Purpose, Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Existential Questions

It has been difficult the past few weeks for me to remain focused on my work—perhaps if you are a regular reader, you’ve noticed lately I’ve failed to meet my Tuesday deadline, and I’m lucky if I post by late Saturday night. I’ve mentioned before, my oldest daughter (of Fast Girls and Rock Stars acclaim) will be graduating high school this year. With the end of school quickly approaching, the house has been in an uproar, with proms, trips to the lake to take pictures for graduation announcements, choir concerts, spring musicals, awards assemblies, and a heavy talk or two about purpose, pursuit of happiness and other existential questions one letting go of childhood (and realizing that means she must actually embrace adulthood) inevitably finds herself facing, as the graduation date looms ever nearer.

At sixteen we tend to think we know everything, we feel like we have all the answers, and if we don’t know something, these days all we have to do is say, “Okay, Google now.” But Google can’t show you the paths that belong to you or hold your hand while you explore them. The truth is we’re all on our own, and so many lessons about life get crammed in, hard and fast, as high school (or college) ends and you embark on that journey to become something (“Anything!” you’ll find your heart crying out at times). It’s amazing and overwhelming… and as a parent, it’s frightening and exciting all at once, especially when you realize you have no control over what happens next.

We spend the glory days of our youth building up massive egos, forged in the highly structured fires of our fine educational institutions, where we are forced to achieve certain standards, to pass test after test, only to be torn down by the reality that in the end, there are no more standards or tests to use as a measure, and all of us, the athletic champions, academic juggernauts, stars of the stage, the virtuosos, the drug-addled wasters, and the loners alike, are actually nothing more than semi-educated people, suffering to figure out who we are and what we are supposed to do once the caps and gowns lay discarded in the pile of half-clean-half-dirty laundry and old school papers strewn across our bedroom floors.

It might be that what is wrong with our society is that there is little structure beyond high school and none beyond college.

Those of you just venturing out into the world should know that, for the most part, no matter what path we choose, we spend our twenties and usually part of our thirties trying to rebuild our egos after being sent out into the real world, to wander aimlessly with no structure at all, after having spent much of the first twenty years of our lives being told exactly what to do, when, how- meanwhile, struggling just to make ends meet. If we’re lucky, by the time we have children of our own, we have realized that the ego our parents, teachers, coaches and professors at university stroked in us during our formative years, with their cheering, lecturing and pushing us to excel, means startlingly little, if anything at all, in the grand scheme of things, and we’ve managed to shift our focus to more important things. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you, or anyone else, what those important things are, because your important things are unique to you.  Some never figure it out and stay on that treadmill seeking excellence and accomplishment until the day they die, either bitter or full of regret at failing to see the point of all that time wasted on possession and status. Sadly, others completely give up somewhere along the way, neither seeking the recognition nor realizing the purpose. This is life.

The only real advice I can offer anyone is to keep learning.

This may come as a surprise to those who know her, but for the record, at the moment, my fast girl does not know what she wants to be when she grows up, even though she’s yearning to grow up as quickly as possible, and I’m okay with that.

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All she can really say about her life plans is that she wants not just to see the world, but to bear witness to it, probably through photography, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be shoved into the photojournalism box and shipped off to college– not yet. She knows she wants to be present for the making of history, not to be a part of making it herself, necessarily, but to experience it, as it happens, and to tell the truth about it.

Yesterday, she told me that in five years, at Christmas time, she plans to be in Germany with her dog and her bodyguard/aid-worker/man-friend, who also happens to play piano, so I should remember not to make any plans for her being home that year. I imagined her taking a much-needed vacation from whatever atrocity she’d been documenting, while helping to rescue those affected, and Germany seemed an appropriate place to make the yuletide gay. In my mind, she had just come in from a German Christmas market and was sitting in an oversized chair, sipping a hot mug of glühwein in front of a large fire, cuddling with her boarhound (appropriately named Fang), while her intimidating, yet incredibly cultured and handsome, man-friend played “The Christmas Song” on the baby grand (I guess they don’t know how poor they are, yet), singing with the voice of Harry Connick Jr., which I realized immediately was bit out of character for her, considering “he’s old”, but it was my imagination, and guys like Ashton Irwin don’t really exist in my head, because “I’m old too.”

I don’t have any idea where Lilia will be in five years, but I know life will still be handing her lessons, because that is the nature of our existence. As a mother, I can only hope they aren’t all hard ones and that she learns them quickly and the first time. If I’m lucky, she will still be teaching me lessons, too—like the difference between post-punk and crab core and just why I’m not allowed to say certain things:  “The gap between your generation and mine is bigger than any gap between generations in the history of the world, Mom.” (I think that is a lesson all parents are taught by their kids along the way, but I didn’t tell her so.) And that it’s all right not to know what you are supposed to do, so long as you keep taking the lessons as they come.

This week, my daughter and I learned some valuable lessons together. I won’t tell the story, because the details aren’t important, but the lessons apply to everyone, so I thought I would share them here as my little commencement gift to the Class of 2015 everywhere:

  1. Even good decisions that don’t harm anyone can have negative consequences.
  2. Sometimes everyone is in the right. (In fact, probably usually, when taken in perspective.)
  3. All the trophies in the world will not make you a better person—that is entirely up to you.
  4. When everyone is in the right, an act of grace becomes the right thing to do, by default.
  5. A long, silent pause can mean so much more than the words said once the silence is broken.

Next Friday is graduation, and Grandma is flying out to spend the week with us, so I don’t know that I will be able to post, and honestly I worry that I will be too distracted to write anything worth reading, so I’m not going to torture myself with trying too hard. We’ll see what happens. Either way, I will return on the 26th to my regular Tuesday schedule with more of Noel and Isabella and The Tale of Two Mountains. As always, thanks for reading!

The Tale of Two Mountains- Pt. 10



Twisting clouds of dark gray rolled swift and tumultuous across the sky, threatening rain. The wind caught in the bristling grass, whipping it around, binding Isabella’s legs. She fell to her knees, scraping her palms against the ground.  The sting in her hands and knees caused her to wince, but there was no time to stop, not even to check if she was bleeding. She could hear his footsteps behind her. Hurrying to her feet, running as fast as she could, she chanced a look behind her, though she knew better. The frayed ends of her long aspirant’s robe snagged on amethyst colored thistles, leaving tattered strands of yellow flowing in her wake, ribbons adorned by purple jewels, and there was the wanderer, his face battered and bruised, moving casually despite his many injuries, keeping up with her even though she ran, so close behind her now she could see her reflection in his gray eyes. He had been chasing after her all night, but the Mdrai waited for her. They would tell her how to save herself. They had to.

The walls of the chamber danced mad with astounding light, the air moving with such eagerness, the room where the Mdrai deciphered Fate’s Veils was almost too hot to stand. Her father stood before her, disappointment in his gaze. Never had she felt anger in him before. “What have you done, Issa?” he said, his voice cruel, his eyes unforgiving.

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she cried, falling at his feet beside the basin, where the waters swirled up from the deep, filling the bowl, then rushed away once again, into the unfathomable deep.  She clung to her father’s calves like a child, her cheek pressed to his knees. “Help me! Please, help me, Pati! I have lost myself! The wanderer has stolen my breath!”

“There is nothing I can do for you,” Harvey answered, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose as she looked up at him, still holding tight to his legs, to keep him from leaving. “Why did you do this, Issa?”

“I had to save him!” she wept.  Her body no longer felt like her own.  It was as though every part of her was frayed and unraveling, as though she had been caught up among the thistles as well.

“To save him, yes, but not like this.” He pointed to the wanderer, who stood behind her, staring at her with eyes that knew her far too well. The strings from her tunic were draped over his shoulders and arms, an unwoven mantle connecting them. “What would the mothers say?”

“Harvey,” she pleaded in desperation. “I do not know what to do!”

“You must kill him, Young Issa,” the Mardraim whispered. It was his legs she clung to now, as he stared down at her, his gentle smile at odds with his words. “That is the only way you may save yourself.”

“Kill him?” she hissed, stunned, shaking her head, pushing herself away from her elder and nearly landing in the basin where the waters of Fate began to writhe with frenetic force, rushing in and out, the air hotter still as the light of the room became almost blinding.

Taking the life of another was a most heinous act, one she would never commit, but she feared her elder was right, that the wanderer’s death was the only way she could possibly survive. She had saved his life, stood in the way of Fate, breathing into him her own breath, but in her haste, she had breathed into him a small part of her soul.  It escaped her even now, her every breath strengthening the wanderer, leaving her weak. If she did not do something soon, she would surely die. But as she looked back at him, begging for another way, the Mardraim only bowed his head in answer, leading the others from the chamber, the rest of the Mdrai and aspirants eying Isabella with disgust.  She had defied the Mdonyatra already, clearly she would be forced to defy it again.

Isabella looked up at the wanderer from where she sat at the edge of the basin, uncertain just what to do. Though he must have heard what her Mardraim told her, the man remained silent and still, tethered to her by frazzled strings, knotted with thorny purple flowers. The only sound to be heard was the rushing of the Divine Water, as the two of them watched each other. After several minutes passed, Isabella let down her guard, so she might feel the energy of the wanderer’s soul again. Though he was still broken and should have been unable to stand, let alone to have followed her there, he was incredibly strong. Though he had been through so much, he was just as she had felt him the previous day, determined, willful, passionate… lost.

Isabella shuddered, looking up into his gentle gray eyes, like mirrors, she thought, almost managing a sad smile for his sake, but the smile turned to a strangled gasp as she saw something reflected there she could not explain. Instead of showing her sitting there on the chamber floor, wondering over all the reasons such a bold spirit must remain in this world, knowing these were the very reasons she had saved him in the first place, the elf’s eyes still reflected the past. “How is this possible?” she whispered. In his eyes, she was not there in the chamber, but still out in that field, running away from him, the threads of her tattered clothes waving behind her. “What sort of magic is this you do? Why do you mock me?” she demanded, but the wanderer did not answer. “Why did you come here? Why could you not leave us in peace?”

The man opened his mouth, and echoing from deep within his belly came a chorus of horns, filling the room, reverberating through the chamber, causing the crystal walls to crack and crumble, dusting the floor in shimmering white. Isabella held her ears as the Waters of Fate boiled up from the deep, flooding the basin, spilling out across the floor, as if beckoned forth by the elf’s trumpeting. “Stop! Stop, please, or you will drown us both!” she cried, but the man only continued his horrible, resounding music, growing louder and louder as the waters swelled, whirling with turbulent upsurges.

Isabella got to her feet and hurried toward the wanderer, finding it difficult to move as what was left of her garments was drenched in Fate, and growing heavier each moment. All she could think to do was get the wanderer out of the chamber. Grabbing him by the wrist, she struggled to pull him across the room, but before they could reach the archway a wave crashed into their backs, slamming them against a wall, knocking all of the air from Isabella’s chest. The man was swallowed by the water as it flooded the room, already risen up past Isabella’s knees. She took him by the back of his cloak and helped him to his feet, but as he turned back to her, she could hardly believe her eyes. The swelling and bruising on his face was completely gone, his wounds entirely healed, and though he still called out with a heralding voice, for a long moment Isabella stood stunned as the water continued to rise, up to her hips. Her reflection in his eyes had changed.  Instead of seeing herself through the field running among the tall grass, she saw the wanderer walking toward himself.

“You must stop! You are killing us!” Isabella shouted, taking him by the shoulders, but he only sang out, causing the very air around them to quake so that it beat nauseatingly against Isabella’s flesh. She shook and shook him as he blared on and the water flooded up to her waist, tossing them about as it churned, swirling with light as tiny crystals, fallen from the walls and ceiling, danced upon the surface. “Look what you have done! You have destroyed our home! You have destroyed Fate! You have stolen my soul, and I want it back!” Rage swelled inside her like the waters that would soon drown them both if the man did not stop.

Wailing, “You must stop! You will stop this!” she snatched a fistful of the man’s hair, shoving him under the wake, holding him down with what little strength she had left. At first, he did not fight, but soon the wanderer thrashed and kicked, as the waters rose up Isabella’s neck, splashing up over her lips as he grabbed at her hands, trying to free himself, all the while calling out a symphony, which bubbled up through the water as it crept up to Isabella’s eyes, and she was forced to shut them tight.  She managed to catch one last hopeful breath, as the waters covered her completely, but in that last breath, the room stopped shaking, the blaring of the horns ceased, the flood began to subside, and the wanderer was terribly still.

As the waters receded back down the hole in the basin, back into the deep from which they sprang, Isabella breathed woeful sobs, grief tearing at her heart. She and the wanderer lay on the ground together, her clinging to the man’s cloak, sobbing against his chest at the evil she had done, whispering, “Why? Why did you have to come? I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

But when at last she opened her eyes, determined to face what she had done, to face the life she had given and taken away, it was not the wanderer who lay dead beneath her. It was not his body sprawled out in the basin were the divine waters ebbed an flowed once more, as they had always done.  Isabella herself lay there, her deep black eyes gazing empty at the ceiling through soaked canary strands of her tattered robe. Reflected in her own dead eyes was the face of wanderer.

“No! No!” she screamed, pushing the torn garment from her face, pounding fists against her own chest. “Wake up, Issa! Wake up!” And without thinking, she took a giant breath, tilting back the head of her own corpse, breathing into herself, filling her dead lungs with air.

The sound of her own gasp echoed up from the depths of the tunnel startling her awake. Clutching at her chest, wiping tears from her eyes, Isabella whispered through panicked breaths, “Only a bad dream, a terrible dream,” as she sat up, pulling her blankets tight around herself, shivering against the cold and the irrational trepidation that always followed after nightmares.  This one was entirely too real.

“A bad dream,” the tunnel answered, whispering laughter.

Isabella watched the darkness for any sign of movement. Though she couldn’t see or feel it, she knew something was there staring back at her. She hurried up from the ground, not bothering to roll up her bed mat as she grabbed up her things. Last night, the idea of what danger might be lurking in the tunnels had been an easier thing to face than the prospect of being questioned by her father about where she had been and what she had done, or worse yet, being forced to face Harvey again. She had not ventured very far along that branch before she stopped, conjured her bedding, and cried herself to sleep, believing she was safe.  Now she thought better as she started up the tunnel, her own footsteps silent as always, yet each step she took echoing back at her menacingly from somewhere in the darkness. That terrible nightmare, she thought, doubling her pace.

“No! No! Wake up, Issa!” her own voice called from the depths.

Isabella ran, but it was taking too long to reach the tunnel that led home. Terror setting in, she realized she must have gone the wrong way, but as she turned around, the sound of footfalls echoed all around her, thundering, as though a hundred people were rushing toward her as a wave, until the thundering suddenly stopped.

“Kill him,” the Mardraim whispered in her ear, so close she could feel his breath.

Forcing her eyes closed, she stood still, not knowing which way to go or what horror lurked there beside her, but knowing it might bring her death at any moment. Whatever this demon was, it had witnessed her dreams, or perhaps it had been the cause, she thought, swearing silently against the pounding in her chest, as she considered her options. She had no idea what direction to take, so moving from that spot was out of the question. She considered ending her occlusion, so at least her father and Harvey would know where she was, and they could come to save her, but there was no way she could explain why she was in that tunnel without owning the truth. However, there was another way out, she thought, cringing at the idea.

When born, each Danguin child is brought to the Mdrai to be tested for his natural abilities in Om, the ways of Fate, but it is the Mothers, who teach them Fahmat, the ways of magic. Though their people had lived in the mountain a long time, their own curious abilities driving them to seek shelter from the rest of the world, they were all descended from wizards and fairies, gods, elves and men. Through the years their families had naturally mixed, and many of them were able to perform the ways of several races. Isabella herself was advanced in the magic of the gods and proficient in the magic of elves and men. The Mothers took great care to help every child learn all they could of Fahmat, each to his own ability, but their first lessons, their greatest lessons, were ones of humility and abiding by the laws of their home. They lived simple lives, and the use of Fahmat in daily life was considered a vanity.  While one might be capable of performing certain acts, he should not to do so unless absolutely necessary, and of course certain things were strictly forbidden, for instance, Isabella causing herself and her belongings to disappear from that tunnel and reappear inside her own hut.

She opened her eyes and leapt backward, dropping her blankets and bed mat on the ground. Her father stood before her, his hands on his hips, heavy brow raised, lips pressed thin. “Omdra! You frightened me!” she breathed, shaking her head, stepping over her things, to throw her arms around his neck. Though he had startled her, she had never been more grateful to see him, even if he looked at her so harshly. When he did not hug her back, she stepped away. She was still occluding everyone in the mountain, but she could feel his judgment boring into her. “I was just…” she began, but what could she tell him? That she had brought the wanderer back from death? That she had spent the night in one of the tunnels? That she had been forced to break their laws because some monster was there with her, something that had known the very stuff of her nightmares? “I was just putting away my things,” she said, lowering her eyes. This was true enough.

“Is Young Harvey well?” her father asked.

This was not the question she was expecting, she thought, looking up again to see his jaw tighten. “I don’t… Yes,” she whispered.

“I am glad that you were there for him when he needed you,” he said, turning to take a seat at the tiny table where she took her meals in solitude and recited her morning meditations. She did not know how to answer him, so while her father’s back was turned, Isabella knelt on the ground, laid out her bed mat and blankets and began rolling them quickly up on themselves. She knew how it looked, her utilizing the charms of the Ikath to sneak home in the early morning hours, carrying her bedding and still wearing the same clothes she wore the previous day. “Are you aware of what happened in the night?  Do you know what has happened to the traveler?” her father said.

“No,” she answered, not daring to look at him as she went to put her bed mat and blankets away in the small cupboard. She pulled out her bathing gown and fresh clothes, then hung the yellow tunic, her Omdet Filim, on the hook where it belonged. When she was left with no other task to busy herself, she turned back to her Omdra, barely meeting his eyes. “Is he dead?” she asked quietly. She had not lied to her father since she was a child, learning never to lie again by the three lashings she received in answer from the Mothers, the scars from which she still bore.  This lesson had been one of respect for her elders, of respect for herself, and the fear of a whip made of takin hide fixed that lesson permanently in her mind.  When she was chosen as her father’s aspirant, the rules of childhood were put away. By the Mdonyatra, she was bound to the truth. Though the vow was already broken, though her father had just witnessed her breaking yet another of their laws, though she had cried herself to sleep last night, thinking the doctrines of her people were wrong when they failed to step in to help those who were suffering, the shame she felt over the things she had done had her searching for any way to right her wrongs.  She did not dare tell him the whole truth, but she thought she could mislead him without further breaking her oath. In truth, she did not know what happened last night to the traveler after she left him. For all she knew, he might have died again from whatever it was he drank from that vial.

Her father shook his head, sighing, leaning his elbows against the table, rubbing at weary eyes. “For a time, I believed he would certainly be lost. A terrible catastrophe befell him, not long after we called the rains, and when it was over, his body fell still, as though death had taken him, yet he remained, refusing to pass on to the next life.” He looked up at his daughter, smiling sadly. “It was truly amazing, Issa,” he said, his voice hardly above a whisper. “I have never felt anything like this, in all my life. It was beautiful, so beautiful that I was driven to tears. Even now I might weep for the grace of it, but forgive me,” he laughed, pressing his fingers together. “I suppose it is difficult for me, being the only one to have felt it. Unless Harvey…”

Isabella left the answer to his unfinished question to Harvey Frank. She would not lie, but she would not tell the truth. Instead she asked, “What happened? Why do you seem so distraught, my omdra?” wondering how much he had felt and if he suspected the elf had been saved by one of their people.

“You will think it impossible, Issa. The mountain shook the wanderer from its back, and he fell a very great distance before coming to a rest. He was barely alive when he landed, and for some time I thought he would die there, but then he started to climbed back up the mountain, himself unaware he was doing so,” he answered, his dark eyes wide with awe. “His death came just before he reached the entrance to our home, or so it seemed, yet even in his death, he made his way inside. Issa, I swear to you, when he reached the cavern, he was dead, his body lay still for some time, and though his soul should have passed on to the next life, it remained there, outside of him.”  Tears fell down her father’s cheeks. “I thought he would remain that way forever, that his spirit would linger there in the entrance to our home for an eternity, suffering, incapable of finishing the task that brought him here, but as I wept for him, the most incredible thing happened.  He came back to life. I do not know how.  I do not know what magic this man possesses. Perhaps he is more than just an elf. Perhaps he is a demon as so many of our people say,” he chuckled sadly. “Perhaps Fate brought him back.  Or maybe everyone in the rest of the world is capable of this, and we are at a loss to understand such things, here within our mountain. The wanderer is alive, there in the cavern even now, recovering from his injuries. His body heals quickly, and it is terribly painful for him, almost too painful to bear at times, but I have continued to sense his being for the Mdrai. It is miraculous, Issa.” Her father laughed, as though he did not quite believe his own words but could not deny what he had witnessed, and only wished someone else had felt it, so that he would not be alone.

He did not suspect what Isabella and Harvey had done. Isabella closed her eyes, fingers on her lips, wishing she could tell her father that she understood, that she had felt the wanderer and wept for him as well, and this was why she saved him. Then she wished Harvey were there and hoped no one else would speak with him before they could decide how to answer for what they had done. It had been a mistake to leave him there with the wanderer without discussing what they would say, and frightened or not, she knew Harvey never would have left her there.

“What shall we do with him, my Omdra?” she asked, knowing the Mdrai had likely spent all of the night making plans.

“It has been decided,” he answered quietly, looking grave. “Young Harvey said he believes the wanderer is being guided here by Fate. If that is so, we must welcome him as our guest. But we shall abide by the Mdonyatra and not intervene in any way in his endeavor. If Fate guides him, he will find his way safely to us. If not, then there is no cause for concern.”

All hope that her father might understand why she had broken her vow was lost at mention of their doctrines.  “But Omdra, Harvey said the wanderer cannot be allowed here. And what about the younglings? He is from the outside, our people are frightened and he endangers us all.”

“We must trust Fate, my sweet Issa. The rains will continue until they are no longer needed. That will protect our people,” he said, getting once more to his feet. “As soon as you and Young Harvey are ready, we shall have a gathering to make the announcement.”

“Pati,” Isabella sighed as he came toward her.

He laid a gentle hand upon her cheek and lowered his lips to the crown of her head. “Do not worry, my daughter,” he smiled. “I must go now and speak with Young Harvey.”

“No, I should be the one to tell him,” she answered, practically pushing her father away as she turned to gather her bathing gown and clothes. Had Harvey even returned, or was he still up there at the wanderer’s side? How would they explain themselves? What if the wanderer arrive there and revealed the truth of how Isabella and Harvey had saved him?  How could the Wanderer possibly make it through the labyrinth of tunnels? She shuddered, remembering the breath of evil against her ear, speaking words from her dream in the Mardraim’s voice. Maybe he would not make it, she thought, as she started toward the door.

“Issa,” her father called after her.

She stopped short and glanced back, expecting him to reprimand her for her impudence, a habit of hers the Mothers had yet to break, but when she saw the look on his face, stern, even fierce, she knew something was terribly wrong. She had been so careful, she thought as he crossed the room, his footsteps falling hard against the ground as he made his way to the wall where her aspirant’s garb still hung. He reached out a hand, lifting the hem, holding it out to her, and Isabella gasped. “Your Omdet Filim is ruined. You must be more careful,” he said as he plucked the purple head of a thistle from a tangle of yellow strings.

A chill colder than the air at the summit of that great mount rushed through her, as her father held the thorny flower out to her. “I must have… I don’t…” her voice quavered.

“You are not a child anymore,” her Omdra chided, clicking his tongue as the Mothers would. “Have this mended before the gathering, and no more running through the fields so carelessly. This is but a garment, but you are an aspirant.  I expect better of you.”

“Yes, Omdra,” she answered, shivering as he placed the thistle in her palm and stepped around her to leave. How was this possible, she thought, her heart hammering in her chest once more as she stood galvanized by fear. Was she still somewhere up in that tunnel, living a nightmare? She squeezed her fist around the flower, crushing it, its spines piercing the flesh of her palm. It certainly felt real enough, she thought, managing to take a step forward.  She had to tell her father. She had no choice, she thought, opening her mouth as he pulled the door toward him to leave, but no words came–only a solitary note of panic, as if played by a frightened horn somewhere in the distance, passed through her lips.

“Are you all right, Issa?” her father said, stopping just outside the door.

She nodded, forcing a smile, whispering, “I will take this to be mended,” as she took her tattered robe down from its hook, fighting back the urge to confess to everything. Whatever was up in that tunnel was far worse than deadly.  She had to find Harvey.


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.9




Noel spun the empty vial between his fingers, staring at the thick curtain of ice covering the cave entrance, glowing cerulean in the light of the morning sun. The storm outside passed shortly before daybreak, and now the mountain was silent and still, as though it had already forgotten the battle they fought, the battle it won. With a heavy sigh, he tucked the pearlescent bottle into a pocket of his rucksack, wondering about the man who sat beside him. He had stayed with him through the night, during the worst of his recovery, whispering gentle words as Noel fought the fire that burned within him, drifting in and out of consciousness while his body healed at an incredible pace. The bones in his leg, chest, arm and face repaired themselves so rapidly they could be heard grinding and crunching inside of him and the rips in his flesh had mended themselves right before their eyes. It took everything Noel had to will himself through the torture brought on by the Iachaol, but there was something oddly comforting about having the stranger of Namcha Barwa bear witness to his recovery, though he preferred to manage most of his lamenting in private, when given the choice. The woman, who had been there before, no doubt overwrought with grief at seeing someone suffer so, left shortly after Noel gulped down the Iachaol, but the man had remained faithfully at Noel’s side, leaving only twice out the tunnel in the back of the cavern, once to get fresh water, which he used to wash the unnecessary poultices from the infant-like skin that grew to replace flesh the mountain had taken from Noel as a trophy, and again about an hour ago, after Noel had gotten some rest and woken up to the emptiness of his belly after a long night spent healing. He returned with food and drink, which they shared in silence. By now Noel had begun to think perhaps these people were not as primitive as he first believed, with their furs for warmth and faraway language.

The man had not been surprised at the sight of wounds mending themselves so rapidly, thanks to some spectacular magic that turned water to liquid life, and unless there was a kitchen the next cave over, it seemed strange that he should so quickly have retrieved the warm milk and the hunk of mealy bread and honey the two of them shared, unless, of course, he possessed some magical means of his own. The logs on the fire burned even now, not blackening in the slightest, though they should have turned to ash long ago, and although the air inside the cavern was kept rather balmy by the flames, the ice concealing the entrance to that cave did not melt in the heat. But it was the fact that somehow these people had managed to find him, buried in an avalanche, on one of the tallest mountains in the world that caused Noel to wonder who the people residing in that mountain really were. Perhaps they were some sect of gods that took refuge there after the Fall, he thought, as the man stood, stretching his arms over his head with an audible yawn. He had not slept at all during the night, but remained a vigilant nursemaid. Noel could only wonder who he was and what he expected in return for his kindness.

After the bread and milk were gone, the man had retrieved all of Noel’s things, setting them next to his rucksack there beside the pallet of furs. Noel had taken his time packing everything away, with the exception of the Book of Ages. “I want you to know how much I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” he said, taking the book up from the ground. He hoped to find a way of explaining why he was there, but that did not seem very likely. “You understand? Thank you? Of course you don’t understand me.”

“Bat om. Thurn tmo Omdra,” the man responded, nodding respectfully, a gentle smile playing on his lips.

“I don’t know if that means I’m welcome or not,” Noel chuckled, wincing at the sting that remained in his ribs. When he caught his breath, he held out the book, adding, “I’m here because of this, because of a prophecy given to my people thousands of years ago. I believe you can help me to understand its meaning.”

The man shook his head. “Bat, Ohamet,” he said. “Pet fι ush dimÅ ama.”

“Well, if you can’t read it, that’s no problem. Someone here has to be capable. Maybe the woman who was here with you?” Noel asked, turning the book open, flipping through pages until he reached the prophecy, which only seemed to frustrate his rescuer, who paced on the spot, bearing his teeth. “It’s the prophecy of the Last Hope of the elves. Have you heard of it? See?” He pointed to the words on the fragile page. “A prophet, like you, brought this to my people at Fendhaim many years before the Fall. Maybe you know about the Fall? Is that how you came to live here?”

“Di. Di. Di,” the man answered forcefully. Then he knelt down and pushed Noel’s bag at him, pointing at the entrance, saying in his resounding voice, “Thet ham ush di zhet tmo protge ama di. Tshi ama ursht dwelt, ursht… rucksack, fah ush, e pir oftem bat ush, aramir tu twa fanya, Ohamet.”

Noel didn’t understand much of his words, but he understood the message: “You’re all healed up, Muhammad, now kindly take your rucksack and leave our home. I may have saved your life, but you aren’t welcome here.” He had been calling him Muhammad all night. Maybe he thought he was just a lost soul wandering the mountains in the hope of some religious revelation, which wasn’t too far off as far as Noel was concerned, so he hadn’t bothered correcting him. There would be plenty of time for proper introductions once he found someone he could understand, because he was certain these people were the ones he was led to in the Dreaming, and welcome in their realm or not, he had no intention of leaving that mountain without answers about the prophecy.

As the man stood, grabbing up the furs he had removed sometime while Noel slept, turning for the tunnel, Noel called after him, “Wait, where are you going, friend?” trying to push himself up off the ground to follow, but he was still too weak, and while the pain was nothing like it had been before, he still ached all over, like he had recently been run over by a tonne of ice and snow. The man did not look back.

Noel swore, rubbing his hand over the back of his head, then looked down at the words on the page, words that had divided his people, divided his own house:

Prophecy of Hope

As given to A.D. in 9362 A.C.

Ten ages past the descent of humankind comes new hope for the world. Born with a heart of stone and fist of might to bear witness to all that is good and all that is evil in this ancient struggle, Hope shall be a beacon to her people. Old promises rendered irreparably broken, at the opening of twin gates the great war shall rage once more all around her, and Hope must find Hope within her, for this much is true: As surely as the Circle of Stones goes round, Hope is beginning and end. Let it be known by all that this is the prophecy of the Last Hope of the Elves.

It was hard not to believe when someone as charismatic as Phileas Foote took to the floor at Fendhaim, to lecture their elders and the Seat about what should be done to prepare for the culmination of that prophecy, to prepare for the coming of Hope. Foote was eloquent, his passion infectious, his devotion unwavering, even when they were young. It could be said he had singlehandedly inspired thousands to rally behind their cause, though Noel and Wells had been right there at his side most of that time, searching out every Noble born in the last thirty years, training with scholars like Bergfalk or Frifogel, and even Foote’s own father, so that when the time came, when the gates opened, and the war that had claimed so much from them continued, they would be ready to protect Hope. More than ten thousand years had passed since the Fall, when their people were all but obliterated, yet Noel, like so many others, had left his home, turned his back on his own father, and given up any idea of a life truly his own, of a family of his own, because he was born a Noble and had a duty to live by that prophecy, to put Hope for his people before himself.

He hated to admit it, even to himself, but in recent years, his faith had faltered.

How long was an age?

No one could say.

That was why he had set out for Arnhem Land though Phileas told him he was wasting his time, why he spent all those months at Taree’s side, learning the ancient ways of men, so that he could drink the poison from that cup and experience for himself the Dreaming. That was why he had fought the mountain, even to the brink of death. Foote had spent his entire life searching for anyone who could tell them what the prophecy really meant, when their Hope would be born, because to him that little girl was all that ever mattered. But even though Noel had stood up to his own father, even though he professed his devotion, gave his blood and bent his knee to an unborn child, it was the last line of that prophecy that haunted him, that left him questioning why all of this had happened, what purpose Fate had in store for them. According to the prophecy, the child, their Hope, whoever she was, would be the Last Hope of the Elves.

That was why he was there.

The Iachaol had left him drained, and he needed more time to recover from his miracle before he followed after the stranger, but soon he would take to that tunnel himself, and it would eventually lead him to someone who could tell him what he so desperately needed to know. Still, given everything he had been through thus far, he couldn’t help wondering what dangers he would face along that path. He couldn’t help wondering if the storm that had swept over the mountain had been more than just a chance bit of weather that came out of nowhere, if, perhaps, it had been a warning from the people who lived somewhere in that mountain, that his own end was inevitable.

Now that the man was gone, he took a deep breath, gingerly pushing himself to his hands and knees, and crawled toward the fire, gritting his teeth as he went. When he was close enough to the flames, he stuck out a hand, running his fingers through them as they danced blue and gold before him. It was cool to the touch. He smiled, narrowing his eyes, as he whispered, “Hestia’s eternal light.” This fire was meant for warmth and guidance, but never to burn. It was an ancient trick of the gods that even he could manage, so it proved nothing about who these people were, however, now he was certain the way forward would not be easy. It was clear the people of Namcha Barwa had no interest in entertaining guests—no doubt they had only survived there unnoticed by the rest of the world through the protection that the mountain afforded them and by whatever other tricks Noel would find awaiting him in the tunnel.

But there was one more thing, of which he felt certain as he lay back on his pallet of furs and closed his eyes. While they may not have spoken the same language, given the way the strange man reacted when he tried to talk with him about the Book of Ages, it was obvious the man knew precisely why Noel was there, and he would not be rescued twice.


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