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.