The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt.5

isaandnoel

NOEL

“Arghaaa!” Noel bellowed, pain exploding through him as he finally came to a stop on the frozen slope. Weakly clinging to the ice by one hand, he lay still, breathing several grateful, agonizing breaths, attempting to stifle the pitiful moans that escaped now and then, though he was sure there was no one around to hear him and his death would be witnessed by no one, save the mountain. The clouds thickened all around him, blinding him to much of his surroundings, as sleet turned to clumps of blowing snow that never quite touched the ground and the world grew darker, but whether this was the result of the storm or the severity of his injuries, he couldn’t be certain until he assessed the damages. For right now he was just happy to lay there in silence, letting the pain course over him, reassuring him he was still alive, though certainly not well.

After a long minute, he finally attempted to turn over, but the slippery pitch of the glacier sent him sliding a few more dangerous inches, and he pressed hard against the ice, groaning as he forced himself to a standstill once more, his chest and abdomen burning as bare skin scraped across the frosty ground, his right arm, which had been pinned beneath him in the fall, throbbing. “All right, Noel,” he breathed, trying to calm himself, but as he said the words, the wind blew, churning the air, sending a whirlwind of snow sweeping over him, catching up the tale of his cloak. Noel screamed out in agony as the thick elfin weave snagged on something sharp, whipping it around like sailcloth behind him. The bones of his right calf protruded through his flesh, making a bloody mast for his cloak, where the wind could play, and he felt every sickening tug. Eyes flooded with tears, he looked around for his rucksack, which ripped from his back as he tumbled across the ground. He soon discovered it perched on a precious ledge of rock no more than a foot above him, so Noel clenched his jaw, swearing angrily, spraying a fine red mist across the ice in front of him as he attempted to free his right arm, only to go skidding across the ground again as he swore.

His only chance of survival was in that pack. Before Noel left Fendhaim, Foote insisted he take with him a bottle of Iachaol he had managed to procure, in case something happened. Convincing the dark fairies to part with the elixir had undoubtedly cost his friend something much dearer than fortune, though Phileas refused to say exactly what the fairies took from him as payment. Of course, Noel argued he wouldn’t need it, that he had no intention of using it even if he did find himself in want, that it was far too valuable a thing to be given away on a whim, and even proclaimed he would rather die than swallow a single drop, but Phileas shoved the bottle into his hand anyway, and in the interest of saving time, Noel tossed it, haphazard, into the rucksack, as though the gift was a direct assault on his pride. He had trucked that priceless bottle around the world on his back for all those months, never again considering it, and now, the salvation he had tried to refuse rested a bit less than a foot above him, just out of his reach, slipping ever farther away every time he tried to move.

There were a thousand simple ways out of this mess, that would all do to be getting on with, if he hadn’t spent most of his energy battling the wind as the storm blew in and a great deal of what remained keeping himself from plunging to his death in whatever craggy hell lurked below. He had to reach that pack somehow, but his options looked rather bleak from his position, so he dug raw, bluing fingers into the ice under his left hand, causing the molecules to vibrate just enough that he could carve himself a decent handhold. He knew he wouldn’t be able to cling to it for long before his left hand became as useless to him as his right one, but that was all he the energy he dared expend on even such a small bit of security, as he rested his battered face against his shoulder, running his tongue over the bloody stumps of three teeth that were no longer there.

“Come on, Noel. Think,” he spat, furiously, trying hard not to consider the broken bones, the thin, frozen air in his lungs, all the things that would definitely be the end of him, instead of how he was going to get to the bag to save himself. But his mind raced to question how long he could lie there exposed before hypothermia set in and whether or not he would bleed to death if he sped up his heart rate to stay warm.

“Just get the bloody rucksack, and you won’t have to worry about any of that!” he shouted, making a desperate attempt to drag himself up and find some foothold below, so he could free his right arm and make a mad climb for the bag and its slim ledge of safety, but his boot only slipped over the slick ground, and he slid back down, farther than before, his left arm stretching as he clung to that small hold, making his shoulder feel like it would tear under the weight of him.

Noel swore an enraged curse at the mountain, kicking his boot at the ice. In answer, a chunk of heavily packed snow fell from somewhere above him, landing square on his head. “Oh, you’ve a sense of humor? Going to bury me in an avalanche for a laugh? Hell, get it over with then!” he yelled, shaking the freezing wet from his head. Then he heard the dangerous grumble of the snow giving way above him, barely audible over the cry of the storm. He looked up in time to see the crevice between the boulders he had fallen through completely disappear as the snow packed into it once again, disguising it for future wayward travelers, as showers of white spilled over the rock-face, dangerously close to where Noel lay, landing with a rain of heavy thuds somewhere beneath him, only to race across the ground until the sound of it was lost in the howling of the wind.

His heart hammered in his chest, but the shifting of the snow had given him a dangerous idea, one he could manage with minimal energy and perhaps survive, with a bit of luck. “If I can get to the rucksack to come to me,” he hissed, looking up at the crevice packed with snow, for the first time in his life offering a small prayer in his head to whatever divine power might be out there paying attention. “This is effing insane,” he added, as he tightened his grip on the ice, bracing himself.

One word was all it would take, Noel thought, swallowing hard, taking a deep breath—one brief, well-placed word. He began to hum low, dropping his voice deep in his chest, allowing the note to sink deeper still inside of him, stirring in his bowels until his voice became a guttural rumble no human could possibly hear, as he spoke the word directly to the devious crack that had been his downfall, “Now.”

At first, whatever was happening inside the packed snowdrift was imperceptible, but Noel knew the sound would carry like a quake through the ice, he just had to be prepared for whatever happened as a result and stay ready to spring into action. After a long minute, he heard the crunching of packed ice and snow losing its hold on the glacier. Afraid he had given it too much, Noel uttered an anxious curse as he heard the tell-tale roar begin, off in the distance, somewhere in the blackness of the storm. It wouldn’t affect him, he thought, frustration building as he waited, watching the crevice, hoping the mountain would just let loose its grip on the snow piled above him, just give him enough to knock the pack down from the ledge, but even as he prepared to try again, the snow in the crevice began to fall, rushing toward him, much more of it than he had expected. The tumult hit the bag first, sending it spilling from its ledge, and Noel thrust himself upward, forcing his arm free to catch it even as he was buffeted by the frozen downpour, that sent him sliding sideways, his body grinding against the glacier, hands ripping at the ice as snow rushed over him and he was turned around so he was looking down the slope and could just make out the cliff below in the blowing snow, where everything disappeared, nothing beyond it but a sickening swell of blackness. But only a few feet away from the precipice, the ground began to level and Noel came to a stop, not knowing if he should laugh or cry, his pack hooked in the crook of his right elbow.

He carefully forced himself to sitting, broken and battered parts of him working under the strength of sheer will and a hefty dose of adrenaline as he tugged at the opening of the pack, desperate to find the bottle of Iachaol. But the furious thunder of millions of tonnes of ice and snow collapsing grew ever closer. Noel looked up, just for a moment, searching the darkness for his crevice, the path of his escape, if Fate be willing, but all he could make out in the darkness was the bloody trail he had left in his descent, as he felt the wall of snow roaring toward him, reverberating in the air. In a panic, he realized he had slipped right into the path of the incoming avalanche and surely now he would be crushed, so he clutched the rucksack to his chest, furiously attempting to drag himself to safety, but he was too late.

From out of the black of night came the gray wall surging toward him, a frozen tidal wave of fury. Noel caught his breath as his body was ripped up from the ground and sucked under the swell that sent him falling down, down, until he slammed against the ground. As the angry torrent of white continued, billowing past him, Noel had just enough awareness of his surroundings to realize he lay mostly still again, as the snow pummeled parts of him until it began to pile up, covering his face, his head, his left leg, and the passage of time became all at once instantaneous and somehow forever, consumed by the wrath of the mountain as it saw to it the elf and his miracle tonic were entombed.

Noel awoke to the jarring silence and managed to pull his head free.

He woke again, fighting the blackness to keep hold of the pack in his arms.

He woke a third time, his body swinging, limp, as he hung upside down, vaguely aware that right before death comes, the whole world reeks of yak’s arse.

________________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 4

isaandnoel

RIVER

Frightened cries rang out all through the mountain. By now everyone knew the traveler had reached the summit, as those with the ability to sense beyond the thick walls that had for so long protected their people spread the word about this man who sought their home, this man who hunted them, or so it felt. Some were aware of his unbridled determination, a willingness to suffer greatly for his cause, and naturally, being unable to understand his intentions, they were frightened. Others more keenly felt his underlying frustration, which seemed to stretch back so far into history that many became certain he must be one of the abysmal demons, an undying monster come to reap their souls. For those empaths, who could not feel what lurked outside their haven, matters were even worse, as they woke startled in the night to the confusion and fear of their own parents, siblings and neighbors, and were terrified by horrors they had never known before, very human horrors. That one elf might as well have been an entire army, come to send the mountain crashing down around them, he had sent such a frenzy through their people. Even Isabella found it difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sense of suspicion and anguish among them, so she did the only thing an empath could do when the world became too much, and concealed herself, so she could no longer feel anything outside of her, as she and Harvey made their way to their elders.

By the time they arrived, a large crowd had already gathered outside the entrance to the Mdrai’s sacred chamber. People who noticed the two of them trying to make their way to the bridge called out, “What are you going to do about him?” and “Why won’t he just leave us alone?” obviously wanting and indeed expecting answers. Harvey clung to Isabella with one hand while pulling people out of their way with his other as he pushed forward, shouting, “Let us through. Stand clear, all of you.” But no one was very interested in making them a path so they could cross the river and do whatever it was they would eventually do.

“Please, everyone, the best thing for all of us is to remain calm,” Isabella called to the crowd, though she doubted many heard her, as her voice was lost in a cacophony of cries and jeers. “The traveler is not here to harm us, or our Mdrai would have stopped him from coming. Please, go home and tell your families they are safe, reassure the younglings their Mdrai will protect them.” It was useless, so she stood on her toes and said loudly in Harvey’s ear, “We have to do something.”

As they finally reached the bridge, Harvey turned around and climbed up on one of the posts, raising both hands for silence. A wary half-hush fell over the crowd.  “Issa is right,” he said, a stupid grin spreading across his face even as he said the words, shaking his head at her as she raised a skeptical brow at the admission. “For the moment, the best thing we can do is remain calm. While I know you are frightened, worried that this man intruding on our home intends to harm us, he has not shown himself to be malicious, so we should attempt to reserve judgment until we know more.”

“But I feel him!” a man of Omdra Vega’s people called out. “He is shrouded by the blackness of vengeance!” The crowd all began to press forward again, making pitiful pleas, each person adding to what the man said, as if it was all the truth and somehow the wanderer was the most heinous person to have ever wandered.

“He is not like us, that much is true,” Harvey answered loudly, holding out his hands again, waiting for the people to listen. “But whatever this man is, whatever he wants from us, we must remember that he has lived his life out in the world, a world our Mdrai have sheltered us from for so long, understanding that those among us who feel what is at the souls of others can not possibly survive out there where all souls are inevitably darker. Of course the things he feels are foreign to us, frightening to us, but our collective fear is more detrimental to our people than he can ever possibly be as one man alone. Consider that what each of you are feeling of this man is tainted by what every other one of you is feeling of him. He is not some monster. He is just a man. Now, please, those of you who have the ability to shield the young empaths, do so. Those of you who can provide us all with nurturing, for the sake of all our people, do what you are able. We need each other, so let us think of one another, let us protect one another, and allow our Mdrai time to determine what, if anything, should be done. This elf is a visitor. Think of him as such.”

“Well done,” Isabella smiled as Harvey jumped down in front of her, took her hand once more and they continued across the bridge. As he held back the thick vines that hung over the entrance to the tunnel for her to enter, there were plenty of things she wanted to say to him, but she waited until they were well inside to ask, “Why aren’t you occluding them, Harvey? They are too much even for me.”

“I understand them,” he shrugged. “I’m all right, for now. It’s your wanderer you should worry about.”

“My wanderer,” she sighed. “You know he isn’t here to intentionally harm anyone. You just told them he is a visitor, not a monster. And you said the words, ‘Issa is right,’ which I’m never going to let you forget.”

“Look around you. He is doing harm, Issa,” Harvey answered seriously, as the tunnel opened up into the chamber, where their Mdrai and the other aspirants waited. But he turned back and added in a careful whisper, so that just she would hear, “As I said he would,” before going to take his place at his grandfather’s side.

Isabella bit her lip, considering the eight men gathered in clusters in the large, spherical room made of quartz, their faces all grave as they conversed quietly amongst themselves. Never had she known their elders to be so troubled. It was strange seeing their concern without feeling it, like they belonged in one of the paintings in her father’s books, where the history of humanity stood frozen in time. Despite their discontentment, as ever the air in the chamber was vibrant, full of warmth and light, alive with the energy of Fate as it flowed up from the deep, filling the natural basin at the center of the room, as though nothing had changed. The Mdrai had hoped Fate would guide them, where the elf was concerned, but its silence had left them all shaken. Thousands of years ago, these very waters spilled from the chamber and flowed with the river out into the world. Then Fate was everywhere, but now prophecies were few and far between, less than two seers and augurs were born to the mountain in any given month, and the Mdrai secretly worried Fate was dying. By the looks of them, they might as well have been attending its funeral instead of standing there contemplating the traveler, Isabella thought. If Harvey was right, and this man had come seeking answers about a prophecy, it was hard not to wonder if they would even be capable of helping him.

Their Mardraim stepped toward the edge of the basin, giving each of them a gentle smile as he called the room to attention. “Now that we are all accounted for, we shall begin.”

Isabella hurried to her rightful place beside her father, but he did not looked pleased at all as he glanced back to find her there, his heavy brow marked with disappointed question. It only took a moment for her to figure out why he looked at her this way. The traditions of their people were not to be taken lightly, and it was against tradition for any Mdrai or aspirant to enter the chamber while using occlusion. Looking down at her feet in shame, Isabella quickly let down her guard, but as the intense wave of displeasure of their elders rushed over her, like a fire sweeps through drought-riddled plains, she realized something terrible must have happened, and she sought out the soul of the elf. After a moment, she found him making his slow way down the slope very near to the entrance to their home.

Emanuel, the aspirant for Omdra Vega, broke the silence. “Why does he travel at night?”

Isabella looked to Harvey, who pressed his lips together and shrugged.

“It is not uncommon for an elf to travel in this manner, allowing the moon and stars to guide him,” Omdra Wallace answered. “I gather, from my learning, they do not hold a great deal of trust in the rest of the world, though I’m not certain why. They tend to live out of the way of others, and when they do interact with those who aren’t like them, they avoid utilizing their abilities to manipulate the elements. It is as though they would keep what they are hidden, so they act as normal men. For the most part, they prefer keeping to themselves, and traveling at night is conducive to that.”

“Perhaps the one who lacks trust should be the least trusted?” Omdra Vega said quietly.

“Would you say the same of us, here in this mountain?” Wallace chuckled in return, his large belly bouncing, shaking his beard.

Isabella’s father shook his head, answering pointedly, “Perhaps he would feel that we are not to be trusted,especially if he felt of us what we feel of him, but elves are far from harmless, with their abilities, and this one’s frustrations are rooted deep inside him. It is time we concentrate on protecting our people, and not waste any more efforts trying to discover whether or not his intentions are good.”

At this, Harvey cleared his throat and everyone turned to him as he looked to the Mardraim for permission to speak. His grandfather nodded patiently, and he proceeded more anxiously than was usual. “We… cannot… allow him entry to our home.”

“Again, it is highly unlikely he might find his way inside,” Yang answered. “Omdra Asan is right. We should concentrate on protecting our own people, either way.”

“Please, hear me out,” Harvey said, stepping forward, so that he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Mardraim. “He will find his way to us. He is not here by chance; he is being guided. With this elf, everything will change.”

“How can you know this?” Vega asked.  Though he meant no cruelty in questioning Harvey’s ability, it was difficult for Isabella to ignore Emanuel’s small laugh.

“I don’t know it.”

“Then why speak it here, Young Harvey?” Omdra Yang countered gently.

Harvey swallowed hard, let out a deep, unsteady breath, then blurted, “I feel Fate guiding him.”

This revelation caused the room to stir, as the Mdrai and aspirants all looked to one another, with doubt and concern. It was Harvey’s turn to hang his head, ashamed of himself for having said such a thing out loud, but he shouldn’t have been, Isabella thought even as the others fell into quiet debate. He had always felt so much more than anyone else, so why shouldn’t it be possible he was right? Who was to say he could not feel the hand of Fate or that Fate was not guiding the wanderer?

But the Mdrai did not have long to ponder exactly what was happening between the traveler, Fate and Harvey, as his face twisted, contorting painfully, and he looked up toward the summit in shock. The others turned their attention back to the elf, who, Isabella was surprised to discover, was presently in what seemed like a fight for his life. “Has he fallen?” she asked, sensing the man’s panic, her own heart racing as though it beat in time with his. It was… thrilling, she thought, as she looked to her father for answers.

“No, it seems he is caught in the wind, and he’s struggling to keep control,” he answered, the lines on his forehead growing heavy as he frowned.

But Isabella’s excitement at what was happening outside of their mountain did not last long. “Protect them,” Harvey shouted suddenly, falling to his knees, holding his ears. “Protect the empaths now.  Please!”

While everyone else became aware of the renewed sense of terror among those empaths who had not thought to shield themselves from the stranger, all of them, much like Isabella, finding themselves caught up in the wild torment of the man’s struggle, Isabella quickly realized why Harvey was in so much pain—as much as they did not care for the one who hunted them, the empaths could not bear his fear for his life or what they would feel if he died. Harvey felt their collective fear of death. She ran to his side and knelt down, throwing her arms around him, enveloping him in her protection as quickly as she could, but he was much stronger than she realized, stronger than she ever imagined possible. Though she did everything she could to hold him close in her occlusion, she could feel him stretched far beyond her reach, beyond the mountain, beyond the wanderer, beyond the river and the ocean, as though he was running away from himself, and everything he felt, as far and fast as he could. They had known each other their entire lives, been friends since they were children, grew up together, played together, learned together at the mothers’ knees, but for the first time, Isabella realized Harvey Frank felt everyone. He felt everything as if it were all a part of himself, and right now he only wanted to escape it.

“You must block them too, Harvey,” she whispered as he fell forward on his hands, panting like a wild animal, then laid down on his side, in agony, tears streaming down his cheeks. Isabella sat on the ground next to him and pulled his head onto her lap. “Harvey, listen to me. They’re out there,” she said softly, running her fingers over the tattoos on his bald head. “It’s just us in here. Let them go. Come back to me, please, Harvey. Just concentrate on me.” She was truly afraid for him, afraid he would break and never be the same, afraid she would lose him. “Remember when we were younglings, we went and played in the river, just the two of us,” she said, trying desperately to bring him back. “You were so worried we’d get in trouble, but I insisted, so you came with me anyway. We swam against the current as fast and hard as we could, and it was exhausting and exhilarating, and we were so happy, at least until my mother came and fished us out, and neither of us ever went swimming without permission again,” she laughed quietly.  “I remember, you said to me, ‘Issa, you’re laughing,’ as though it was something you had never seen me do before, even though I was always laughing. Do you remember that?”

He nodded and his breathing slowed.

“That was the day I knew you were my greatest friend, Harvey,” she whispered, and he smiled, and she could feel him returning to himself as he calmed at last.

The Mardraim rested his hand on her head, mouthing silently, “Thank you, Young Issa,” before turning to the others, leaving his grandson in Isabella’s care. “We must work quickly to shield everyone in the mountain from this traveler,” he said. “We must let the rains come.”

“The water will interfere with our ability to know if he finds his way inside,” Vega said.

Yang offered, “Perhaps we could have all of the empaths moved to the far side of the river,” but Isabella’s father insisted, “This would only frighten them more, I’m afraid. The rains are our best course of action.”

Wallace nodded his wide, bushy head in agreement. “Young Harvey and Omdra Asan will still be able to sense him. They can keep us apprised of what the elf is getting up to.”

“But Harvey—” Isabella began a bit too emphatically. Her father raised his brows sharply, and she looked down, biting the inside of her cheek, only to find Harvey was laughing at her.

“It’s all right, Issa,” he said, as he pushed himself up to sitting. “I will have an easier time concentrating just on your friend out there with the rains.”

“He is not my friend,” Isabella whispered.

“He has started his ascent,” Omdra Yang spoke, looking graver than before. “Again, he makes his way toward the entrance. Perhaps Young Harvey is right, and Fate guides him to us.”

“Then it is decided,” their Mardraim said patiently. “Let us make it rain.”

With that the Mdrai and other aspirants all exited the chamber, leaving Isabella and Harvey alone, sitting there on shining crystal floor beside the basin, the Divine Waters burbling up from the great well of Fate far beneath them, filling the bowl and quickly swirling away, back into the deep.

_________________

Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16

PAPER TOWNS!

 

It’s Spring Break around here, so everyone’s home, officially Spring Breaking, which means I’m not getting any work done, but I thought I would just pop in to let you know a squealing, teary-eyed birdie just told me the trailer for Paper Towns released today!  This is my all time favorite John Green book, so I CAN NOT WAIT for July 24th, to go see the film with my lovely youngest daughter, Bird, a die-hard Nerd Fighter, if there ever was one.

 

The tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 3

 

isaandnoel

MOUNTAIN

Wind broke across the ice in violent gusts, tearing at Noel’s cloak, howling through him, threatening to blow him right off the mountain as it sent tiny frozen crystals ripping at the flesh on his face. The air was thin and wet, and with every breath his lungs burned, seizing up with a cold unlike any he had ever felt before. What the hell am I doing here, he wondered as he knelt down behind an outcropping of rock to shield himself from the blasting air and threw open his pack. He pulled out the thickest shirt he had with him, a shirt which reeked of smoked wallaby dung and weeks old sweat, and tied it around his head like a keffiyeh to protect his face and hopefully keep some of the warmth inside him as he breathed deep, filling his lungs. He tugged an odd pair of socks, caked with dirt, onto his hands, though his fingers were already numb and he doubted they would do him much good in such harsh conditions. At least his cloak did its job as long, as he could keep the wind at his back, he thought, adding in a mutter, “But I’d better find the way in fast, or I’m going to die of hypothermia and become part of this place too. Aw, Taree would be so proud.” As he stood, he was laughing at what he imagined his old shaman friend would say at finding him there, of all places, but as soon as the wind caught hold of him, he decided it would be best to continue on in seriousness, given the state of things.

Trudging over the glacial mass in the darkness, he had only the light of the stars to see by as he made his slow way down and across the peak, hoping to find some sign of human life, a light to guide him, a sign pointing the way, but with every careful step there was nothing to be seen but meters thick ice and blowing snow, rock and the occasional cloud that rolled over him, leaving him wet as it blinded him to his surroundings, more than once forcing him to seek shelter. Somehow he doubted anyone who might live in such a forbidding place had bothered to lay out a welcome mat. These people were isolated from the reach of the rest of the world, a damning cold their guardian and gatekeeper, if they even existed anymore, he thought, reason battling against the feeling in his gut that kept him moving forward in spite of himself and the icy fury all around him. Assuming what he had experienced little more than a week ago was real, even if the ones who listened to Fate had once lived here, for all he knew he was searching for the entrance to their tomb buried under thousands of years of ice, instead of some paradise lost, he thought as he lowered himself carefully down into a fairly deep crevice, hoping to find the entrance hidden in its depths, but at the bottom, the rock faces came together in a steep point, and he took the opportunity to lean against the wall for a rest. The prophecy in the Book of Ages had been given to his forefathers almost a thousand years before the Fall, and by the time Eurial’s great grandson got around to recording it in his book in the aftermath, any elf who might have known who A.D. was and what the prophecy truly meant had been slaughtered. Noel’s throat tightened at the thought of millions of his own people cut down, their lives savagely ended. For want of power that never came? Revenge? All of the five races had suffered under Fate’s curse ever since, so surely the people who called this mountain home had suffered as well, otherwise why wouldn’t they have made themselves known to the rest of the world in all that time, unless they had something to hide under all that ice and rock?

As if in answer, a heavy cloud passed overhead, blanketing the world in darkness, and Noel heard the wind pick up, whistling angrily over the opening of his crevice as sleet began skittering across the rock and hardened frost. He might have stayed there where he was relatively safe from the elements, but the mountain gave a menacing groan around him and to his imagination the sleet began to sound a lot like rock sliding against rock somewhere beneath him. Fearing the mountain was preparing to snap its jaws shut, Noel darted up into the sky, expecting to fly up above the level of the clouds. Instead he was met with a great blast of wind that sent him tumbling blindly. As he fought the currents, viciously whipping him around on himself, he feared he would wind up broken against a wall of stone at any moment, but after several seconds, the turbulence subsided and he landed gracelessly, splayed out on his belly like a child, hugging the ground tight as his cloak was pelted with ice.

Noel rolled over onto his back, his cloak crunching with the ice that had already frozen to it, and gave several grievous sighs before getting to his feet, pulling his makeshift keffiyeh up over his face. He was shuddering to the core as he looked around him. He had been blown off course, not too far, he was sure, but far enough that he could no longer see his own tracks in the snow where he began his descent from the height of the peak, and there was no sign of the crack in the mountain that had threatened to eat him, but he believed it was somewhere not far above him. Nothing looked familiar, so shaking his head, gritting his teeth stubbornly, he began to climb, hoping to quickly find his way back to where he had left off, before the next cloud rolled through.

Noel was not the sort to willingly admit defeat, in fact, he was exactly the sort to refuse to let a bit of inclement weather force him to give in so easily, at least not until he had covered the whole of the summit, but by now his strength was fading fast as he struggled against the wind and the cold, pulling his cloak as tightly around him as he could, turning his body and keeping his head low so his hood blocked the worst of the brutal winds. The truth was, he knew he wouldn’t be able to continue much longer, so to motivate himself to continue ahead anyway, he was just considering, with the sort of sarcastic air he was prone to, why he shouldn’t just go on home now, come back another time, bring Phileas and Paul with him to help, maybe in the summer, when the freezing temperatures at the top of the mountain would be more bearable, especially with the appropriate gear, when the valley below promised plenty to keep them occupied while they weren’t busy searching for a lost civilization, but as he laughed at his own idiocy, mostly for coming there without even considering the climate, he took a careless step up into what looked like an ordinary snow bank piled against the face of a rock that seemed easy enough to scale, its surface being marked with several fractures he thought he could use as grips.  The frozen layer shifted beneath him, as if in mocking, and fell away. His left foot slipped right through the ice and snow, as his right leg twisted and crashed against the rock sending him sliding into the hole with both feet, and before he could even work out what had happened, he found himself clinging to a ledge by sock-covered hands, his painful, bloody chin providing a tiny bit of extra grasp on the mountain, which he was certain by now was desperately trying to kill him. Unable to feel any earth under his feet or anywhere around him with the exception of the bit he clung to for dear life, his right leg throbbing, Noel stared up at six feet of snow above him glowing blue and twinkling in the starlight, his face pressed into the frozen underside of the exposed stone where he had managed to catch a grip purely by chance. Just above the line of the snow, from the angle he was forced to look by his present circumstances, he could clearly make out a hidden cleft between the glacier and the rock beneath it, where the darkness beyond seemed to go on forever. He knew he would never have found the cave behind the ice face, never in a million years of searching that place, but there it was, perhaps fifteen meters away, and miles out of his reach as he dangled there precariously, wondering what he should do, what he could do, as he felt himself quickly losing his hold.

He didn’t know how bad his leg was, but he could tell he was bleeding because he could feel the warmth oozing out of him. He couldn’t muster the strength to fly now, even if he might have been able to ignore the pain long enough to take off and managed to maintain control in the deadly winds. “So this is it,” he growled against the mountain. “You’ve already raised a bloody glass to me.” And with that, he did something he had never done before.  He let go, imagining tumbling down the slope below, leaving parts of himself splattered against the gargantuan beast, a trail of carrion for the vultures to feast upon the next day. For some reason, as he was falling through the air watching his ruddy socks still hanging above him, stuck to the frozen earth, probably destined to remain there for the rest of time, Noel thought of his father, whom he hadn’t thought about in years, not since the two of them had properly agreed they would never see eye to eye about anything except never seeing eye to eye. In that moment, in preparing to meet death head on, most people would have searched their souls for some measure of forgiveness, made their peace with this earth and those they left behind, but all Noel could think was how pleased his father would be to know he had always been right about him, and the thought of his smug, bitter grin upon learning the details of his foolish son’s death was enough to snap him out of his temporary willingness to accept whatever Fate and that mountain had in store for him.

He cried out in agony as his body crumpled against the solid ice below and he use every bit of strength he had left to force himself still, his words ringing out and echoing back at him as his body scraped across the frozen ground, “Not yet!”

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Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16

The Tale of Two Mountains-Part 2

Last week I decided I would publish a short story to the site about Isabella and Noel, minor characters in The Eleventh Age.  This week continues below with the second installment, but if you haven’t already read the beginning, you should see last week’s post.  I’ll do my best to be diligent with my links as we go along.

 

isaandnoel

ISABELLA

“We apologize for interrupting your solitude, Zo,” Edward Frank said quietly, so as not to wake the children, asleep on their reed mats scattered across the layered rugs padding the ground of Zo Asan’s private quarters. He gave a gracious nod, laying his work aside, blowing out the lone candle that had lit the over-sized yurt, filling the room with the scent of long, warm darkness Isabella remembered from her childhood, as her father rose from his chair, his devotion to their Mardraim apparent in the quickness of his step as he crossed the room to wake his daughter. She had been pretending to sleep for the past hour, as she had done so often as a youngling, though her father had rarely allowed her to get away with it in her youth. She was certain he had been pretending as well, as he pursued his studies. That evening, his spirit had been still as ever, for the sake of the children who had been brought to spend the night under the watchful care of their Omdra, but he had withdrawn into himself shortly after Isabella’s breaths fell into deep whispers, lengthening like dreams in the night, and she suspected his solitude had been constrained by worry over the wanderer.

“He flies with such purpose,” she whispered, unable to contain her smile as her father bent down and laid a hand on her shoulder, not at all surprised to find her awake. The corners of his mouth drew up warmly, but there was concern still in his eyes. Perhaps she should have been afraid, she thought as she sat up, though she knew that was not what her father wanted. The outside world was a dangerous place, especially for young empaths, but this was just one lone man, hardly worth their worry. She had felt him take off from the ground only a few minutes before, swift as a black kite ascending for the hunt. Living in that mountain, their whole lives spent as stewards of Fate, Isabella had never known anyone to be consumed by such a desperate intention as this man was. It felt enlivening to her. How could she be afraid when she only wanted to know what he sought and why it drove him so, just as everyone else?

“Quickly, Issa,” her father answered as she crawled from under her blanket, “fetch your mother to watch over the children, and meet us in the chamber.” She hurried to do as she was told and began rolling up her bedding like she would any other time, but her father clicked his tongue as her mother used to do to hurry her along to her lessons with the mothers, holding out her aspirant’s tunic to her as he added, “Leave that. I doubt we will return before morning, and she will want to rest.”

“Forgive me,” the young woman smiled, kissing him swiftly on the cheek, pulling the pale yellow garment over her shoulders and tying it at her waist as she hurried out past the Mardraim, who stepped aside chuckling silently.

Harvey Frank, the Madraim’s grandson and aspirant for his clan, was waiting outside, leaned against the garden gate, but quickly fell into step at Isabella’s side as she cut across the vegetable patch, both of them darting through the vines that sprawled at their feet. “You are too happy,” he said, following her lead as she hopped over the garden fence. “You are aware you’re the only one enjoying this?”

“I’m aware. Do you really think he will find his way inside?” she asked as they hurried up the well-worn path toward the birthing house where her mother was working.

“He will,” Harvey answered darkly, with impossible conviction.

“And you are still convinced he brings misfortune?”

Now and then wanderers came to the mountain, to climb the summit, to explore the gorge for forgotten flora, to drink the pure waters from her many streams and listen for the whisperings of Fate, though only a very few had ever heard anything more than bird-songs and the mating call of the wild takin. Rarely were any of those who made their way to their home intent on actually finding a way inside, and never had anyone come seeking the council of the Mdrai. The Danquin people had long believed the outside world had forgotten the seers of old, messengers of Fate, yet somehow this son of the elves knew where to find them. Isabella’s father had felt the man coming the previous day, when he was still speeding toward them out over the ocean, though he said his exact purpose was not entirely clear. Harvey had felt him sooner, and he was certain the man sought to speak with the Mdrai of an ages old prophecy, yet this visit was nowhere to be found in their records.

He nodded, and Isabella loosed a hefty sigh. “Did Fate show you what this elf would do?” she asked, stopping to face him as they reached their destination. Harvey shook his head and pointed impatiently to the door, pushing his glasses up his nose, the way he always did when he was annoyed with her. She could not blame him. Fate did not speak directly to Harvey Frank. Though many augurs were neither empaths nor nurturers, it was highly unusual that they lacked the natural propensity as seers for receiving the Veils. Harvey considered this lack of ability his only flaw, though Isabella would have gladly pointed out several others, if her friend were ever to ask. It wasn’t as though he required foresight to be an Omdra. As an augur, he could still see all of the prophecies in the ancient books housed in the hall of records and interpret the visions of the seers, and his capacity for empathy was astounding, which was the reason his grandfather chose him as his aspirant. Isabella hadn’t intended to offend him, pointing out the one thing in the world he was insecure about, she only meant to remind him that as aspirants they were supposed to be learn wisdom, not rushing to cast judgment on every random elf who turned up seeking their guidance. Considering his extraordinary talent for empathy, she was certain he understood what she had intended the moment she said it and chose to be offended anyway—one flaw among many, she thought, smiling as she pushed open the door. “Harvey, even if Fate had shown you exactly what would happen, you should hardly speak with such certainty,” she said, pointing to his feet, as the mothers would.

He shifted anxiously, looking down at the ground where the imprint of his feet on the grass was supposed to remind him of one of the first lessons the mothers taught to every child in the mountain, whether seer, nurturer, or empath— The blade of grass does not bend before the takin takes his step. No matter the will of Fate, no thing can be done until it is done. This lesson of patience had been impressed upon all of them since they were very small, patience in each other, patience in oneself, and mostly patience in one’s dealings with Fate. Harvey raised an irritable brow, and huffed, “Do as your Omdra told you, Issa, and fetch your mother.”

“Ah, so you know I’m right?” Isabella laughed, shaking her head at him as she hurried inside. The old wood squeaked as he leaned against the wall to wait for her, and she heard him laughing quietly to himself as she started up the hall.

Given all of the lessons they had learned at the knees of the mothers, it was strange that patience was a courtesy the wanderer had not been afforded, Isabella thought as she sought out her own mother among those nurturers in the birthing house. To her, the stranger seemed perfectly harmless, if a bit preoccupied by the burden that was the source of his eagerness to find them. It was apparent his intentions toward them were not malicious, and she had the feeling that he considered the mountain his last resort, that he was as uncertain of that place and what he would find there as the Danquin were uncertain of him, and if he did not find a way inside, he would likely turn away and never look back, not just on their mountain, but on this thing that held onto his soul. But even if he did happen to find the way inside, it was not likely he would make it past the many hazards set in place, to keep intruders at bay. They could have just waited him out, to see what would happen, or even gone to meet him, but instead, as this elf set up his camp in the Tsangpo Gorge the previous night, the aspirants had been called to the divine chamber, a rare occurrence for an even rarer occasion. For years the Mdrai had made regular treks beyond the mountain to learn of the outside world, so they could teach their people about the world the prophecies foretold. They knew the elves were a gentle-natured people, mostly fishermen and farmers with herds of sons. Omdra Yang even pointed out to the Mardraim, “What harm could a fisherman’s son do in our mountain?” and Omdra Wallace had added with laughter, “If a fisherman’s son could make it inside.” But while it was clear they were unconvinced the man posed a real threat to their people, the Mdrai concluded they could not take any risks with someone who had come there with such an obvious aim of finding them, so they turned their attention to Fate. Throughout the night and well into the morning, the Mdrai and their aspirants drank of the waters that wash up from the deep beyond time and interlaced their souls with the energy of Fate, hoping Fate would see fit to give them some clue as to what this man came seeking.

Fate had answered their impatience with resounding silence.

Isabella rounded the corner to the nursery to find her mother standing by a window, cast in the blue glow of night, rocking a restless newborn soul to sleep, quietly humming the dragonfly’s lullaby she had sung to her own daughter every night until she was too big to sit on her lap. Her mother had likely sung this song to every newborn empath in the mountain for longer than Isabella had been alive, but this did not stop her from feeling as though it was her own. She listened from the doorway, taking comfort in the nurturing of her mother’s sweet voice until the song was through and the woman turned back to find her daughter standing there. “Father needs you to watch over the children now,” she whispered at last as the woman smiled the way only a nurturer could, peacefully, as though everything was as it should be.

“The traveler?” her mother said quietly, pressing her lips against the infant’s forehead as she went to lay him in his tiny, woven cradle, brushing a soft, warm hand over his sparse golden hair. Isabella nodded, and not wanting to worry her mother or to disturb the new soul under her care, she turned quickly to go meet Harvey, so they could make their way to the chamber where their Mdrai waited for them, though she was uncertain just what could be done, considering Fate’s silence. But as she stepped out into the hall, the lonely wanderer landed hard upon the summit, shivering with cold and no less driven in his determination to find them, and it was as if the entire mountain shuddered as fear rose up like a perfect storm inside her, and as the newborn empath her mother had been nurturing cried out into the darkness at his first taste of dread, Isabella felt the panic rise inside her and ran to find her father.

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Tale of Two Mountains, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6, Pt. 7, Pt. 8, Pt. 9, Pt. 10, Pt. 11, Pt. 12, Pt. 13, Pt. 14, Pt. 15, Pt. 16