to understand or my Bird to translate properly.

“Have they been initiated yet?” asked Vlīs’irda in a quiet but clear voice.

“They are strangers, so I doubt it.”

She bent to whisper in Illoẋ’ār’s ear. He listened, then shook his head, a gesture that filled me with relief somehow. I was beginning to get a queasy feeling whenever I heard the word “initiation.” “No, I don’t think that would be prudent, not now. They’ll be gone in the morning, and that will be that. Bring some bread for our guests, if you will.”

She withdrew into the inner rooms, and it wasn’t long before we were brought a small meal. Vlīs’irda watched us eat in silence for a short while, then she began to tell us a story. I appreciated the entertainment even if I didn’t particularly understand all the details of the story, which went something like this.

“There was a kingdom once in the shadow of the great trees of Samara. The people there were fond of their kings and their queens and the games they played at morning and at evening. They were all like children, and they made childish dolls to play with. But T’inrā the Half-God knew that they couldn’t remain children forever, so he sent his servant Klūr to raise them up, starting with the women and then the men, which is why to this day girls become women before boys become men.

“They went out from the shadow of the trees and built a city for themselves and learned the smithing of metal from a horned wanderer on the earth. First they made axes to cut trees, and then they made axes to cut men. Blood poured out upon the earth and nourished the crops, but still the earth’s mouth opened wide to drink more. In shame and horror a band of the city’s people left and traveled south to the Irlasa, where they camped and rested. Then the shadow of T’inrā the Half-God rose out of the Irlasa and spoke the Six Curses that we shall never forget.

“There is no birth. There is no death. There is no transgression. There is only transgression. There is only death. There is only birth.

“We saw the door then to the above and the below, and we understood why T’inrā the Half-God is divine above and bestial beneath. And we all passed through the door and were never seen again.”

“Calm, darling,” said Illoẋ’ār, putting his hand on Vlīs’irda’s shoulder. She had been speaking more and more quickly, to the point where her words were piling up on top of one another like rocks in an avalanche. “They don’t need to hear all that. “Let them eat in peace. In the morning they will go on their way.”

“One story, then. Just one. The last king of the children who dwelt in the shadow of the great trees of Samara had a red beard and he was called the Great-Handed, because he used his great hands to cling to everything and everyone he wanted. What he loved more than anything else was to make dolls out of wood and cloth, and he would caress them and kiss them with his bristling red beard. But when the time came for him to be initiated, he broke them all to pieces and swallowed them and ascended to heaven.”

I didn’t understand this in the least, but I didn’t tell her, being worried that she might decide to explain and make things even more confusing and uncomfortable. I simply thanked her for the food and the stories. She withdrew, and Illoẋ’ār regarded us both with tired eyes. “She loves Dumun,” he said, then asked us if we knew any stories from our own homes to tell.

So I told the story of the last Khiar emperor and the fall of his realm. A tragic tale seemed fitting, but unlike Vlīs’irda’s nonsense, the tragedy was pure and clear, and it ended with the reestablishment of the priesthood in Dëlpar, out of which light and hope would come in time.

Iddan told a story about a race of wanderers who found homes all across the face of the earth, but were cursed by a forgotten sin to dwindle and perish with time. It was not as dramatic as my story but I think ultimately more tragic. There was no hope for his characters except to vanish and be forgotten. I wished, upon hearing it, that I had told something more comic.

Illoẋ’ār wished us a good night then. “Get whatever sleep you can,” he told us. “I doubt anyone will try to come into the house after you, and if they do they won’t succeed, but I’ll stay out here with you just in case.”

There was not much room for three to sleep on the couch that was the outer room’s sole furniture. Iddan in particular had an offensive habit of suddenly stretching out his arms to strike his bedmates in the face. What with that and my worries about the men outside, my sleep was troubled that night.

In the morning Illoẋ’ār gave us some bread to take with us and repeated his warning to stay on the road. Vlīs’irda brought out their children, a young boy and girl who regarded us with large eyes and pale faces. We thanked Illoẋ’ār, bade farewell to them all, and left Ġhomurk as quickly as we could.

No one bothered us in the streets of Ġhomurk, much to my relief. The countryside beyond the town was largely empty and barren, apart from a few fields of wheat, but even these were small and patchy. “The ground here is poor, I think,” I said. I knelt and crumbled some of the soil in my fingers to confirm my intuition that I know absolutely nothing about crops and their desired soil. I am not, sad to say, any sort of farmer.

“Salt comes from Dumun,” said Iddan. “They give salt to Mimiris and Samara, salt of a remarkable kind, more savory and pleasant than ordinary sea salt, lacking the deadly nature of its mother. And they are certainly paid well for it.”

“Does anyone at all live in the country?” I would have added that it reminded me of Iddan’s island, but it occurred to me that he might not find the comparison a flattering one. But it was true nevertheless: both realms seemed to me to have been left behind by the rest of the world, left empty except for a withdrawn and forgotten people. It was a melancholy thought that the same thing might happen someday to Edazzo or Dūrī.

“I hope they don’t,” Iddan said, and I had to agree with him.

When the sun was high and its heat grew oppressive, we stopped and found a rocky outcropping under whose shadow we could rest. I took the opportunity to ask Iddan about the Shaddar he had mentioned before. “Your hair isn’t like that of anyone else I saw on Mimiris,” I added.

“Well, I suppose it won’t do any harm to tell you. It seems likely that I’ll end up being the last, and there’s really no point keeping anything a mystery after that, is there? Besides, there’s something trustworthy about you. I think I told you about the priests who guided us when we came to the Holy Island, didn’t I? Among them was a caste of wise men marked by the golden color of their hair. They were distant kin to their dark-haired brothers, but they kept themselves separate and married among themselves so their power wouldn’t be lost. It was only they who had the right to perform certain rituals whose names we’ve forgotten.

“But over time, of course, they did dwindle in number. Many intermarried and so lost their hair and their status. Others married kin that was far too close, and were drowned in sickness and insanity. So in the end, after all those millennia, I am the last. I will either die without issue, or my children will have hair like yours. There is one other way out, maybe.”

“What’s that?” I asked, but Iddan didn’t answer me for some reason. No doubt it was some secret of the Mimiris.

Once or twice we passed ox-drawn carts on which were loaded great jars and whose drivers scowled down at us but did nothing else to bother us. By nightfall we had reached a walled town, and debated between ourselves whether it was wiser to enter or to stay outside for the night. Iddan’s argument rested heavily on the unknown perils of the country Illoẋ’ār had warned us about, and ultimately it prevailed over mine. So we passed through the gate, wary of everyone we saw. We found a fairly secluded place in the shadow of the wall where we could rest, which we did in shifts. I admit that Iddan must have been right, judging by the sounds I heard from outside. There were howls which had something in them of a wolf’s call, something of a lion’s roar, and something of a wailing woman. There were rapid footsteps, but if I could hear them through the solid earth wall, they must have been made by very large feet indeed. And although this may have been just a dream, I could vow that I was wakened by a voice calling my name.

We were glad to be gone the next morning. There was a mixed group of men and women that called out to us, but we ignored them and returned to the eastward road. We traveled long into the night before we came to to the lake of Irlasa at last. The land all around it was coated in a discolored crust where bare-chested workers were digging and carrying baskets to carts. At one point along the lake’s shore the land rose in a mound where a city had been built. It was unwalled, which was strange (Ġhomurk had walls), and I commented on the fact to Iddan.

“It’s the lake,” he said, though I don’t know how he knew. “They trust the lake to kill anyone who tries to conquer them. We should keep our distance.”

“There are salt lakes in my homeland,” I said. “They taste brackish, but they are not deadly.”

“Irlasa is not the same. I saw it in my winged journey here before. There are places in the world marked by invisible powers so that they carry some of that power with them for hundreds or thousands of years.” I nodded, thinking of Līwam’s house and its nightmares, or the tomb of the sacred spear in Uruki. “There is something in Irlasa, spirit or power, that hates life and destroys whatever it can touch. See how far the workers stay from the water? They’re afraid, and we should be too.”

“All right. But where’s Rosédan?” I asked, getting to the heart of the matter with my usual insight.

“When I found her, she was in a building near the outside of the city. There were several women with her. She didn’t seem to be hurt. But that was several days ago, you’ll remember.”

I was full of questions, and had been for some time, concerning Iddan’s knowledge, but these questions were not nearly as important as Rosédan was to me. I ran ahead of Iddan before I remembered that “a building near the outside of the city” was not a particularly specific location.

“Just within the walls here, I believe,” Iddan said. We approached the nearest gate and eyed the guards nervously. I know I did, but Iddan must have felt similarly, judging by the way his step faltered and he fell into line behind me. I smiled at the guards despite my nervousness and greeted them.

I wrote “guards” above, but I doubt that’s really what they were. In fact, I suspect they were simply bored men who decided to harass any travelers who happened to pass by. Similarly, I suspect that the toll they demanded at this point had been established by any official ruler. It was, to put it crudely, robbery, but since their clubs looked like they could break our skulls easily, we paid out of our scanty funds. Which is to say, Iddan’s scanty funds.

Hurrying past their menacing eyes, we entered the city of Dumun. Unless my Bird deceived me, the city had the same name as the kingdom, which strikes me as an unnecessary confusion. It was a dreary place I do not care to remember in much detail. There was a wearisome monotony to the buildings, broken only by the squat statues of a repulsively naked goat-legged god. But at the time I could think only of Rosédan.

“Here!” Iddan called, rushing ahead of me for once and pointing at a building that looked no different than any other, so I’m not at all sure how he could tell that this was the place. “Rosédan was here!”

He hesitated at the door, then knocked quickly three times. It was opened by a veiled man who asked us with obvious irritation what we wanted.

“We are looking for a friend of ours,” I told him. Although I couldn’t see his eyes behind his veil, his head did jerk in a suspicious manner.

“A friend with golden hair?” he asked. “She is within, waiting our master’s pleasure. You should leave now.”

“We’re not going to leave! Take us to her now!” I surprised myself by the vehemence with which I spoke. I suppose it can be attributed to love, which sounds absurdly sentimental now that I write it down. I’ll see if I can think of something better later.

The veiled man made to shut the door, but I stuck my foot in the gap and pushed him out of the way. A narrow passage led to a courtyard where, to my great relief and utmost horror, Rosédan was tied to a table or altar or something of that description. It was quite dark (there was no moon), but there was a sufficient number of torches that I could tell by the glint of her hair immediately that it was her. I called her name, and she lifted herself weakly against her bonds and cried out to me.

“Seize them in the name of the messengers!” said a veiled man, interrupting our emotional reunion. “Let no hand prevent, nor eye disdain, the sacrifice of what is falsely called purity. Let the barrier be broken and the unity of T’inrā pour in. Behold! He comes!” And so on in this vein for some time. Iddan and I could do nothing to silence him, as we were engaged in a struggle with some other men, also veiled, who had come upon us from behind.

Then a door opened at the far end of the courtyard, and something came through. It was hard to see clearly in the torchlight, but it had the rough form of a man, though it was hunched over and there was something odd about its legs. Two women emerged at its side, holding its shoulders, but it shoved them aside and drew close to Rosédan.

“T’inrā is here!” the chief of the veiled men said, raising his hands, and all the others shouted with one voice.

At this I was filled with terror. A new strength fell upon me, and I broke away from my assailant to run to the table, or altar. The thing called T’inrā was there before me, its hands reaching out for her exposed flesh. I punched it in its swollen throat and it fell back, then leaped over the table towards me. Its legs were covered in hair, I thought, but when I grabbed them I found that I was clinging to the material of breeches, which tore away in my hand as the thing fled, leaping up and over a windowsill and escaping into the night.

I turned back to Rosédan to discover that Iddan had gotten a knife somewhere and was already cutting her bonds. Freed, she jumped up from the altar or table, but she stumbled and I caught her up in my arms. There was a momentary embarrassment as she adjusted the sheet of fabric that covered her. For a moment, then, we stared into one another’s eyes, before we remembered where we were and who it was that surrounded us. “Hurry!” she said, pulling me after her to a bundle that lay against the inner wall. Iddan followed us, holding up the knife against the men who were following us. Rosédan rummaged through the bundle with one hand, using the other to keep herself relatively modest, then she disappeared.

Although I’m not sure what I had been expecting to happen next, that had definitely not been it. Iddan and I both gaped. The men following us gaped.

“Sorry,” said a voice in my ear. “I wanted to get dressed in privacy. Come with me!”

She tugged on my arm, and I tugged on Iddan’s. We retreated through the inner door and up a short flight of stairs to an upper room. There was no obvious exit, other than the door that Iddan shut and barred, and I gave Rosédan a perplexed look. That was my intention, anyway, but when she appeared again, she was behind me.

“Remarkable!” Iddan exclaimed. “Under the holy flesh, what kind of magic was that?”

“Mine,” said Rosédan, twirling the ring between her fingers, with a smile that made my heart beat faster (unless that was just from the danger we were all in). “Unfortunately, I only have one of these toys. If I had three, escaping would be no problem at all.”

“This reminds me of the puzzle where the merchant has to cross a river with a sack of wheat, a goose, and a wolf,” I said, but no one paid any attention, unfortunately. It’s a clever puzzle, and I’m sure it would have helped us immensely.

“Your clothes disappear too,” said Iddan, which seemed to me too obvious to bother pointing out. Then he suggested something rather more useful: “What would happen if someone wore the ring and carried someone else in their arms?”

She considered the suggestion, then said, “I don’t know. Here, Kësil, you try.”

I was, I suppose, flattered by her choice of me to be the carrier, but I didn’t relish the idea of carrying someone down through that crowded courtyard, and then doing the exact same thing again. But I wasn’t able to resist her command, and anyway I couldn’t think of any other way to escape on short notice, not without a chance to think about the puzzle with the merchant, the wheat, the goose, and the wolf.

I put on the ring, and the only change I noticed was a certain cloudiness in the center of my vision. But Iddan gasped, so I can only assume that I had vanished. I squatted and held out my arms for Rosédan, then realized my mistake. I touched the back of her leg, preparing to lift her, then realized my mistake. She apologized, but that didn’t do my bruised shoulder much good.

Finally we got the procedure straightened out. I held her in my arms, which I found to be somewhat more difficult than I had expected. Still, I knew better than to say so, as I had a feeling I could be misinterpreted.

“That looks remarkably strange,” said Iddan. “But it’s a pity. I can still see you, Rosédan.”

“Good,” I said incautiously, setting her down as quickly as I could.

“Why good?” she asked, staring at me. (I had actually moved out of the way, so she was staring at the wall, strictly speaking, and I was spared the brunt of it.)

“Did I say good? I meant to say bad. Now what are we going to do?”

“I have another idea,” said Iddan with surprising promptness. “Give me the ring, and I’m positive I’ll get us out of here.”

I asked the obvious question. “How?”

“Watch! Though actually watching might be a tiny bit difficult, mightn’t it?” He held out his hand and so I gave him the ring, the blurry spot in my vision snapping back into focus. He put it on and vanished, and his voice came from somewhere near the door. “Really, you shouldn’t watch. I’m about to do something that will banish me from Mimiris for a long time, I’m afraid. But it’s worth it, if I can save the Shaddar. Oh, Rosédan? If this works, I’d love to get a kiss.”

“From whom?” I asked, not hiding the edge in my voice. He laughed, and Rosédan blushed.

Then the bar lifted off the door and he went through. Happily, there was no one on the other side, our hosts having gone down to the courtyard to plot, it seemed. There was a long silence, in which Rosédan and I looked at one another, neither of us daring to speak.

“Well, that was remarkable,” said Iddan.

Rosédan was so startled she actually jumped and gave a slight shriek. I, of course, did nothing of the sort, and once my heart had gone back to normal and I was able to speak without gasping, I asked him what by the Flame was so remarkable.

“Oh, they’re all gone. I’m so glad,” he replied. His knife appeared in midair and dropped to the floor. “I’m so glad,” he said again. After several moments of silence (I wondered if he had gone out there again), he appeared in front of us and held out the ring in a trembling hand. “I think if we hurry we can escape before they get back.”

“But where did they go?” I asked.

“Who knows? By the double-headed ax, I don’t care either, as long as they let us go in peace.”

We went out through the courtyard again, and there was indeed no sign of any of the men and women who had been there before, or of anyone at all. When we came out into the city street, it was just as deserted as the courtyard had been. “Maybe they were all nothing more than phantoms,” I said.

“No, they weren’t. What they threatened; never mind that,” said Rosédan. She clasped her hands together and added, “I can never thank you enough for coming to find me. I owe you my life. But how did you know where I was? And who is your friend?”

“I’m Iddan, and we should save the explanations for a more appropriate time.”

We passed through the gate unmolested, and now it was apparent where the people of the city had gone. On the eastern side of the city there must have been hundreds assembled, ululating without words. Even the laborers on the shores of the lake had joined in. And there was another presence too. I couldn’t see them clearly in the darkness, but there were other figures on the outskirts of the crowd.

“They must be looking for their T’inrā,” whispered Rosédan as she clung to my arm. I asked her later who T’inrā was, and she explained haltingly that he was the great god of Dumun. When I inquired further about the strange man with the hairy breeches, she couldn’t answer. I have learned, however, that the Magharun kingdoms lie on the western coast of a kind of isthmus between two continents, through which many nations have passed through the ages. In the mountains east of Dumun, I am told, there are peoples who have lingered, like water caught in a tide pool on the beach, cut off from the rest of the world, left to grow stagnant. What things might crawl out of that water I don’t dare to guess.

We fled, of course, going away from the crowd and heading northward along the shore of the deadly lake. Once or twice we drew near enough to the water that I could feel the salt crunch under my boots and a burning air fill my throat, which I took to be a warning that we were too close. We passed things in the darkness that were in the likeness of people, and each time we were frightened before they were revealed to be pillars of rock.

It was a hard run. I don’t care to think back to it, and anyway I don’t remember much of it, only that my legs and my chest ached beyond anything I had felt before. Iddan vomited, I think, when we came to a halt, though that may have not been from physical exhaustion so much as despair. We were in rougher land than those flat plains around the lake, and from the rocks all around us men in armor had sprung up like young trees, though somewhat faster than trees generally do.

Iddan had his knife, and I regretted that I had no weapon, though I doubt either of us were in any shape to fight. I comforted myself with the knowledge that at least Rosédan had her ring.

One of the men held up a lantern and said, “Who are you? Answer or die!”

With these are our options, it seemed best to give our names, and so I did.

The man drew closer to us and the lantern’s light hurt my eyes. “You’re not from Dumun? By the mountain, then what were you doing in that cursed land?”

“Escaping,” I said.

The man shook his head and turned to the others. “Ahvul! Mxavla!” he barked. “Take these three to Valax.”

“We’re so tired.” I wasn’t able to help myself. Rosédan was half-collapsed on my shoulder, and I felt that if I took another step I would melt into the earth.

He looked at us again for what seemed like a thousand years. “All right,” he said finally. “Rest here until morning. But then you’ll go to Valax, to answer to the king.”

I held Rosédan tight, and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. I will take up my story again in Valax, the great city of Ramzun.

Stories on the Mountaintop