So, here we are, it’s the 9th of June. I haven’t posted in weeks, even though I promised I would post the next segment of the Tale of Two Mountains on the 24th, but this is my life at the moment:
I’m working on it. Thank you for your patience.
So, here we are, it’s the 9th of June. I haven’t posted in weeks, even though I promised I would post the next segment of the Tale of Two Mountains on the 24th, but this is my life at the moment:
I’m working on it. Thank you for your patience.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
Harvey’s eyes widened as he watched the wanderer writhing on the ground. “Issa, I fear there has been a mistake, that this vial did not contain what your wanderer believed it would contain, and he has unintentionally brought an end to the second life you have granted him.”
“He is not dying, and he is not my wanderer,” Isabella answered sharply. “He is only coughing and spewing at his tincture as an infant does. A grown man should be ashamed to act so.”
“You answer his misery with such cruelty,” Harvey scowled at her, holding his own body tight, against the traveler’s pain. Isabella might have advised him once again to block the traveler out in order to protect himself, but she doubted he would listen, and besides, she was angry with him for keeping them there so long and knew she was only bound to get angrier still if she continued trying to reason with him, as he added, “The mothers would scold you for your lack of compassion.”
“Scold me?” she sniped, getting to her feet. “We have broken our Mdonyatra. I came here with you. I helped you take care of his this man. We tended his wounds together. Harvey, you said you were just going to look through his belongings, and we would go back to our homes where our Mdrai undoubtedly wait to discover where we have been, but instead you are on your knees, nurturing this outsider, against our doctrines, and now…” Her breath caught in her chest. Now she could not find words for the confusion building inside her, but perhaps there were some things she would never be able to admit to anyone, not even to Harvey Frank, and certainly not when he looked at her as though she were more foreign to him than the stranger that lie on the ground between them. “Now I shall go and take my scolding for the trouble compassion has brought me,” she said, turning on her heel, but she only made it a few steps before her hand was on her lips, rubbing once more at the stain of what she had done. She had brought the man back from death, and Harvey would thank her by accusing her of cruelty while the one she saved wasted the very breath she had given him on wailing. “He is your wanderer now,” she trembled, furious and frightened, allowing her feet to carry her off against the hesitation that weighed heavily upon her. “I have given more than enough… to both of you.”
Isabella ran toward the tunnel, expecting Harvey to try to stop her, to force her back if necessary, insisting the wanderer needed her, insisting that he needed her—or at the very least to ask why she had concealed herself, even though he kept her enveloped in his protection. If he had, she might have told him the truth, begged him to help her make sense of what had happened, to help clear her head so she could think straight, but as she hurried into the tunnel, blackness engulfing her, the traveler’s gasping began to subside, falling off into quiet sobs, and she heard Harvey whispering, “It is all right, Wanderer. I shall stay until you no longer need me.”
The man whimpered, “Oh, damn, it burns. Phileas, you bastard, what have you done to me.”
Isabella gritted her teeth, only making it as far as the first branch in the path before stopping to lean against the wall, pressing her palms into her wet eyes, the wanderer’s pleading too much to bear, even though she had no idea what his odd words meant or why it should matter so much to her. As Harvey answered, “I am here. I shall stay. Do not worry,” Isabella hurried down the wrong path, one of many such paths meant to lead stray wanderers to their deaths. No one would look for her there, and though she knew the way was dangerous, she had to rid herself of the anguish stirring inside her before she made her way back home. So she sat against the wall, her knees tucking into her chest as she loosed a quiet curse, heaving silent cries, grateful for her ability to hide herself so completely, grateful to be alone, and yet startled by the terrible thought that she had always been alone, even while her empathy allowed her to sense so much of those around her.
“What have I done?” she whispered into the darkness.
“What have I done?” her own voice replied from the depths in mocking.
She had broken her Mdonyatra, but worse than knowing she had broken her sacred vow was the idea that her vow had not been so sacred after all. Everyone is alone, she thought, great tears filling her hands, the truth of the wanderer’s solitude haunting her, even now.
When she first felt him lingering at the base of their mountain, Isabella had been intrigued by the cause she found within him. This stranger was strong-willed, knowing exactly what he had to do and having every intention of doing it, never mind what perils might befall him along the way. Isabella had never felt such purpose within anyone, but then for thousands of years the mountain had protected her people from those who lived in the outside world. Their lives were simple. The seers received the veils of Fate, the empaths knew the reasons of the soul, the nurturers helped to bring about balance, sustaining the others in their times of need, and the augurs did their best to make sense of it all and guide them with wisdom. The people who lived there in that mountain were never so fierce or wild as this wanderer seemed, and when she felt it in him, something inside her longed to go his way, darting off in flight, unrestrained, battling the elements for her own cause, so great it consumed her. But Isabella knew her place. She may have quietly wished this elf would succeed, so she could understand what it was he sought from them, and it had been clear from the beginning that finding her people was the wanderer’s only hope, he was so full of desperation, so it was natural she was curious to know why, but she was bound to honor her Mdonyatra. As an aspirant she would one day guide her people in the ways of Fate, and as Fate’s steward, she had always upheld their doctrines. Despite what she felt of this elf, who intruded on their peace, the wanderer was easily set aside when it was obvious her people struggled with his presence and his determination to reach their home.
But in the shadow of his death, she had lost her way. In his death, this man’s inexplicable will became even clearer to her than before. It was as though he was tethered to this world, to his purpose here, singularly focused, his soul bound to this lonesome life of waiting, of searching for something he feared he would never find. The moment she felt him hanging on at the edge of himself, Isabella had been consumed by pity for this stranger, whose spirit remained vehement as ever, steadfast in his cause, though his body was broken and his time on this earth was through. She had never felt pity for anyone, there was no need for such sentiments in their home. It was difficult, now, not to be ashamed of herself for allowing her own emotions to lead her so far astray, but at the same time, it was impossible not to question everything she had known, having witnessed the truth as this man lived it even beyond this life.
The mothers had taught them that everyone lived and died and lived again, in turn. In the prophecies in the Hall of Records, each soul who had ever entered the world could be traced bt their Mdrai, who could see within the veils the pathways connecting whom one had been before to whom one would become in life after life. Yet Harvey had sensed that the wanderer would not live again. Even when he believed the man would bring misfortune to their people, he had sought to rescue him, because he could not allow him to die in this way, so completely. Isabella did not know if the wanderer would never be reborn, but as he lay there, his body lifeless, she had felt the irrepressible force of his soul grasping for any way back, to do whatever it was he had come there to do, to know whatever it was he had sought their people in order to know, and she had breathed life into him, to save him… not from death, she thought. He did not fear death. Nor from Fate. She was not certain Fate had set him on this journey, though she believed Harvey when he said Fate guided him there. In truth, she did not know why she had done it, except that she had felt the overwhelming urge to save him from an eternity of waiting alone.
“Does everyone beyond this mountain have such a purpose that he would deny death?” she whispered, shivering on the cold ground, the damp, frozen must of the tunnel burning at her lungs.
This time, the tunnel did not reply.
Now that such doubts had crept in and taken hold, who would save her from herself, she thought, rubbing her hands briskly over her arms, shuddering with guilt. The only thing she could say with absolute certainty was that she deserved much worse than a scolding from the mothers for the things she had done.
Hushed, angry voices drifted up out of the nothingness, whispering in tongues Noel had never heard before. He opened his eyes as much as he could, but his mind was still dazed and his body coursed with an impossible ache. Firelight danced across the cave walls, casting monstrous shadows, blurring the ancient pictographs, so they disappeared altogether in the confusion. Taree had given him the potion and left him there to live or die in the Dreaming. Now a man and woman spoke from somewhere unknowable. Perhaps it was the Wangarr debating what was to be done with the pale-skinned elf, who presumed he could become Yolngu and touch the hand of creation. He had gotten what he needed though. He knew about the mountain where the ones who listened to Fate lived. He had seen the hidden entrance to their Shambhala just below the summit, felt the roaring wind ripping through him, the ice tearing at his flesh. The mountain had cast him down, and he had died, he thought, his bleary mind attempting to make sense of the strange coloring of the rocks, the shadows of great beasts looming over him, and the rancid fetor of wet yak, made worse by heat of the flames. He had been carried away, slung over the back of some animal.
“Where am I?” he croaked weakly, attempting to sit up, only to fall back groaning against the pain. Swearing through ragged breaths, he leaned his head forward to look down at what was left of him. His right arm, wrapped up with sticks and bloodstained linen, was bound tightly to his chest, where oozing wounds were covered in long, slender leaves coated in thick brown sludge. Whoever rescued him definitely wasn’t a proper healer, not even a doctor of men, he thought, which caused some concern over the wellbeing of his leg. The bones had torn through muscle and flesh, so it was a decent candidate for some vulgarian butcher, upon deeming it useless, to hack it away, given half a chance, and considering he had no idea how long he had been lain up there, unconscious, plenty of chance had been had. His cloak was laid over his lower half as a blanket, so he gingerly pulled it away, heaving a grateful sigh at finding both legs still attached, the right one, black and blue from hip to toe as far as he could tell, bound much the same way as his arm, primitively. Aside from bandages and poultices and the sweat that poured out of him, he was completely naked, so he tugged the cloak over himself and lay his head back in the pile of smelly furs, made his sickbed.
“I know you’re there,” he said, his voice harsh and dry, looking up at the shadows stretched across the ceiling. One of them, the one that looked most like a mastodon, took a step toward him, but the other laid an alien hand on its trunk, stopping it short. Noel could feel the silent exchange going on somewhere out of view. These people, whoever they were, did not want to interact with him. “I just need my rucksack. Please,” he implored, catching his breath against the stabbing in his ribs. “And perhaps my clothes?”
The mastodon lumbered toward him, surprisingly delicate feet attached to gargantuan legs shuffling across the hard earth, the shadow shrinking, becoming more human with each step, until a young, dark-skinned man wearing several pelts, knelt down beside him, leaning his bald, tattooed head over him, peering at him with eyes framed by old-fashioned wire rims. “My rucksack?” Noel said, doubting there was much chance the man spoke English.
Scowling curiously, the man reached for something above Noel’s head, but when Noel heard the sound of water sloshing and dripping back into a vessel, he knew this stranger did not understand. The man smiled as he held a wet cloth above Noel’s mouth, nodding for him to open and take a drink. Gratefully, he accepted, closing his eyes as the water spilled into his mouth. A moment later, the man began gently running the cool cloth over his brow, under his chin, across his shoulders, wiping the sweat from him, but as he began to pull back one of the leaves to check his wounds, Noel took his hand, shaking his head. “You’re wasting your time. I need my rucksack… My er… Bag? Carryall? Duffle? Christ. Where the hell is Phileas and his thousand tongues when I need him?”
The man only pulled his hand away, dipping the rag into the water and wringing it out into the bowl, but before he could return to tending his patient’s wounds, Noel reached out for the cloth. “My rucksack,” He said, laying the rag out over the leaves on his chest, picking each of the four corners up in his fingers, so that it resembled a pouch. He lay the cloth down again and motioned putting imaginary things in the bag before taking it up, slinging it over his shoulder. “Rucksack. My rucksack.”
The stranger looked over to the slender alien still casting a willowy shadow that crawled up the cave walls and across the ceiling, standing carefully out of view. His companion sighed, extending an arm, pointing to something on the ground, and the man nodded, got up from Noel’s side and became a mammoth once more. He watched as the shadow crossed the cave then stooped down, and soon he could hear his things being stuffed, slapdash, into his bag. His belongings had been searched. He couldn’t say he wouldn’t have done the same thing, in their position, but he might have had the courtesy to put things back where he found them before he woke.
“Rucksack,” Noel smiled, his face throbbing as the man returned, setting his pack down beside him, but as he tried to sit up once more, the stranger pressed him into the woolly hides by the shoulder, shaking his head. “I assure you, I’m grateful for your antiquated pomaces and leaves, but if I could just have the vial of Iachaol from my pack, you’ll see there’s no need.”
“Anyai mihkt uer apshar. Nyet wa Ohamet,” came the man’s voice, deep, his words stirring low, as if spoken from some ancient place, untouched, unstained.
Noel was about to speak, or rather to try and find some single-handed charade to indicate a massively valuable fairy tonic that would save them all the trouble of poultices and splints, could be found somewhere in his bag, if only the man would help him sit upright, when the young woman, alien only in her simple beauty, came out of hiding, cast golden in the firelight, her footsteps impossibly silent.
She stared down at Noel with harsh black eyes as she laid a hand on the man’s head. “Er ush Harvwi,” she whispered imploringly, dark curls falling from her shoulder as she spoke, accentuating the long slope of her honeyed neck. Noel might have been taken by her, beautiful as she was, but it was clear she had no interest in him, not even an interest in helping him as she narrowed her eyes.
“Rucksack,” he said to her, pointing to the bag sitting next to the man. She made an impatient noise in answer, shaking the man’s head with her hand, as if to urge him away, causing him to laugh quietly. “Rucksack,” Noel repeated, holding out his hand.
“Ursht Ohamet ot,” the man smiled up at her.
“Baga!” she scoffed, sitting down cross-legged on the ground with a groan, taking Noel’s pack in her lap and tugging it open.
One by one, the woman removed Noel’s belongings from the bag, holding each out to him in turn, all the while wearing a disgusted look on her face that somehow made her seem all the more appealing, and seemed to bring some measure of joy to her friend, who watched, stifling his laughter, as she showed Noel tiny trousers, shrunken doss bag, the Book of Ages, his favorite lounge chair ‘borrowed’ from Murphy three years ago and never returned, all of which she tossed aside without a care, as Noel gingerly shook his head at her, knowing it wouldn’t be long before she grew tired of this game of discover what the injured man needs from his rucksack.
“Please, be careful now,” Noel sighed as she chucked his bedroom slippers aside, hitting the fragile book in its threadbare spine. It had survived the millenniums only through the great care of its keepers, none of whom had been irate women, he thought as she pulled out a miniature tea kettle and breathed in annoyance. A second later it landed with an unceremonious clang on the hard ground.
Noel wasn’t certain he could take this game much longer either and was just wishing he had some of her things to throw around in frustration when, finally, the woman held up the opalescent bottle of Iachaol by its thinly waxed stopper. “That’s it!” He shouted, causing the others to jump and him to grab at his ribs in agony. It took a bit for the pain to subside, but when he looked back, the woman was holding the elixir out to him, her mouth drawn tight.
“Thank you,” he managed to mutter as she put the vial in his hand. Her face softened slightly, almost into a smile, and she nodded her head, though it was obvious she didn’t particularly want to do that, but good breeding won out over her incessant desire to sneer at him. Getting that stubborn bird to show any sign of humanity was like trying to move a mountain… while lying on your back, half dead, No thought. He might have smiled too, but it hurt too much, and he was certain there hadn’t been much good about his breeding.
The dark fairies, on their floating islands in the South Pacific, had always been a secretive bunch. They lived in the mountain mists, shunning outsiders and avoiding contact with anyone as much as possible, though for centuries the men, who inhabited the parts of their islands that weren’t perpetually enshrouded in a veil of clouds, wove fairytales regarding their few encounters, some good, some frightening, to say the least. What men did not know about the winged creatures of the mountain mists would decidedly alter their entire view of the history of the world, give them cause to question everything they believed about the human species as a whole, and vastly, vastly improve their medicinal sciences. But the dark fairies had no qualms with dismembering a few men, women and children over the ages in order to make certain man-kind kept their distance. The only thing that stopped them from killing Phileas Foote was Liam Godfrey, who apparently was descended from some tribal princess. Noel was still amazed Phileas had managed to procure the Iachaol. He would have to thank Liam for saving Phileas’s hide the next time he saw him.
“Wa’er, pweashe,” Noel said, his teeth clenched around the stopper. “Er… I bean…” He left the bottle hanging between his teeth and pointed over his head to the bowl, then pretended to wipe his face and chest before holding an imaginary cloth over his open mouth, hoping they would get the picture.
The woman reached for the rag in its bowl as Noel gripped the bottle and pulled the cork free, with a pop that filled the cavern. The vessel seemed empty at first glance, but Phileas had told him Iachaol was so potent, it took only a single drop, mixed in an ounce of water, to heal anything, and there was just enough in that vial for one dose.
He held the bottle out, nodding to the wet cloth in the woman’s hand. She seemed to understand, because she wrung the water out over the vial’s opening, allowing it to trickle inside. Instantly, the concoction began to fizz so furiously Noel could feel it bubbling through the thick glass. An odor so foul it could kill a virile wolverine from twenty meters, spilled into the air, causing the woman to gag and cover her face with the end of her long yellow vestment.
“Cheers,” Noel growled, tipping the rim of the vial over his lips, allowing the putrid, bubbling blue liquid to fall across his tongue. This was an enormous mistake.
The range of spluttering, gurgling and hacking noises that issued forth from Noel as he tried to choke down the Iachaol have likely never before been heard outside of the Southern Isles. They certainly had never been heard by his rescuers, who immediately took to blathering in panicked tones in their incomprehensible language, which only made matters worse for Noel, who would have given anything in that moment for one of them to think to give him a drink of water, to wash the wretched taste away, and consequently would have given whatever he had left in the world after the bargain for them to shut their gobs and never utter another syllable of their gibberish again, as he was certain, despite the fairies’ panacea, he might just die right there from contorting his body around, clenching all of his muscles, and moving broken limbs in order to try to escape the god-awful taste of guaranteed life, and he didn’t want the last sound he heard on this earth to be that woman’s babbling.
The storm raged with fury, whiting out the night as Isabella stood watch, shivering, not with cold, so much as with fear. The longer she waited, the more she considered turning back for help, but each time the idea of what the Mdrai would think stopped her. She couldn’t help wondering, what would their punishment be, if they were discovered? “Give him more time,” she whispered the words that had become something of a mantra during her vigil, as the wind thundered against the mountain, the minutes creeping past. Someone would surely notice their absence. How would they explain?
“Issa!” a voice called, barely cutting through the deafening wail of the tempest. Relieved and frightened, she ran across the ridge and nearly missed Harvey standing just a few feet below, snow caked to his furs, a person slung over his shoulder. “Issa, here! Help me lift him up!”
“You brought him with you?” she shouted, but she could see the impatience in his eyes, peering out at her from between the layers of his pelts, so Isabella got down on her knees as Harvey untied the rope that kept the wanderer strapped to him and gently let the man fall from his shoulder, into his arms.
“It is worse than I thought,” he said, as she saw the purple swelling of the man’s face and the bloody gashes on his chest and drew back from him. “Just take him under the arms. Hold him steady. I will lift him up to you.”
What they were doing went against every doctrine they had ever been taught by the mothers regarding their interactions with the outside word. They were never to interfere in the way of Fate, not to hinder, nor to help. She had not wanted to go out in the first place, but Harvey… Sometimes he went too far. Even as he was dragging her along by the wrist, unaware how it bruised as he squeezed, fingers digging into her, she knew if she didn’t go with him, he would go alone, and she could not allow him to do that, especially not when he looked at her so desperately, as she pulled away from him, and said, “I followed you into the river because I would follow you anywhere. I need my greatest friend now. Issa, He is going to die. I know it is wrong, but I cannot allow it to happen.”
“People die every day,” she told him. “We are not bothered by death, Harvey. Why should he be different?”
“I don’t know, but he is.”
“It was you who was just telling our Mdrai a short while ago that this elf couldn’t be allowed here, that he would change everything, and now you want to go out there to rescue him? What has changed?” she asked, even as she donned the smelly hides he shoved at her. They belonged to his father and were much too large for her, but she put them on anyway, to appease him.
“He is going to die!”
“He will live again, just like everyone else! The mothers told us—”
“No, he won’t,” Harvey answered seriously, shuddering as he said the words, then looking quickly away, shaking his head. “The traveler will not live again, Issa.”
Isabella had watched him as he tugged on his own furs, layer by layer, tying them tightly, the silence that grew up between them overflowing with a million unspoken questions with answers she was not certain she wanted to know. Everyone lived again. Everyone. “Is it Fate, Harvey?” she had asked him gently. “Fate that you and I go out there? Fate that the wanderer die? Tell me what is supposed to be, and that is what I will do.”
“I do not know what is supposed to be,” he had answered her low, “but you are coming with me, because I need you, and I am supposed to be able to depend upon you.”
Now the wind and snow crashed against her, threatening to knock her off balance as she took the battered, bloody man under the arms and hoisted him up, his head lolling limp as her knee slipped from beneath her and she fell backwards under his weight, landing with him sprawled across her legs and chest. “He is already dead,” she said as Harvey climbed up. There was no life left him, she was certain. Why had he come there so unprepared, wearing just a meager cloak for protection? Why had he come alone, in the dark of night? Why had he not sought protection when the storm came, instead of fighting it? “He was a fool, coming here like this, Harvey. Maybe the world is better off without him.”
“He is not yet gone,” Harvey grunted, lifting the man off of her, hefting him over his shoulder once again then extending a hand to help her up from the ground.
Isabella ignored the offer and got to her feet on her own, her hands on her hips as she spoke. “What do you intend to do with him?” He did not answer, but stepped around her, carrying the wanderer toward the entrance to their home. “Harvey, what do you intend to do with him?” she called after him, hurrying to catch up as he ducked down beneath the ice and disappeared.
Clamoring inside, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the absolute blackness of the small cave. Harvey had laid the wanderer down on the cold rock and was preparing wood for a fire. “We should leave him,” she said as she watched him working. “Someone will notice we are gone, Harvey. We have done more than enough.”
“He needs a nurturer. I will stay with him until he wakes.”
“Wakes? He is a ghost, nothing more than a memory. Look at him!”
“He is still there, Issa. Just feel him.” But she glared at him dangerously in answer. “Go on, Issa. I will envelop you so no one will know you are here.”
“Harvey,” she sighed.
“Just do it,” he answered, unwrapping the takin skins from his head, tossing them aside.
Isabella swallowed against the knot of uncertainty and dread that fiercely gripped her guts and slowly allowed the wall of protection she had built up around her to slip away. Tears came swiftly spilling down her cheeks, causing the hides to chafe her skin. The elf did not breathe, his heart did not beat, but still he was there, just as Harvey said. This wanderer’s soul inexplicably clung to himself, as if his body was a mountain, and he would climb for an eternity. Overwhelmed with unexpected grief, she hurried to his side, pulling the furs from her as she went. The orange light of the flames Harvey cast filled the small space as Isabella lifted the man’s head and tucked her woolly hood beneath it.
“What are you doing? Put those on, Issa, or you will freeze,” Harvey growled as she struggled to tuck the furs she had been wearing under the man.
“There is no way he will survive lying on the cold ground. He needs warmth. You brought me here to help you save him,” she whispered furiously. “Now, you help me.”
“Then lay the furs out closer to the fire,” he answered. “I will carry him there.”
Still crying, Isabella did as she was told, and soon the man’s body was lain out next to the fire on a pallet of billowing takin hides. She knelt down on the hard ground beside him and leaned over his broken face, hoping to feel even the smallest whisper of a breath, but there was none. Looking up at Harvey, she had no idea what they should do. “We should take him to the mothers,” he said quietly, answering her question, but that was the last thing Isabella could agree to do. The only thing she could think was that the man needed life’s breath if he was ever going to survive, so she tilted his head back, pressed her mouth against his, bloodied and swollen, and breathed her own life into him.
“What are you doing?” Harvey asked, pulling her back by the shoulder.
“Saving him, like you wanted,” she answered, tugging away, giving the traveler another breath of her own. “Come back, Wanderer!” she shouted, shaking his lifeless body as Harvey knelt down beside her.
“Give him another breath,” he said, laying his head on the man’s tattered chest. The wanderer’s blood was on his cheek as he lifted his face and smiled, “He is getting stronger. He will make it. Another breath, Issa!”
But Isabella’s mouth had not quite met the man’s when his eyes opened and he gasped, looking around in confusion, trying to crawl away backwards only to collapse, crying out in agony before he lost consciousness again. Isabella and Harvey both sat very still, watching the man’s chest rise and fall weakly. It was a long moment before Harvey, laughing, reached over and pulled her into his arms. “We just brought a man back from the dead!” he shouted. “We have to take him to the mothers now!”
“Are you insane?” she snapped, pushing him away. “Can you imagine what my own mother would do to me if she knew I was here? Not to mention my Omdra… and yours! No one can ever know what we’ve done.”
“But he needs to be tended. Look at him!”
“He needed to be left out there to die, but what is done is done. We will set his leg and clean his wounds, and then you and I will leave him here,” she insisted. “Whatever happens to him after that is his own destiny. And Harvey, you must agree to occlude him completely.”
“No! I have gone against our ways, helped you bring him back from death.” She cringed at the thought of it, wiping the taste of the elf hard from her mouth, but she knew she would never forget the salt of his sweat and the metallic tinge of his blood on her lips. He breathed with her breath now, and somehow she could not help but resent him for it, as though he had taken from her without asking, even though it seemed so natural a thing to give in that moment, when she felt him fighting to live from beyond the shade. “It is time to leave this man to the will of Fate.”
“Please, do not ask anything more of me, Harvey!” she shouted. “Everything has changed! Just as you said it would!”
“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.
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.
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!”