Chapter 23: The People of the Mountains
Though the mountaintop they had climbed to soared above the clouds, it was yet low compared to the giants of the Reinkrag. Brandyé knew that if they continued to climb much further they would end up making their way through snow as much as rock, and they had only a little food left with them. However, his desire to keep within view of the sun kept them aloft, and for some days they made their way through snow and stone, and for Brandyé the glorious light from above more than made up for the dreadful illness he was now suffering. At this high altitude daily he weakened, pausing for rest now so often that they made less than a mile or two each day.
To Elven this was all folly, and he did not even understand what was pushing Brandyé to continue forward at all – what was he expecting to find? But there was no arguing with him, and he eventually resolved to simply drag Brandyé down the mountain once he finally collapsed from exhaustion.
Unfortunately, this was something that would be increasingly difficult to do. When they had descended the eastern ridge of the summit atop which they had seen the sun, it was to find themselves on a series of long, high protuberances that went on for many miles, near vertical drops on either side. From here it was a precarious journey to pick their way across the broken rock, every loose stone threatening to tumble them into the void and to their deaths. Matters were not aided by the clouds that blew past and around them, propelled by the high winds rising from the south. Sometimes there were flurries of snow, and Elven soon became used to his fingers being almost constantly numb. There were no fires up here, and he could not even walk with his hands in his pockets, for he needed them to cling to the sides of cliffs.
Finally came the morning when they ate their last piece of dried meat, and discovered there were only a few drops of water left in the water bottles. “We must descend now,” Elven insisted.
Brandyé felt his heart torn, but he knew that Elven spoke the truth. He also knew that, all the motivation in Erâth aside, he could not continue pushing himself day after day. If he did not take the time to recover from his cold, he might well develop a worse illness – perhaps a fatal one. He had been trying to hide it from Elven for some time now, but he was often taken by fits of coughing, and the phlegm he coughed up was thick and disgusting.
“All right,” he said. “But we will make for the higher lands, the places that are ever above the clouds.”
Elven agreed, and so they set off, trying to find as easy a way down the mountain as possible. In the end, they had to traverse for some distance across the base of a high cliff, for they had discovered that after a hundred feet or so of steep scree, there was a vertical drop of nearly a hundred more feet that they could not hope to climb down. The crossing was terrifying, and every step sent small streams of stones trickling down the slope, threatening to give way entirely under their feet and send them down the mountain with them. Brandyé’s fever was high that morning, and as they were nearing a place where the mountain opened onto a large, wide col, his vision began to swim, and the landscape around him became blurred. He coughed, and felt a pain in his chest.
“Are you all right?” called Elven from behind him.
For a moment Brandyé couldn’t answer for a sudden shortness of breath, and merely coughed again. He stopped moving forward, his hands clinging numbly to the rock near his head. Before long Elven had caught up with him, and for the first time Brandyé could not hide his coughing, which was now deep and hacking.
“Oh, Brandyé…” Elven said, “You have an illness in your lungs; you should have spoken of this sooner!”
But Brandyé shook his head. “No, I’m…I’m fine, really. I just need to rest…”
But it had finally become too much for Elven and he cursed, saying, “You’re not fine! Brandyé, listen to me well: if we do not get you down from the mountain and somewhere warm, you are going to die!”
Brandyé responded with only more coughing, and Elven said, “Come – keep going. I can see ahead of us a way down that is less steep.”
They began to move on, and before long were atop the col, which descended in a great cliff to the south, but to the north spread outward in a large, steep slope, with only small ledges of rock here and there. From the top they could see far in the distance below a valley of moss and grass, and it seemed this slope led directly into it. Elven thought he could even see a tree or two in the distance, and was about to start his descent when, without warning, Brandyé collapsed beside him in a fit of coughing.
Elven rushed to his side and pulled him upright, so that Brandyé was at least sitting on the loose rock. “We must get down from here,” he said. “Can you stand?”
Brandyé coughed again, and he wondered if he was finally paying the price for his foolhardy adventurism, for it felt that his body was almost falling apart. “I…I think I might need some help,” he admitted weakly.
So after a moment’s rest, Elven hauled Brandyé to his feet and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, so that he was supporting some of Brandyé’s weight. Together, slowly, they began to pick their way down the slope, stopping every dozen yards or so for them both to catch their breaths. The clouds began coming in again, and their visibility shrank until they could no longer see the bottom of the slope, and Elven began to worry that there might be a hidden cliff below them that they had not seen from above. Several times one or the other of them slipped, and only through chance did they regain their balance and not fall down the slope entirely.
Soon with the worsening weather came the faint rumblings of thunder, and then the first few drops of cold rain. Brandyé was coughing almost all the time now, and Elven began to feel frantic that they would never make it off this slope and into the valley below. He started to hurry his pace, and it was then that with a sudden great crack of thunder he lost his footing and did not regain it.
Crying out, he began to slide on the loose rock down the hill, pulling Brandyé forward with him. Brandyé cried out himself in surprise, and then there was no time for words as they were engulfed in a sudden flow of rolling stones and rocks. Elven, with his feet facing downhill, was hard-pressed to keep himself afloat on a suddenly moving river of rock, but Brandyé, who had been pulled headlong down with Elven, was tumbling out of control, soon lost to Elven’s sight in the clouds of dust that rose from all around them. He tried to call out Brandyé’s name, and breathed in the stone dust and was set coughing himself, eyes streaming.
Down, they tumbled, and it seemed to Elven some hundreds of feet must have passed before he felt the flow of stones around him begin to lessen, and the steepness of the slope begin to level. By the time he stopped moving he was buried to the waist in rock, and it felt that his legs were crushed under their weight. Desperately he struggled to loosen the stones, but succeeded only in bringing more down upon him from above. His only consolation was that he felt no shooting, dreadful pain, and assumed that he had managed not to break anything.
“Brandyé!” he cried out, but received no response. Desperately he began to claw at the rocks holding him in, his nails soon cracked and bleeding as he flung stone after stone away from him. For every two stones he cleared another slipped down and buried him more, and it seemed hours before he was clear enough to move one of his legs, and a further eternity before he was finally free of the stone prison, and able to move shakily on his own two feet. All this time he kept calling out for Brandyé, and was rewarded with silence.
Still slipping on the now wet stones, Elven began to move across the bottom of the slope toward where he had last seen Brandyé. The rain had quickly cleared the dust, but now a steaming mist was rising from the rocks, and he was just as blind in it. Finally, after wandering aimlessly and calling out for an age, he very nearly stumbled upon a crumpled and hooded form, half-buried in stones and still as death.
Elven knelt beside Brandyé’s inert form in a panic, pushing a heavy stone from above his head and bending his ear down, listening for breathing. To his incalculable relief it was there, though it was shallow and rasping. He pushed Brandyé’s hood away from his face and saw that the side of his head was coated thick with blood. Pawing through Brandyé’s long matted hair, he soon found a deep cut in his scalp, but it seemed the bleeding had already slowed, and the worst fear was of a concussion.
Elven knew that until Brandyé was awake it was a risk to move him, for he could not tell what bones, if any, might be broken. Instead, he set about clearing Brandyé’s body of stones so that he lay free on the mountainside, and lay his own cloak over him so that Brandyé would remain warm, even if he froze to death.
Such actions helped to keep Elven in a sense of calm, but inside he was raging with panic: the air was growing colder by the moment, and the rain, light as it was, was likely to turn to snow at any moment. Above their heads the sky continued to thunder, and looking up Elven could see lightning striking the mountaintops where they had been only hours earlier. He would never have admitted it to Brandyé, but he was dreadfully frightened, and angry. Angry that he had listened to Brandyé, angry that he had not been more careful descending the slope…and buried deep in secret, angry at Brandyé for bringing his life to such a point in the first place.
So distracted by this was he that his surprise was unimaginable when from behind, completely without warning, came the voice of another person. He spun around, and his jaw dropped at what he saw. It was not the fact that there were people here when only moments before there had been no one; nor was it even their garb, which was flowing, bright and colorful, very unlike anything he had seen in Erârün; not even the strange tongue in which they had addressed him. It was that behind them towered a structure that defied his imagination.
It seemed that upon the stones of the mountainside stood a ship – a veritable sea vessel, keel and hull and all – at least fifty feet long and almost half as broad. Yet this vessel rested on stone, and instead of masts bearing sails (which Elven had, of course, never seen) there rose great, thick cords, and these cords held fast to the ship an absolutely enormous cloth balloon, a thing that towered a hundred feet in the air if it stood an inch, smooth and round and possessing a great hole in the bottom. Elven could not begin to understand what this construction was for, nor how it did not collapse on the boat, and most of all he could not understand how it came to be there, in a place where only minutes before there had been only empty space.
But the men that had come from this craft did not share Elven’s astonishment, and moved forward with purpose. He heard them speak to each other in their own tongue, and several of them moved toward Brandyé. At this, Elven’s astonishment dropped a little, and he stepped forward to bar their way. “Stop – what are you doing?”
But the men ignored him and bent to Brandyé’s side. One of them unfurled a great canvas and stretched it out on the ground, and then another two grasped Brandyé hard by the shoulders and legs, and and lifted him bodily onto it.
“No – don’t move him!” Elven cried out. “You could injure him worse than he already is!”
He moved to stop the men from their endeavor, but an impressively strong grasp held him back. Whirling, Elven saw that he was being restrained by another of their group that had not tended to Brandyé. He tried to wrest the man’s hand from his shoulder and was surprised to find he could not, and it felt as though an iron clamp rested there. Failing, he instead tried to strike the man outright, and in a heartbeat and a deft twist of the arm he found himself lying flat on his back, breathless and aching.
“Stop,” he uttered again. “Please!”
But then the strange man did the unexpected, and held out his hand to Elven, proffering it to him in a gesture of aid. Uncertain, Elven nonetheless grasped the man’s hand, and was propelled upward with great force.
The man looked deep into his eyes for a moment and Elven felt extremely uncomfortable. Then the man spoke, and to Elven’s surprise he understood his words.
“Gray one hurt,” he said, and indicated where Brandyé was now being loaded onto the ship. Elven had never thought of Brandyé in such terms, but understood what was meant by the color of Brandyé’s hair and eyes. “You come?”
Elven looked to the ship, and back at the man incredulously. “You want me to come with you on that thing?”
“You come?” the man repeated, and Elven had the distinct impression that this represented most of the words outside his own tongue that this man knew.
“Yes,” he said instead, nodding his head, and the man seemed satisfied. He gestured for Elven to follow him, and led him to the side of the vessel. Here was a short ladder up which they climbed, and as Elven stood on the deck he wondered if this was what it was like to be at sea. What was to happen next, however, was so unlike being at sea that he was filled with absolute terror and could do nothing but collapse on the floor and hang on for all his life.
For in the center of the vessel was an enormous bowl, and in it must have been a vast quantity of burning coals for Elven could feel the heat through the air from a distance. This bowl was covered by a lid, but it was one that could be retracted by means of a mechanism that involved many handles and gears. Once everyone was on board, a pair of men began turning heftily on these handles and the lid rose open.
With a sudden lurch, Elven felt the deck of the vessel heave, and looking out about him he saw the mountainside ever so slowly begin to move, drawing ever more distant and further below them. He realized the entire ship was in fact rising steadily into the air, and it was then his face turned ashen and he looked desperately for something on to which he could cling. Soon they were floating inside the clouds themselves and Elven could see almost nothing at all. He thought surely they would be struck by lightning, and indeed he could see great flashes of light about them, and the vessel swung madly to and fro as the winds buffeted them with all their might.
But then, inevitably, as they continued to rise the storm became less, and the clouds thinned, and once more Elven felt the warming rays of the sun on him, and for the second time in only a few days he was treated to the view of the clouds from above, none of the darkness of the storm evident at all – only snowy white puffs, forming an endless sea of white, above which only the peaks of the mountains could protrude. This time, though, there was nothing beneath him but the thin hull of a ship, and the thought filled him with such dread that his sight began to blur, and he cried out in fear.
Around him, though, the men of this vessel moved around with ease and calm, opening the coal chamber or closing it to varying degrees, hauling on ropes, and working enormous propellers that spun near the rear of the craft and served to propel them forward. So it was that they rose, and so it was that they travelled, and for hours Elven could do nothing but cower in a corner of the ship and hope that he might die before they fell bodily from the sky.
Of course they did not, and had Elven looked out over the edge of the ship, he would have seen wondrous landscapes pass them by, mountains and ridges and entire valleys that glittered with rock and snow, and all of which were ever lit by the glory of the sun, reflecting its light and glowing with beauty. Eventually even Elven could not help but look up as evening began to come on, and he thought quietly that Brandyé would have given anything to be there at that moment, when the sky turned to blood and the sun sank below the horizon, and the clouds became golden pillows and the mountains pinnacles of crimson majesty. And later, when the stars started to appear, Elven began to weep for their beauty, and his heart ached for the days long ago before the eternal clouds covered all the skies.
It was still night, though hardly dark for the light of a nearly full moon, when they arrived at their destination. All around them were lights, fires and candles and lit windows that cast their glow out from the steep mountainsides into the abyss. Elven’s amazement began to overshadow his fright, and he stood and looked (though from the center of the ship’s deck), and was awestruck. An entire village, it seemed, had been built on the steep and sheer rock of the mountains, spanning an entire valley and to the peaks in the distance.
Soon they were approaching what Elven saw was a grand structure, great wooden towers sprouting high into the air, and at their base was a wide, long platform that stood out from the mountainside entirely and was held up by pillars that seemed to descend endlessly into the dark depths below. It was to this platform they now navigated, and with deft ease their pilots set the ship down with hardly a bump.
Almost as soon as they had touched down, men from the ship were carrying Brandyé away, and Elven hurried to keep up with them. However, as he made to step off the airship, he was interrupted by the man who had spoken to him before. “You grey one friend,” he said, and Elven nodded.
“I need to be with him – let me pass!”
But the man simply stared at him, and then said, “You follow me.”
“No,” said Elven, and made to push past the man. It was then that the man grasped him again with his hand, and Elven remembered how the man had effortlessly flung him to the ground earlier. As much as he wanted to fight this man right now, he had no desire to be flung into the abyss below them, and he relented.
“You follow me,” the man repeated, and with a sigh, Elven stood back and motioned for the man to lead the way. The man seemed to understand, for he turned and started walking away, leaving Elven to lag behind.
As he followed the man down a set of exposed, winding steps, Elven asked him, “Who are you?”
“Naiya,” the man said, and Elven was left to wonder if this was the man’s name, his people, or something else entirely.
When Brandyé awoke, it was to a sensation he had not felt in longer than he could remember: sun, streaming through a window, falling lightly on his face. For the longest time he lay there, eyes closed, and simply savored the feeling. For a moment he allowed himself to recall the feeling of waking up in Reuel’s home in Consolation as a boy, knowing even before he opened his eyes that it was going to be a good day, one filled with excitement and adventure with Elven. Perhaps they would travel to Soleheart and spend the day high amongst the great tree’s leaves, speaking of nothing and everything; perhaps they would visit Farmer Tar and help him in his fields. And at the end of the day, he would return home to Reuel and the comfort of a roaring fire and a warm meal.
For a while Brandyé drifted in and out of these thoughts, but in the end he knew he could not believe it, for the blankets were rough and coarse, and the pillow hard; the wind rushing outside the window did not carry with it the sounds of birds and marmots; and there were scents of smoke and incense about him that would never have found their way into his grandfather’s home.
And so he opened his eyes, and in the glad of the sunlight, stared about him. He was indeed in a bed of rough blankets, and all about him were draped cloths and banners of every color he could imagine. In the corner of the small room stood an iron stove, and it was steaming and smoking and filling the air with its warmth. The walls, the floor, the ceiling too – all was made of wood, and Brandyé could even catch the scent of the pine itself, mixed with spices that drifted in through the door that stood open.
But all of this was as nothing compared to the window. The window itself was unspectacular – a cross of wood inset with glass – but what it afforded a view of was beyond words. At first Brandyé could see only the bright glow of the sun, but as he got out of the bed and walked toward the window, his view took in the endless ranges of mountains that coursed onward into the distance like waves of an ocean. All was dark rock and white snow, except in the lowest valleys which were green with grass and trees. In the far distance were the clouds, but they were far below and away, and from this distance seemed utterly harmless.
And over all of it watched a sky of such magnificent blue that Brandyé’s breath was taken away, and all curiosity at his current situation left him momentarily as he surveyed the majesty that lay strewn before him like jewels before a king. For an age he stood there, until he heard from behind him a soft voice, lyrical and accented: “Ah – you are awake! So good, so good!”
Brandyé turned to find an elderly man standing in the doorway, resting on a cane and looking at him with the most placid of smiles. He seemed so genuine and disarming that Brandyé could not help but smile back, and said, “Where am I?”
“That is a long tale,” the man said enigmatically, “but you are safe.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“What does your stomach say?” The old man chuckled, and almost at his words Brandyé felt his stomach growl.
“Days, it feels like.”
“Four,” the old man said. “Come, eat!”
And so Brandyé followed the man out of the room and into another room that housed many large stuffed balls and a stove on which a deep curved pan was sizzling. The smells from the pan were beyond enticing, and Brandyé could not wait to eat. The old man seemed to know what Brandyé was thinking, and immediately spooned a great mass of curried meat and onions into a wooden bowl and handed it to Brandyé. Brandyé dug in with gusto, and the old man laughed to see him eat so fast.
“Slowly!” he said. “Your stomach will turn!”
The flavors were spiced and exotic, but Brandyé thought he had never tasted anything so delicious. He consumed no less than four bowls of the old man’s curry, and only then drank ice cold water from the pitcher that stood beside him. It occurred to him that he was sitting on a cushion on the floor, which would have struck him as odd had he not been so ravenous.
All the while, the old man sat and watched him with what seemed to be an amused smile. Finally, Brandyé asked him, “What is your name?”
“I am Nisha,” the old man said. He bowed his head, and his chest-length white goatee bobbed. “You are Brandyé.”
Brandyé stared at him, suddenly nervous. If he had been asleep for four days, how could this old man know his name? For the second time in his life, it seemed, he was faced with an old man who knew too much about him. Now that he thought about it, was that a streak of black in the old man’s beard? “How do you know my name?” he asked finally.
Nisha shrugged. “Your friend says it to me. Elven is his name.”
The answer was simple and sensible, but still Brandyé was suspicious. “Where is he?”
“Your friend waits for you. He cares very much for you.”
“Can I see him?”
Nisha smiled and nodded again. “Yes.”
“So fast! You are full?”
Brandyé in fact thought he might be able to eat even more of the old man’s wonderful food, but his desire to see Elven overrode even his hunger. “Yes,” he said. “It was delicious.”
Nisha bowed again. “Thank you. Come with me!”
Nisha led Brandyé to the door of the room, but just before he opened it looked back, and Brandyé saw a definite twinkle in his eye. “Afraid of height?” he asked.
And Nisha pulled open the door, and Brandyé understood, for indeed he very nearly reeled. The door opened onto a desperately steep wooden staircase that seemed built directly into the mountain rock. It had no railing, yet a fathomless precipice yawned wide beneath it, and Brandyé thought he would rather die than take a single step onto it. But Nisha, unperturbed, stepped out and began down the staircase, and Brandyé had little choice but to follow.
Breathless, he took each step as carefully and gingerly as though he was walking on eggshells, both hands always on the rock face for support. His head was spinning, and to distract himself, he tried to talk to Nisha. “You…you speak my tongue well, but I feel it is…it is not your own. Is that so?”
“You hear well,” Nisha called back over his shoulder. “Most of us speak a little of the common tongue.”
“The common tongue?” Brandyé had never heard it spoken of so.
“The tongue of men after the fall of Erâth.”
They had by now reached a wide platform, and Brandyé was glad for the distance from the abyss. “What can you tell me of the fall of Erâth?” he asked with a little more wind than before.
“Another time, another time,” Nisha chided him. “Now is time for friends!”
And indeed, there before him stood Elven, apparently deep in conversation with several of Nisha’s kin. As Brandyé approached Elven looked up, and a look of pure delight took his features. He rushed toward Brandyé, embracing him so tight that Brandyé could scarcely breathe. “I’m so glad to see you up!” he said.
“And I’m glad to see you,” Brandyé replied, somewhat awkwardly. “What happened?”
“Do you remember our fall?” Elven asked, and Brandyé shook his head.
And so Elven recounted to Brandyé the tale of how they had been buried in the rockslide, and how the folk that now surrounded them had rescued them. “They call themselves ‘Naiya’, and you would not believe their tales!”
As they had been talking, Nisha and the other Naiya had been standing around them quietly. At this point, Nisha spoke up: “Naiya is our name in the tongue of Naiya; in the common tongue, we are ‘Hochträe’. They mean the same: the high people.”
Brandyé looked out at the dazzling, snowy mountaintops, glinting in the sunlight. “You are certainly high!”
“Not all of us are so high,” said one of the two Elven had been talking to. He bowed to Brandyé. “I am Karishi, and this is Serina.” Beside him, Serina bowed her head as well.
“We live low, also,” Serina said, and Brandyé thought she seemed to blush at her own words.
Nisha smiled. “Forgive Serina – she is only just learning the common tongue.” He turned to Serina. “Anta koso naiyashi.” She blushed even further, but said nothing. “I say she may speak our tongue,” he said, turning back to Brandyé and Elven, “I believe Brandyé is a master of tongues.”
Again, Brandyé was filled with the uncomfortable sensation that this man knew more about him than he had revealed, but said nothing about it. Instead, he said, “It is true – I speak two tongues with ease, and I am fascinated by the sound of your own.”
“Then you will hear much of it,” Nisha said. “Wer ira ora saikanta tolu.” And he smiled. “We have tales to tell!”