Northern wind lifts snowy dust from the toothy cusps of the mountain, a common occurrence of the recent winter. I see the landscape every day, a painting of a world inlaid in time. They bear the name my master calls me, [name].
This is where my family abandoned me as a child. On this mountain, with an old man. He took me into his life and the hut that resembles a hedgehog. This desolate rock is my home, the only one I remember. Sinewy vert and mossy boulders covered with mist lead the eye to the bland green cypress forest to the north.
A woman brings us food. She never talks, not to me.
Sometimes she brings men, warriors from one of the numerous mountain tribes. The men come in groups of four, but leave in pairs. I dream of following them.
Sacrifice must be made before battle, and wars demand blood. Ferocious Gar’on has an appetite for all that is human, but he rarely lends his help in the shedding of blood in battle. He lets them carve each other up, fight until there is one Clan as master of the cliffs.
The men who journey here seek to appease the appetite of our God, to demonstrate they are worthy of his ruthless love and attention. They bring wives to nourish him, soften the stance of Gar’on, alter the destiny of this warlord. Others drag their sons to the altar.
The most recent Clan group came while I was fetching water. Even from that distance, the leader stood out as a man above other men. He wore a wolf-skin cape, and the bear’s head helmet with red stones for eyes meant royal family. A powerful man visits the shaman, bowing before him as a warlord seeking victory over his enemies.
They pray and they sacrifice to the God Gar’on, and they go to their battles.
I know the futility of their offerings. I’ve captured the young battle-spurned hunters who fled their warlords. They seek food and shelter. As practice, the old man sets them to spar with me. If they lose, they die. If they win … they frequently lose, more so as I grew taller and stronger.
Neither feast nor sacrifice will appease our God. Still they come. And the fallen return with news of failures and losses, with their hearts full of vengeance and retribution.
Water is serious business. I filled my buckets and skins and settled them about me for the steep walk back to the hut. My ability to carry enough in one trip also improved with practice.
The group was settled on the level space near the downhill cliff when I returned to fill the water barrels for the hut. They would wait until the shaman came to them. The ritual required patience — and herbs and bones and fire and preparation; sharp daggers, clean vessels, a good fire.
Laughter rolled uphill. An unusual sound. I hope they are more patient than the usual Clan leaders. War awaited them, and the blood sang of victory, but there would be no victory without the blessing of God. And for that, they needed the words of the shaman.
My master waits in the center of the standing stones, the altar marked with runes blackened into starkness against the grey rock by smoke from all the previous fires. I clean the rock, but not the marks. They feel like protection.
The mound of bones and skulls behind him — those unsuccessful in their challenge to the God — and the plate of white bone on his lap. A whale’s jaw, he told me. Who am I to disbelieve? I am the apprentice now, despite trying to run so many times that the scars on my back were like the thorn-bush was aflame when it beat me for the lack of respect to my new life and purpose.
The scrolls were the easy part of his wisdom. The warrior’s fighting skills he shared helped me defeat most of the deserters from battle, but the performance of rituals was at a distance. Too dangerous for one as full of mistakes as I still am. His insults and punishment rain down on my back at those moments, and I try not to cause more than one each day, but I am an apprentice, not a master. Yet.
One day, I will be the shaman if my challenge to Gar’on is accepted and successful. The thought does not sit well if I think of what he knows and what I don’t.
The shaman headpiece is the last piece of his accouterments. I attach it with clips and twigs and vine to ensure it can’t fall off during the trance-state. He nods at me, and I go to fetch the fearless warlord.
As every other warlord has done, he stands atop the tallest rock and watches the mist roll down from the mountain. This man wears his garb lightly, as if the iron of his gauntlets and breastplate were light as straw. The man is almost as large as the boulder he stands on; shoulders and back thick and wide, legs solid as the trunk of a cypress. What does he think as he croons to our pet fox, as he exchanges a few words with his second-in-command? They notice me, grin at each other. Confidence is good. They’ll need it.
The potion needs only a few drops of blood to be complete. The warlord offers his hand and the dagger slices through skin to leak his essence. I catch his sacrifice in the bowl, ensure it is well mixed, as Gar’on demands.
His men followed us as I led the warlord to his place in the ritual. The men circled the stones, laid furs and crates filled with offerings and valuable treasures against the entrance to the circle.
The shaman chanted his throaty song, rolled the large piece of red-hot coal from hand to hand as if it did not burn him. He shuffled his feet in the well-worn rut around the inside of the stone circle, crowed and screeched and threw his body up and down like a rooster at first light.
The stick of coal next to the flat stone was mine. I marked my face as a reflection of the marks on the shaman. I would be the sacrifice if the ritual failed.
The warlord came forth, spat on the ground to his side, and approached the fire. I pointed him to his place and he sat with his legs crossed, hands flat against his meaty thighs. I nodded at the shaman and the warlord bowed from the waist, lifted his hands to remove the long hair that fell over his face. The helm threw shadows over his eyes, leaving only the knotted and braided beard visible. The shaman shuffled to the other side of the fire and opened his white, sightless eyes.
“What will unite the Clans?” the warlord asked.
“Move the mountains under one peak. Each Clan has a Chieftain,” the shaman replied.
“Spare me your twisted words,” he pointed at the skulls at the edge of the circle. “I am not one of them.”
“Aye, you are not. Make sacrifice!” the shaman’s raspy voice spiked to a high pitch on the last word.
“I will sacrifice the clans who defy me. I’ll make a mountain of their bones.” The warlord flung his arms wide.
“They fight you for that. You make them determined to defeat you for the bones you spread on the plains and mountain tracks and clifftops. Where is the wisdom you need? Where is your faith? The God of the mountain holds the faith of the mountain in his hands.”
“You speak of Gar’on as if he is not the same God who cursed me with daughters and no heir. I’ve paid enough, done enough. And for you.” His meaty finger jabbed at the pile of gifts. “Does tribute not count?” He leaned closer to the flames until the tip of his beard singed. “Save me from prayers and talk of the divine. We both know,” he covered his mouth and leaned away from me, “that you relay the will of the God.”
“If you seek approval from a mortal man to set fires and spill blood, why then have you chosen me for the task? Any other warmonger could do that. And with words more to your liking. Why are you here? Were your past words effective?” The shaman didn’t close his eyes, the glaring whites edged with a blue glow that cooled his paper-thin skin. “You came here, and if you come to me, you will heed the words and the will of God as he commands it.” The old man’s mouth twitched.
The warlord’s face darkened. He gazed at the pile of white skulls and grey bones. “What can you do for me?”
“Is there a King by your side? Do you have a sign from God? These are things you need.” He pointed at the sky, waggled his fingers at the clouds gathered around the peaks.
“Games. What sign will speak of my destiny?” the warlord leaned closer to the flames, gripped his knees until the iron wrist bands groaned.
“Ah … wait. Wolf must howl from the peaks when you steal the Moon. King in the valley to ally. This King requests your gift of the Moon to enable him to bring order to the mountains. He is your destiny. He is the destiny of the mountains.” The shaman lifted the bowl with his tonic, took a long swallow. “Shed your blood. Give your oath to our God. Be at his mercy.” He offered the tonic to the warlord, his arms and robe not burning in the flames of the fire.
The warlord grabbed the bowl. His eyes were wide, visible even in the dark shadow of his helm.
Men should be afraid. It did no harm to show them true power and strength did not lie in only the body of a warrior or his weapon.
“Do you say that I will never hold the Mountain?” His voice betrayed a slight tremble. He harrumphed, sipped at the tonic. “I’ll not yield my Clan to a sniveling child that still sleeps with his mother’s tit in reach.” He flung the bowl to the ground, pushed at the ground to rise.
“The Clan is not yours, was never yours. It will fall on your daughter and her chosen man. If you go alone, the prophecy is fulfilled. You will wage war, never win, the Clan will crumble to river pebbles. You die in shame and alone.” The old man waited until the warlord settled back to the ground. “The words I spoke is what it takes to change your destiny. Steal the Moon, give it to your daughter. It is her destiny to hold the Mountain. That is your sacrifice.”
“Trickster!” the giant man leapt up, stepped over the fire.
I pushed against his leg, unbalanced him. “Save ye Clan, mighty warlord. If the Horde spills from the steppe, the Mountains won’t stop them. Your people, our people, all the people of the mountains will be picked off one by one until the weeping of wolves stops echoing among the charred remnants of our homes.” I stared at the bear canines on his helm. I couldn’t see his eyes, but they must be in there somewhere.
His chest huffed in and out, rattled his breastplate. I indicated for him to sit, waited until his feet curled under his knees. I offered him a fresh bowl of tonic, handed it over when he nodded. His huge paws engulfed the small vessel.
“What do you know, boy? How far do your eyes see to make such a claim?” His voice softened to a burry growl. “Have I grown daft to feel a chill of fear from what you speak?”
“A cloud of dust rises in ire. It is far from the rivers that dwindle from our Mountain. My eyes see enough, rumors travel on the wind from afar, and even echoes speak of omen that lurks beyond our vision.” I took a breath. “Not only our Mountain will suffer. The Kingdom you despite will fail the future.” I licked my lips, stared at those canines. “Set your gaze, warlord, over the horizon. What do you see? The Clans, the Mountain, your home. Observe the edges of the path. Is there late snow covering it? Can you see the dust on the surface? Is it the intruder’s mark?” When his head fell forward, the shaman nodded at me. “You came for wisdom, not approval. Words were given to make you wise. Drink.” I pushed his hand with the bowl up toward his mouth.
No sounds entered the circle. The warlord’s men were a deep well of silence, standing still and stiff outside the circle. Their faces were pale and dark, shadows of fear and anger crossing from face to face, hand to hand, like a threat. They would think my words insolence. They were right, but this was my place, these words were the words of the shaman’s apprentice, and they remained quiet.
What value was warlord who came for advice but refused to heed it? Would he fear they would no longer follow him? Was he no longer the man worthy of their loyalty? If the warlord refused to heed the words offered, his destiny was clear. As was theirs if they followed him. The silence stretched around the circle, trickled to a heavy mist of white breaths of the God.
“By the cry of a mountain lion, by the cold of my blade, by the fire in my heard and the blood of my lineage, I swear to safeguard the Mountain. For the Silver Clasp Clan!” The warlord rose to his full height, drew his dagger and sliced a line of blood through his palm. Blood dripped into the bowl. He lifted it, showed his men, the shaman, showed me last, and tipped the contents of the bowl onto the altar.
The visitors retired to their tents on the field of the lower cliff. I watched the fires, breathed in the aroma of their food — fresh kills of mountain deer, rabbit, roots from the creek to the east of their site — and waited to sense the anger.
I sat in the doorway, slurping my watery gruel.
“Stop slurping,” the shaman said. “You shall follow this quest.”
The bowl fell from my fingers. I lifted my feet, but not fast enough. Hot fluid splattered over my legs and under the stool. Now I’d have to clean again.
“There is no one else to send. They must hear the words. The tilt is far more fragile than it should be, his mindless firm than required. You need to be the guide. It will take one who is not of Warrior blood to be calm and thinking. Warriors think in blood and fury, it creates haze instead of clarity.
“I doubt the cold of the Black Ridge waterfall, even in the first melt, would cool them. It takes a frosted blade to bring coolness to the forge-burned skull, yet the cure would be too late.” The shaman didn’t lift his head, he spoke to the surface of the low table.
“Why not you, master?” I spooned what was left of my gruel into my mouth, swallowed. “A stroll in the lowlands may ease the pain in ye old bones.”
The staff whipped against my back. I shifted my stool to the side to avoid the next one.
“I am not old.”
“Look at the surface of a still creek. See what is real.”
“It is for your experience, not mine. Your lessons. I have seen many wars, traveled many seas, ridden the wide expanse of the steppes from east to west, from north to south.
“What have you seen? A mountain, and you claim familiarity, but it is only the surface of knowing. You know nothing. Yet. The world awaits your wisdom.”
“Aye. To understand the world, you must stretch your legs, meet the people of the land, base predictions on knowing why they do, how they do what they do. Until you know the depth of understanding the ways of the world, all the advice you offer is unanchored, unmoored, unreasonable to the people who might need to hear it.”
“They would be fools to not listen.”
“Indeed. Fools come and fools go. Fools will arrive here after I am gone, and fools will listen and ignore, making of you a bigger fool than they.”
“Does that make sense?” I prodded his weakness with words meant to persuade me to his purpose. “One day, when I reach your level of word-wisdom, our debates will not be so one-sided.” I picked up my stool and bowl in one hand and hefted the bucket of water to the pots to heat up for cleaning. He would pull out this discussion again, batter me with it until he tired, and I would pretend to not listen.
The people of the Mountain considered the shaman, and me as his apprentice, as exalted, as dissimilar to the valley cretins whose sole focus was grains and harvest as a bear is from a fish. They came to us for lore on herbs and healing, to learn of poisons and protections. The southern Kingdom posed learning from scrolls as wisdom, posited scholarly pursuits as of more value than investigation of the living world. They were locked in temples with their dust of the past while they smoked tabac; we were part of our world, adapting our ways to suit the changes that came each season.
The scrolls we obtained as gifts were stored after the shaman read and dissected them, as he would a frog. He talked to me as he made their words, shaped their beliefs in the air around us. It didn’t touch our ways. His most common comment on the scrolls was about the hedge-witches, their potions, and rituals, the customs of the people whose soul still sought the earth for assistance.
Clans from the far north read footprints and stars, read weather and blizzards in the creatures of the land and sky. Travelers, pilgrims, adventurers — they brought stories as offerings, lore from long-distant shores and peoples. The words of those people were different to the Mountain words, the shaman taught me to speak and read those words, to understand them as more than marks and translations.
A gossip from the desert, a western sailor hiding from the demons of the deep, a version of Gods from valleys far distant … all these travelers bring valuable knowledge with them.
I laid out and freshened the shaman’s mattress with the last of the store of grasses and hay. Spring would bring freshness with it, a new cut to lay aside for winter.
“I am familiar with the teachings, master,” I said, smiled as I laid the fresh cup of herbal elixir for his old bones.
“You play with my wisdom. Enough.”
“The Silver Clasp leader could be entertaining. Give him time, a day or so, to bare his stupidity. That will make you feel better.” I laid his head on the pillow and tilted the cup to his lips.
“Too hot!” he waved it away. “What you learned from me, even with the lashes and hard work, is what makes you strong. Strength is not an able body, not alone. An able body with a mind that knows how to use it is true strength. Even then, an able body may not be required if the apprentice uses his brawn as well as his brains.” He opened his eyes, the silver pupils reflecting yellow and red from the slow-burning coals behind me. “When I stood where you are, my purpose was to exceed my Master, to ensure the Mountain is defended.” His eyes closed. “This is your journey to find the purpose of your life, to learn what I cannot teach. I remain here for my duty.”
“The Mountain is safe enough,” I said. “Even if all those who can hold an axe are dead, even if they butcher all those who remain, no warrior would shame his blade to fight an old goat like you.” I smiled at his snort. “You shall be a sole survivor even if all else falls. You will be victorious. As ever.”
“Insults is how you repay me?” He gripped my arm with a claw-like hand. “You are stronger, you think, hungry for a worthy challenge. Are you so eager to take my place and rule here alone? I raised you well, prepared you to become just as you are. Capable. A man made from a boy. I kept you for your mind, not because I had no choice. Your use of logic and mimicry, of words and sounds, are a rare talent. These things will serve you well. Out there. You may have been a favour owed me by your parents, but I chose to keep you and not let you die in the forest when you ran off to speak with bears and wolves and foxes.” He chuckled under the heavy skins I laid over him. “One day, when you seek measures to punish the spite and anger in an apprentice, you will think on this.” He slurped the last of his drink and laid the bowl in my hand.
The last night-log crackled in the fire, giving the last bit of warmth to the cold, mud-walled hut. The side nearest my nest of furs was in the last stage of failing. I’d spread mud and reeds, but the cold froze it separate from the wall and it slid off. Summer was the time for fixing the walls and roof, resetting the stones in the fireplace, straightening the lintels and door-steps after the damage done by a freezing wet winter.
My fur boots came off for a brush and clean before I slid them back on. My bedding would warm, but not enough. I pulled myself deep within the den I’d made, listened to the noise of the warriors in the camp below us.
Singing, the words more like grunts with rhythm. One I knew. A story-song of a feeble tribal woman dancing in the woods, her sorrow for losing her son to war. A drinking song, a woman’s lament, something that should warn them, but didn’t. Men fought, women lamented. That was what the song showed.
When I heard the fox mewling, I slid from my bed and shadowed my way to the path on the outer edges of their camp. The warlord showed a kind hand to our fox. If he was a gentle man, did that mean he could be trusted? A fox was not fast to trust, and it took me many years to earn her companionship.
To a man, all the previous warlords were cruel to the fox, yelled and berated it for it’s lack of intellect compared to them. In their minds, that is.
I walked to the fire pit and sat on an upturned stone. “Have you brought your finest warriors for sacrifice, or your weakest?”
The warlord nodded at his companions, who stood and walked to their tents. “I’ve heard stories of chieftains who brought champions. Bruna did the opposite and brought the expendable warriors, the old and infirm. Neither had luck with their quests. Keeping your best will help in the fray, but Bruna ended up yielding against Usun Clan. My warriors are all battle-hardened, the weakest dead in battle. Every man capable of wielding an axe or spear stands beside me. I did not select candidates based on skill. I have men with me, and I asked for volunteers. These men.” He pointed to the tents. “This is their farewell feast.” He raised his wine-skin to each tent, drank deeply.
“They trust you, and are loyal to your cause. Devoted warriors to your cause.”
“Aye, a Clan stands united to win.”
The fox slithered between his legs, rubbed her back along with his leathers.
“Perhaps that is what makes a powerful clan. Whether for wealth or glory, or promises of gain, or simply to ensure a life for their family, the men who bond with loyalty are more likely to be blessed than not.”
A log slid from the fire. I loosened my robe and pushed it back into the center. The warlord pointed at the scars on my shoulder and neck. He rubbed the back of his head and down his arm, then returned his attention to the fox. She mewled at him.
To be continued…
Cage Dunn was kind enough to go through my snippet and rewrite it. What do you think?