My family abandoned me, left their child here on the mountain, with an old man to spend its days. That man accepted me and took me inside his hut full of bones sticking out the walls and roof, which resembled a hedgehog’s back. Ancient tusks, carved with symbols, fractured to a full length gave a frightening image to the object. This desolated rock is my home, the only one I knew. Sinewy vert and moss covering boulders melted with the mist swallowing the bland green cypress forest. Northern wind raises the snowy dust from the dentate cusps of the mountain, a common occurrence of a winter that barely passed. I see the landscape every day, a still portrait of a world inlayed in time.
A woman brings us food; she never talks, not to me. Sometimes she comes with men, warriors from numerous mountain tribes. They come in four’s but leave in two’s. The sacrifice must be given before the battle, and wars demanded blood. Ferocious Gar’on has an appetite for all that is human, but he rarely lends his help in bloodshed. He lets them carve each other, fight until there is one Clan mastering the cliffs.
I was fetching water from the creek when a raiding party came to the mountain. Their leader stuck out from the group with his wolf’s fur for a cape wiggling on the cold. A luscious piece signifying royalty complemented the bear’s head helmet, meaning a powerful warlord came to visit a shaman. They come to pray the Gods for victory, yet few of them returned home with the good news. Too many aspirations and ambition drives them vengeful when unexpected words reach their ears.
Neither feast nor sacrifice will appease the appetite of our God, for he is a ruthless deity. Some brought their wives thinking that will nourish, soften Gar’on to change his mind and alter warlord’s destiny. Others drag their sons before the altar, but nothing was of the right scale. Wars were lost, villages pillaged, huts burned, and children sent to the forest to fend for themselves. Occasionally, a young hunter stumbles to our hut seeking food, one of those who fled the raid. They are good sparring partners, but the bet is high and they frequently lose. Nevertheless, it is good practice.
The group settled on a cliff downhill when I returned. I heard laughter in their camp – it must be a prosperous clan. The pending ritual had a list of things shamans had to collect. These men won’t wait for too long to get it done and begin their preparations for war, so I dashed for the hut and fetched a vessel, herbs, and a dagger.
When I moved the entrance cover to get out, my Master was waiting at his usual spot at the stone disc full of runes and a fire burning in the middle. White plate rested on the mound of bones and skulls of those foolish enough to challenge the will of Gar’on. It was a sight worthy of awe and respect. It did not appear like that to a child dropped in the shaman’s hands, now running errands for him. I tried to run a few times, but the local hunters tracked me down and brought me back to him. After the fifth attempt, the fifth time I was bloodied, I learned I was to be his apprentice. Still, I pay for my mistakes and my Master treats me with insults and punishment. Idly I observed his doings, learned to read the scrolls, trained to fight and perform rituals. A day will come when I’m to continue the task that was given to him many winters ago.
The fearless leader stepped atop the tallest rock and looked at the mist forming in the mountain chain. He petted our fox and exchanged a few words with his second in command. A slight grin came to their faces, no doubt they felt confident about what is to come. I watched them while preparing the tonic. The potion needed a few drops of blood from the visitor’s hand to be completed. Sacrifice is the holiest of rituals; Gar’on demands it.
Men brought furs and crates filled with valuables, laid them before the shaman, and bowed maintaining eye contact, but an old goat didn’t respond. He was at his morning chant, rolled a piece of ember in his palm as if it did not burn him. I used ash to make a mark on my face, just like the shaman had on his. One of the warriors grunted at us and gave the signal to his leader to come closer.
A boulder of a man descended behind our backs and slowly fell in our vision. We must’ve been tiny in comparison to his broad back and iron gauntlets resting on his waist. He spat on the ground, approached the flames and took a seat. His legs crossed beneath him, he bowed at the shaman and removed hair from his face, but the helm threw a shade over the eyes keeping only his beard visible.
„What will I need to unite the Clans?“ the leader raised his head at us.
„You will need to move the mountains under one peak. Every Clan has its own Chieftain“, the shaman replied.
„Spare me from your twisted tongue. I am not one of them!“ he pointed at the skulls surrounding us.
„Aye, you are not. The sacrifice must be made!“ shaman’s raspy voice spiked at the ‘sacrifice’ and it fell back to normal.
„I’ll sacrifice the clans who defy me. I’ll make a mountaintop from their bones if I have to!“ the leader threw his hands about. The shaman didn’t flinch.
„You made a few already. It only solidified the clans’ intentions to fight you. You need wisdom, not brute. The mountain God holds the Mountain’s faith in his hands“
„You speak of Gar’on as if you know him personally. That same God cursed me with daughters and no heir to take the Clan. I’ve done enough for your God. I’ve done plenty for you too. Do tributes not count?“ he asked, but the answer was not given. „Save me from the prayers and divine talk. Both of us know the will of God is yours to relay.“
„If you seek approval from a mortal man to set fires and spill blood, why have you chosen me to do it? Any other warmonger would’ve done the same job, if not more to your liking. But you came here to ask. You came here because you are not naive. If you came here, you will heed the words and the will of God as he commands it“, the shaman almost broke a grin, and the leader turned his head aside to frown at the skulls.
„What can he do for me? Will he grant me victory?“ the leader gnashed.
„You need a sign from God and a King by your side“, the shaman pointed at the sky and the warlord gasped.
„Still playing games. What sign will speak of my destiny?“ warlord leaned over his knees and the shaman straightened his posture.
„Wolf cry must come from the peaks when you steal the Moon. King in the valley must be your ally. He will bring order to the mountains if you gift him with the Moon. Only he can fulfill the destiny you seek“, the shaman picked up the cup with tonic. „Shed your blood. Give an oath to God. Stay at his mercy“, he extended his arm and the warlord took the vessel.
„You say that I will never hold the Mountain? I’ll never yield my Clan to a sniveling child that still sleeps with his mother’s tit in arms!” warlord threw the cup ready to leave when the shaman smirked at him.
“The Clan was never yours to give. It will fall on your daughter and her bed man. If you do not fulfill prophesy and go on your own, wage war you will never win, the clan will crumble into pebbles after you. Here I offer a solution to your problems. Steal the Moon, and give it to your daughter. It is not your destiny to hold the Mountain, it is her. But you will need to take that sacrifice”
“Trickster!” leader pointed at the shaman and I reacted.
“Save ye Clan, mighty leader. If the Horde spills from the steppe, your Mountains won’t hold them off for long. They will pick us one by one until the weep of wolves stops echoing among the burnt walls of our huts”, I proclaimed while staring at the bear canines on his helmet and the leader puffed – thinking about the words.
Due haste, I prepared another tonic, handed him the cup, in which gauntlet, the vessel appeared tiny.
„And what do you know, boy?! How far do your eyes see to claim this?! Have I grown daft to fear from a chill you speak of?“ agitated, the warlord stood up and it threw me in shade with his size.
„Ire cloud of dust rises far from the rivers that dwindle at the bottom of our mountain. My eyes have seen enough, rumors travel far and even echoes speak of omen that lurks beyond our vision. It is not only the Mountain that is in danger but the Kingdom you despise“, I proclaimed. „Set your gaze over a horizon, see the Clans, the Mountain, your home. Observe the sides of the pathway you took, do you see late snow covering it or the intruder, a layer of dust resting on it? You haven’t come here to seek approval, you came here to seek wisdom and wisdom we provided. Now drink“, the leader took a pause to check on his men standing behind him. They had an expression on their faces hard to describe. Partially taken aback by the words and my insolence to speak like that, they remained quiet. Warlord had no other choice but to accept the advice and do as he is told.
“By the cry of a mountain lion, by the cold of my blade, by the fire in my heart, by the blood of my lineage, I swear to safeguard the Mountain. For the Silver Cusp Clan!” the leader carved his palm, dropped blood in the murky water, and toppled the cup.
Visiting hebdomad retracted to their tents near a cliff for the night. Shaman showed no signs of alert or worry while I served us supper. He kept staring at the crack on the wooden table, rolled a piece of rock in his hand murmuring something to himself. Slurping usually provoked him to issue me a warning to stop it, but now, his attention drifted.
„You shall follow them in their quest. There is nobody else who can speak sense to them, but they listen to you. The matter is far fragile than I thought it would be, so you need to guide them. Warrior’s blood is too inflamed, thus, their head is hazy, altering their perception. A cold Black Ridge waterfall with all of its content would fail to cool them. Only a frosted blade can bring a chill to the tempered skull, yet the cure for hotheadedness would come belatedly“, he spoke without peeling his gaze off from the table.
„Why not you? A stroll in the countryside could be a welcome activity for ye old bones”, I took a spoonful and he puffed at me.
“Look at the creek, it doesn’t lie”
“Cur”, a slam of staff over my back was a response I accustomed to, there was no need to return in kind, but only to shift sideways and let him miss the second time. “As old as I might be, I want to send you to collect experience, not to lay insults to your master! I have seen plenty of wars, traveled the seas, the steppe and land to the far ends! You have seen a mountain but have not got familiar with what lays beyond. To understand, you must stretch your legs, meet the people and base your predictions on that. If not, all the advice you provide shall be unanchored. What madman would heed your words then?”
“There are fools who would after you are gone”
“Indeed they will be fools to listen. That is why you must go, so not even a fool can make you a bigger one”
“One day, I will reach your level of persuasion and our debates would not be so one-sided”, I got up to clean the table, my Master began prepping for the bed.
“This tribal folk has their beliefs about you and I. They think of us as exalters, dissimilar to those valley cretins focused on the harvest. Yes, herbs can cure illness, but half of them function as poison. Kingdom down south lacks vision because of those fools posing themselves as scholars. Locked in temples with their ancient scrolls, they never gave a chance to the investigation of the outdoors as we did. The scriptures I have collected on my travels, speak volumes about the new world and expansion of scholastic material. Potions, rituals, customs of the tribes far in the south have more soul than what a valley robe-wearer wrote after inhaling smoke for too many times. Clans in the far north can read scant footprints; orient with help of little stars they see in the sky when the blizzard stills them in a cave. Travelers, pilgrims, adventurers bring stories, lore, and culture to these parts. One needs to have ears for such verbal evocations and use the determinants from them in his own right when the interlocutor is kind enough to provide them. Gossip from the desert or westerner’s fable harbors valuable knowledge. Valley-dwellers subscribe it to gibberish. That is where they are wrong”, he fell on the hay mattress and pulled his legs on the bed, while I cleansed the vessels.
“Familiar preaching. I could have sworn I have heard that before”, an innocent frown gestured my fill of talking in circles, but he has not read it well from my face.
“Cur. You play with me. Enough talk. You bore me”, he puffed and pulled fur over his legs.
“The Silver Cusp leader could be the entertainment you seek. Give him time to reveal how little he knows. Stupidity usually lifts your spirit”, I brought him the elixir for his aged bones.
“Too hot”, he waved after tasting it. “What I made you learn with lashes and labor is what will make you strong and ready. And you are ready, ready to proceed with your learning at places that have something to teach”, he gazed at my eyes for a moment and pulled me closer. “When I was young, my purpose was to outgrow my Master. This is your call. I am not leaving the Mountain defenseless!” he gnashed.
“When all that can hold ax is dead, they will butcher those that are left, but no warrior would shame his blade fighting an old goat like you. You shall be a sole survivor; therefore, you will be the victor. The Mountain is safe enough”, a reply to this came as a slap over the cheek.
“Insults?! This is how you repay me?!… Ugh, you can, you are stronger, hungry for a decent challenge. Eager to take my place and govern yourself, you mimic my youth, long lost in the shifting seasons. You picked that trait from me. In some consolation, it proves I did a great job raising you. It makes me proud to see how I molded a man out of a boy. I took you because you showed grand capabilities of digesting the knowledge. It is rare to find someone who at a young age managed to master logic and track a path of discovering more about the world. Your parents did you a favor by bringing you to me. One day, you will seek ways to punish the spite in your disciples”, he slurped the rest and turned on the other side to get some sleep.
The last log was set ablaze in the fireplace, giving warmth to a cold hut. One side of the wall started giving in to elements; mud would not stick but freeze and peel off. The ceiling was crumbling in spots where mice chew the bulrush. Those bones and tusks built in the walls stood sturdy but fractured and hollow, they allowed melted ice to cause a flood in the spring. It was not a comfortable place, yet it turned us resilient. I learned to appreciate it over the years.
Celebratory sounds coming dimly from the outside interrupted my sleep. Carefree visitors were, just that, carefree. It is as if they have not fully realized the gravity of the ritual, which was upon us, and that danger was imminent. I pulled on my fur boots and took a coat over my shoulders before I went out to see their doings. Shivering candlelight reduced to a dot captured inside the red fabric with shadows passing it without order. Grunting noise turned to lyrics, described a feeble tribal woman dancing in the woods in sorrow for losing her son to war. A known song for the clans passing the time while drinking, it sounded inadequate for the occasion, since these were the warriors who slain many sons. A few steps closer to their tents, my eyes adjusted to spot the leader petting our fox.
Looking at him being kind to animals, it spoke he was a man of gentle heart, open for new possibilities, and someone who can be trusted. In comparison with aforetime warlords, who yelled at the fox, ridiculed it for its bad name, outsmarted it to show their intellect, this one was different. Vocabulary, posture, lack of smell that followed mountain ilk; he was not giving the impression of yet another warlord seeking mindless bloodshed. Details uncovered his true nature, as those usually do on close inspection. A conversation he had with the old man held no reserve derived from the importance of his arrival. He was genuine, open, and honest.
“Have you brought your finest warriors for sacrifice or your weakest ones?” I asked and he slowly rose up.
“I’ve heard the stories of chieftains who brought their champions to the slaughter. Bruna resorted to bringing the expendable ones, and he had no luck in his quest. A good warrior can be of use in the fray, but they yielded facing Usun Clan. Due time, all of my weakest warriors have died in combat, leaving only the strongest to keep on fighting. I do not tolerate cowardice in my ranks, thus every capable man who can wield an ax or a spear sheds blood standing beside me. Constant combats left me with no proper way of selecting sacrificial warriors. I asked for a candidate. These stepped forward, absent persuasion. This is their farewell feast”, the answer had a dose of respect directed at his warriors.
“That speaks of their trust and loyalty to your cause. You must be in luck to have surrounded yourself with such devoted warriors”
“Aye, lots of them know that a Clan must stand united if we intend to win”, our fox showed a liking to the visitor by wailing around his feet and begging for a touch.
“Perhaps that is what segregates a powerful Clan from the others. To what goal they stand together? Wealth, or is it glory? What is promised to them after the war?” I looked at his bear helm slightly outlined by the candlelight and stepped closer.
From where he stood, he could see the same in me. The leader repositioned aside and let the light graze me, show the scars on my torso. He took a moment to thoroughly evaluate them, then through a grunt and a smirk, he nodded and got back to entertaining the fox.
“Wealth and glory are things that come as a token of chivalry to a good warrior. Servitude is their prize. Justice is dealt equally and I have no favorite among them, I am sure you have heard of my exploits. Is that what made you lose sleep?” he smiled at me.
“It is the noise your men make that keeps me away from the warmth of my bedding. I got accustomed to solitude and silence” this made him laugh.
“This place will come to its usual soon enough. We leave after the ritual”
“Will you honor the words of our God, wherever the verdict is to your liking or not?” it made him still his face.
“What is it to you, boy? It depends on the mood Gar’on provokes in me after the decision”, words had a sly tone, something close to a threat or a dubious remark.
“Many warlords asked God for his divine protection. Some bow their heads and leave the premise. They return to their piece of the Mountain and protect their tribesmen. Reconciled with God’s will, they find content in the mundane life of tending to their herds of goats. There are warlords that keep coming back with more people to sacrifice, never settling with the will of God. Bothered for not receiving the favor of Gar’on, they lash out, start a war without the approval and lose. Their huts descend to ruins, never to be elevated to their former glory…”
“You suspect me for a scammer, don’t you shaman?” his clutched gauntlets signified a short temper.
“Apprentice, mighty leader. Apprentice, not a shaman. I have no intent to offend, yet I must advise caution. Bruna returned with a grudge for his loss and tried to compensate it in manner. Putting blame on a shaman, he raised an ax. Delusional and possessed by anger, an attempt was made and there was no path that led him to salvation…”
“You talk too much, shaman. I cannot stomach your trivia at this moment. One glance at your scars speaks enough about your fighting style. You healed well; you know your way around balms and potions to make the wounds close up nicely. Most of your scars are not stab wounds, which speaks to you mostly, fight with a spear, but those lower marks come from a pointed blade where the opponent managed to come closer. Scars over your arms and a scratch over your ribs at the left side came from a bear claw. That is a Usun weapon. The Clan of Usun is long gone, but some of them still roam the mountain”, his assumption was worthy of surprise. “Do not be misled by what you have been through and translate it on me. Hair dyed black and sheltering in a bone-hut to maintain pale look resembling a corpse may characterize you as a death worshiper. You and I have a very different understanding of death, shaman. Death is what I have been close to all my life and I am sure I know more about it than a boy from the mountain”
I smiled because of the vivid portrayal he spouted. No doubt, I conversed with a man who knew how to think. Rough around the edges, he lacked finesse in his exclamation. Mountain tribesmen were like that and there was no force, which could change them. It could be that he himself was aware of that and acknowledge it, thus opting to resort to shamans for guidance.
“Shamans are not predisposed to spend their time with ideas of mortality, but with the meaning of life, mighty warlord. We are the opposite of the Clans who make efforts to erect to power through countless dead bodies. Death is an unavoidable side of life, but not a segment concerning our work”
“Finally we reach a common ground. Why does our God demand sacrifices if his answer to all is not of the desired outcome? What use he has from it, if shamans have no concern of death?” awaiting a response, he stared at me for a moment, when a distant howl was heard and I look at the nightly sky.
“Death signifies the termination of life; life is a value that our God is testing. Champions, warriors, siblings, kin, sons, and daughters are of value, yet none so rare that would persuade our God to lend his favor. Perhaps, those were not the lives of famished Gar’on desires. Perhaps, he is looking for that rare gem in the mountain. Say you will not unite the clans under one peak. Say you will not win his favor with warriors you brought. Say that you will lose the war if you do not obey the words of our God. As the shaman said, the clan is not yours to rule. What would stop you from sacrificing your life to our God? It would certainly be an unusual offer and a sign of utmost belief in his will. To forfeit your life for a cause, for a core belief you hold, wouldn’t that be a show of determination and devotion a prominent Chieftain has for his clan? If your warriors stepped forward on blind faith to follow you, what kind of a warlord would let them do it without the reward of wealth and glory?” baffled by the words, he unclenched his gauntlets and smiled – slowly realizing the meaning threaded in what was said. “Shaman is old and wise, intolerable for fainting and false acts. He can see right through fake intentions”, I fought not to smile back, but we both knew what he had to do in the morning. “The night is ripe and tomorrow we both have our duties to… perform. I bid you a good night, mighty warlord”, with a nod, I turned and went back to the cottage.
Dawn came in haste bringing shine to grey mountains dotted with snow mounds. The shaman sat at the disc, rolled an ember in his palm and chanted quietly. I was a step away from him, patiently looking at the group climbing to our location. Two of them, reluctant to approach, dragged their feet, but the leader was confident and he of long steps to approach the ceremonial plate. My frown should have told him to behave as if we have not spoken last night, he had a problem comprehending. In the second turn, the leader received the message and bowed his head in sign of remorse. The group stopped at the base of a stone plate and the shaman opened his eyelids.
“Ah, lambs come for slaughter”, his deviant grin disturbed the second in command who spat at the ground seeing the shaman in good mood. “Who shall wage God’s will? Which warrior’s sacrifice will gladden the Famished?” the shaman inhaled to ask one more thing, but the leader approached the fire in the middle and acquired a pose.
“If Gar’on demands blood, no mere warrior could quench his hunger. I am not going to fold my men’s lives for my own vanity. It shall be me who will burn in the sacred flames, not them”, a wave of the hand was a good motif to emphasize the point and the shaman yawned at the newfound courage.
“That is a first. Um, hear the words and the request…”, he turned around and looked at me. “… Of thy Hartwig, leader of the Silver Cusp Clan, may his wishes be granted… if his sacrifice is of God’s taste”, he finishes and the leader began preparing to step in the fire. “Nay! The sacred fire is not for a noble Chieftain. Gar’on has consumed plenty of seared flesh”, warlord exhaled with relief. “For a leader like you, decapitation will suffice”, shaman concluded his sentence and Hartwig exchanged looks with his men, almost stepping down from the plate. “Undress. Get the relic, boy”, he added with a smile.
Leader unpinned his garbs, gauntlets fell off; he came out from the fur and took off his linen shirt. The helm came off and he gave it to his trusted deputy. His tribal markings stood a reminder of Clan’s history. To a person who knows what all of those meant, it was a scroll of one’s life written on the body. Other warriors had something similar, but not to this extent. He was a leader, a man who risked the most in life to earn the marks, now throwing it all away for a chance to rise atop the mountain. Everyone nodded to an excellent warlord full of scars. His men rushed to fetch him a rug and a log where he is going to be cut down. Shaman raised his hand and looked at them separately.
“I wager you will hesitate to strike your Chieftain, therefore, my apprentice shall perform the ceremonial killing”, the shaman said at the time I appeared from the darkness of our hut, dragging along battle-serrated ax.
Visitors solidified in spot, bulged their eyes at a massive piece of metal. Warlord bent to see a weapon in my hand. When I brought it in the clear, he swallowed what he intended to say. With ease and a grin on my face, I came closer and let him visually inspect the tool of his doom.
“You tricked me, boy. This is something you should’ve mentioned last night”, a whisper so the shaman cannot hear sounded rugged and concerned.
“It had to be convincing. Have a little faith, mighty warlord”, I replied while soaping the edge with a chunk of bear fat. “To your knees, Chieftain! Gar’on is to receive your gifts!” I commanded and gave him time to glare at his men before he took a knee and assumed the position.
Shaman nodded at me and I nodded back. With effort, I swung the ax above my head and clumsy me, the handle slipped away from grasp. Heavy thing rang vibrant on the way down the jagged rock and shattered into pieces reducing its size to unusable form. Warriors rushed to fetch it, reassemble it, but nothing was salvageable from the breakage.
“You dumb boy! It is broken!” second in command shouted from beneath the stone plate. “You can’t even swing properly! Damn you! Here, use my sword!” He unsheathed his weapon, but the shaman halted the process.
“Cease the ceremony! You will disrupt Gar’on’s will. It is a sign from our God. He spared this man’s life by breaking the relic, which blood and flesh will offend his divine plan. Do not fall to despair, but rejoice for your leader still draws breath, for our God has notable intentions for him and approves the incoming battles!” the shaman said in preaching tone and looked at the sky as if he saw something in the heights.
Warriors were inert, started squinting at the cloudy heights and each other. Hartwig needed a moment to process what has happened where he finally broke in laughter. He shared the outburst of cheer with his men while I stood there and smiled at the group. Their growling started echoing in the mountain chain. Such joy was indescribable by words. The scene held humor in it, seeing a full-grown men squeak with excitement.
I was cleansing my greasy hands in the comfort of the cottage when a shaman walked in after expressing his best wishes to the first man of Silver Cusp. He grunted and roamed around the room seeking something.
“Cold-forged ax, easy to break by a sharp rock. Luckily, we have plenty of that, here, on the mountain. I doubt you could smith one more for the next occasion”, I said without meaning and he treated it accordingly by getting busy with what he was looking for.
“Have you, by any chance, influenced our visitor to reconsider his decision last night?” neck stretched, eyes barely peeping from the top of his nose, and an inquisitive look while he kept his hands folded at the chest height, it made my thoughts run for a good answer.
“No”, it was all I managed to say.
“You are not a sheepish girl to be wooed by the big hands on a man, are you? Others could have used some help to pass the test, but they received none from us. There were Chieftains with double the numbers Hartwig has, experienced men who led armies that you could have aided, but refused to. Why choosing him? Do you lust for an adventure, blood, travel, or are you looking for more sentimental loots in this?” strolling around me while I pack, his voice shifted in the room.
“I predict he is a good man, somebody who cherishes life in every form. I predict he will adopt healthy advice if I provide it. He might be the one”
“The one for what? To unite warring clans? To bring peace to the Mountain? To elevate you to a shaman and make you his personal advisor?”
“I have not acted to gain from this. Do not accuse me of something that is only real in your head”, timid for our eyes to meet, I set my head aside and saw him pacing the room, gaze through the window and scratch his grey hair.
“It is late to make corrections. We must anticipate what the future holds. War on the mountain is ill-advised while Tekkian Horde advances. Rumors reappear every dozen seasons, now they speak of it again. Hartwig enjoys respect from hefty notable Warlords, but their cunning is hiding rotten intentions. With Gar’on making him a champion of the mountain, these Warlords would have to take pause and rethink their steps. I fear of the quiet and murmuring in the corners while praise will pour over Hartwig. Many seek to establish dominion over the rock; therefore, sporadic clashes will soon grow to a war. Silver Cusp is at a threat to be removed from existence”, speaking for himself, he tried to guess the contingent events.
“Far bigger risk carries the lesson from the history of Bruna and Usun Clan. Two mighty packs clashed in the night, the wind carried echoes across the mountain, tales of destruction and violence and the young cubs in a den who never witnessed more grueling horror. Bruna lost the battle and every other that followed. Two winters later, his village reduced to a grey layer of ashes mixed with snow. Usun Clan survived, but weakened and underequipped, they broke under intrusions. Both Clans suffered the loss. I fear the same destiny could befall on Silver Cusp.”
“You should have thought about that before you decided to ally yourself with Hartwig. If the Clan succumbs, it will be a mark on your soul to fester due time. At last, you see the danger that lays in thoughtless action. I issued you a warning, but young apprentice was rash to make his own decision”, realizing my mistake, I folded my arms and panted from the pressure of the consequences I might have provoked, but shaman inhaled and continued. “This is expected from an apprentice. People make mistakes, but we have an opportunity to study those and repair what we can. Others commit bad things and we take note of that, yet we learn the best from personal faulty actions. You trained, you read, you were a great student. Now, the only thing you need is to put your knowledge to practice”, a smile from him was unexpected, it was a welcome sight.
“Consolations, you offer them when we part ways. Any last advice you forgot to lend me before I go?” I stood up and hung a bag on my shoulder when he sauntered closer, arms open to hug me.
“Never think of yourself. We serve the people. Never shy from the battle. If the numbers speak against you, forge a plan to reduce their numbers, and strike when they least expect it. You know the tactics, I thought you that”, an obligatory double slap on the cheek followed before he returned to searching for something. “Anger corrupts logic. It is the unwritten rule of combat. Heat distorts vision, just like at the summer noon. Fox is a spirit, a guardian and a trickster. Fox is a wolf’s older sister”, he waved his finger in the air stressing the first lessons he thought me.
Shaman unlocked a crate I was never to touch and took a fine robe from it. Holding for a table and gasping at every step, he brought it to me. Without a word, he handed it and showed me to put it on. After I buttoned it, a smirk of approval and tap on the back sent me on my way. At the exit, I picked up my staff with a curvy blade at the top and looked at the shaman. It felt like a goodbye is in order, or a promise of return would be nice for his ears to hear, yet my tongue turned to lead and no coherent sentence came out. There was no wave at the door, no shout from the back, no niceties to ease the journey. As if we both knew, what turmoil laid ahead, no one wanted to speak and potentially jinx the moment.
A group of warriors waited for me on the lower cliff, still commenting on the outcome of the ritual. Hartwig stood a bit further with our pet prancing near his feet. He stared at me with attention to how I looked. Back in his fur, his image greatly differentiated from me. I wore a robe riveted with bones, resembling a black coat decorated with human femurs set in order over my chest and horned ram skulls on my shoulders. Under it, a white woolen tunic secured with leather straps. We were similar in our expectations from each other, and our hopes about the war matched, but in every other aspect, we were the opposites.
Juxtaposed to his cheerful spirit he compressed around us, was a concern in me, etched on my face. My doubts about the future were deeply rooted within me because I knew many war stories and scenarios that could change the tides. It was showing on me, in my walk, the way I coped with the unknown. In few turns around the bend, Hartwig refrained from speaking and mostly kept his thoughts for himself. My voice crumbled, and my mind advanced a few paces ahead of the path.
The group came to the very end of the trail of our hut and something elemental told me to turn around. From where I stood, the sight of the cottage appeared foggy and distant, where tusks and color of the stone plate aligned to shape an ancient crown seen in scrolls. The entrance was a dot, an empty space where a sacred flame danced in the middle. Heat distorted the image, much like the vision from a dream, something uncertain, mysterious, and able to exist and deceive your perception in the next moment. No sign of my Master, his form turned into a spiritual being, shaped as a copy of what he used to be, but vague and pale, like a memory of him. Our pet fox whimpered, the sound coming from unseen direction until it faded with the mist, a spirit of some other world, it ascended to a guardian of the mountain.
… To be continued ….
Written by Shawn