Triggers – Descriptions of graphic violence and loss
This is a dark fantasy story for a day when your heart and mind need the solace of high, cold places and when you needed to be reminded of the inherent hope and dignity in being human. I wrote this for someone special, but he wants it shared with all of you lovely people. You have him to thank for this story.
The pelt was stained with flecks of blood and rimed with ice. The man carrying it grunted, as a particularly sharp gust of wind threatened to tear it from his hands. He frowned, pulled the pelt closer, resting the dull weight inside it against his chest, and carried on up the mountain pass. He was alone. He had started this journey alone and planned to finish it thus, in the snow and the grey-streaked stone. It was almost a relief, the stark isolation, from the crowded trade road that wormed through the pass far below. It was certainly a relief from the solitude he had left behind him, in the places where the people of his village gathered. Those places he moved through like a ghost now, avoiding eyes and the silence that surrounded him perpetually because there were no words for the path he now walked. Leaving had had a bleak ease to it. Here at least, on the unforgiving mountain face he was alone in body as well as spirit.
That thought was why the singing surprised him so. It was lilting at first, and faint. The man, having grown up in the mountains himself, in a small hamlet that no longer existed, dismissed it at first as snow-keen or the jutting rocks channeling the wind. But when the wind lulled a little, the voice only grew louder. He cocked his head and stopped, pulling his burden to his chest and waited, listening. The singing was drawing closer.
He’d paid little mind to the locals’ tales of a haunt that dwelt up in the icy peaks. He was snow-bred himself and knew how easily the lowlanders stories turned to dark things when the sun sank back behind the teeth of the mountain and threw their villages into long shadows. That, and he hadn’t paid much mind to anything for a long while now. But this was definitely singing. The storm had sighed dormant now too and in the welcome respite from the bitter chill the man felt some of his muscles begin to relax. There was a figure in the distance, approaching.
The man could see clearly that she walked a good hand span above the snow. He thought about how lovely her voice was, clear and bright, and how the sun seemed to come out in patches, around the snow where she walked. He thought about haunts and the good iron blades he carried on hip and thigh and back. The pelt, and its weight slipped a little and the man put all other thoughts aside and began walking up to the peak. The singing woman stopped and stared at him, bemused. He tipped his head politely, his mother had raised him with manners, as he passed her and kept walking.
Her hair was flax gold, sun on snow, and her eyes as grey as the stone all around them. She was slim, ethereal and entirely naked, a rich smooth body in firm skin the colour of milk, or bone. Her teeth glittered. It was easier to walk, now that her song had stopped, and the man thought he’d passed her without incident until he felt her fingers caress his arm. “You aren’t at all what I expected. I don’t even think you’ve come here for me.”
He shrugged, not wanting to seem rude, and tried to keep walking, but her touch turned colder than cold and rooted him to the rock of her mountain.
“No-one comes here, but for me. The careless and the curious and the lovelorn. Those that seek to chase the shadows in the corners of their eyes or heady sweetness of the old stories. I sing them here, calling them up through the clouds. You are none of these.”
“And you are not the only thing on this mountain.”
The siren released him in surprise, hurt and fear and something that might have been awe chasing each other in quick waves across her face. The man pulled the pelt closer to his chest and kept walking, ever higher.
There was a gust of wind and she was in front of him again. “You can’t know about that. There are only a handful of faces who’ve looked upon that, and of those that are still alive, I know them all. I do not know your face.”
“It’s been a very long time” the man grunted, “and it is hardly the same face.”
She took his cheek in her fingers then, drawing her nails lightly across the skin. In the man’s memory, unbidden, a young boy and a large, shaggy dog ploughed, determined, through deep snow. The boy laughed, and the sorrow the man felt threatened to consume him. She snatched her hand away as though burned. “I’m sorry. That was…”
“That was not yours to take.” The man’s voice had found a hard edge. “Not everything of this mountain is yours to command. Now leave me be.” He began stomping through the drifts again, dropping his head low to cut the wind.
“No! Wait!” The siren raised her arms and shattered into flakes, to be carried by the wind until she was in front of him again. “I’ve no desire to harm you, not now that I’ve seen you, and I’ve already called the blizzard.”
“Blizzard?” He asked, sidestepping her and keeping on.
With a snort of annoyance she fell into step beside him. “Blizzard. I feed on the souls of those unlucky or unwise enough to follow my song. When one follows so far up I call the winds to bring me a blizzard to freeze them dead, and carry the soul as it escapes to me. I called one for you, before I knew you, before I knew that I had no desire to feed on you. Once called, the winds will not be turned back. You have to get off this mountain.”
The man gave the ghost of a smile at the concern in the siren’s voice, but he did not stop walking. “Thank you, for your kindness. But you are not the only thing on this mountain and I have business here.”
“You would throw your life away for this business?” the question was sharp and scathing.
The man kept walking.
“Stop! I will not permit you to waste your life upon my mountain. Stop! I command you!”
The words rang from her lips with an echo of power that rolled sluggishly through the air towards the man. When it reached him though, he only stumbled a little, shrugged his shoulders once and continued walking. After a while, with the siren following him as a light wind, he said “you control people through the desires that flow through their hearts and grip them with the madness and joy of being alive. Lust, curiosity, whatever the name, it’s the desires of the living you weave into a yoke to steer them with. I have no such desires, so I will not be controlled.”
“Yet, I feel your heart. It beats, warm and steady, and I felt your sorrow and your love in the memory of the dog and the boy. You have a living heart still capable of feeling. How can it be that you have no desires?”
She rode his shoulder now, almost, a tiny winged thing that stepped from snowflake to snowflake just before each fell onto the man’s short cloak.
“There is one desire. That is all I have left now, one desire. But it is not the sort of thing by which you can control me.”
The snow-sprite frowned, pursing her tiny mouth. “You cannot have but one desire, not with a still beating heart. Men are not built thus.”
“But they can be broken thus. Look.” The man slowed, and shook the long dark hair away from his face. A tracery of flesh-pink scars covered his face, pulling away into his scalp, telling of unfathomable damage.
“A raiding party struck my company and butchered us. They cut, for sport or pleasure, deep into our faces and skulls, till the white of the bones could greet the star-lit night. They left us for dead but I was not. I healed.”
There was no malice, no flame in the man’s voice. It put the siren in mind of the large stones that roll sometimes from the peak of the mountain, unstoppable, to rain destruction on the already precarious villages below. She knew better than to stand in such a path, and held her tongue.
“The blows, and cuts. I should have died, but for my hunting dog. He licked and nursed and bit at my heels and my hands until I dragged myself away from the death-place and the carrion birds, and sought help. He hid, I think, during the raid. It is often that a man’s dog is smarter than the man, and mountain dogs are special. They’re big, and smarter than small children from the villages that never know the cold hand of winter as a teacher. Mine was the biggest and smartest of his generation, and I owe him my life. But there were things that even my hunting dog, with his small bites and gentle tongue and the velvet darkness of his eyes, there were things that even he could not return to me.”
The siren shifted a little, assuming her almost-human form and asked, low and gentle, “What is your name?”
The man kept walking.
“What was the name of your company, your brothers?”
The man kept walking.
“Where is your family?”
He stopped and looked at her. “Do you intend to wound me, by making a game of what I cannot tell you? If so, I am well beyond such petty wounds.” there was a sharpness in his tone at odds with his measured words. “To spare you breath, haunt, I remember two mountain ranges. The one I grew up on, and I have been there and what was once my village is now only old ash and rubble. The other range I remember is this. I remember being a child on this mountain, with my dog, the same dog who would not let me die that day, many years ago when that nameless raiding party severed all but one of the threads, tying me to this world. Time has severed that one now also, for as much as mountain hunting dogs are big and smart and loyal, they do not live as long as men. So now I have nothing to tie me to the endless, churning chaos of life. I have nothing within me where desire could find fertile ground to grow, save a memory of sun and snow and what lies at the top of this mountain. That is why I shall finish what I have come here to answer, and I shall not turn back, not even in the face of your blizzard.”
For a while the siren stood, watching him stride away from her, carrying something heavy, close to his chest, wrapped in the blood-flecked, snowy pelt of what might have once been a dog. She shook her head slightly and looked down at the tracks he left, already almost swallowed by the softly falling snow.
She looked down, and narrowed her eyes at something she saw there. Then huffed out a breath of frustration and started after the man, marvelling at many things, not the least of which was the magnitude of his stubbornness.
The man had his eyes narrowed at the bite of the wind now, and his wool-scarf pulled tight around his face, so he missed the snow-maiden’s approach. He only realised she was there when he felt another set of hands heft the weight in the pelt that was now hanging low, balanced against his stomach. He stumbled and looked up at her. He face was set and her lips fluttered in ceaseless incantations. The wind around them dropped a little, and the air began to clear.
“Man” She said, with some strain in her voice, “I cannot stop this blizzard, and I do not want your death on my mountain. So, with the small magic I can perform, I will hold the wind and the cold back for a time, and we shall finish this business of yours together. I see no other way that you will not die in this storm.”
She spoke over him, brooking no argument. “If you freeze to death before you reach what you seek at this peak of this mountain, your business will be more permanently unfinished than if you left now. So do not refuse my help in this. If I smooth the snow before us, and ask the small rocks to move, can you run?”
The top of the mountain stood above the clouds, the peak was out of reach of any blizzard. It was that high. Few had ever breathed the thin air up here, and most of the time it was completely invisible from the world below. Here, the snow-haunt released the pelt, and stepped back, leaving the man alone. Slowly, still breathing hard from the flat-out dash up the path that she had created for them, the man walked towards the small stone ledge in the centre of the plateau, where the peak flattened out. Ahead of him was what he sought, and he kept his eyes on it, almost unblinking. He flicked his hair a few times, letting the strands of his fringe sweep the sweat-beads from his face. There was sun here, as there had been in his memory, bright on the snow. He was aware of the crunch of flakes underfoot. There’d been the sound of two sets of footsteps in his memory, but now the man walked alone. He came to the ledge and knelt, slow and controlled..
The statue was still there, carved in perfect detail from the streaked granite of the mountain. It was smaller than he remembered it, but the years had not touched it. Nothing was weathered or worn. A small stone boy knelt on the ledge, one hand reach to the horizon, imploring, the other hanging at his side, fingers curled in, not quite reaching the ground. The man didn’t know anything about the statue. What craftsman had chiselled it out of the mountain’s bones with such skill? what was the small boy reaching for? How long it had remained here, how much magic had gone into its making. He only remembered it. He had been young then and he and his dog had gone adventuring. He and his mountain-bred hunting dog of the dark, intelligent eyes. They had climbed a haunted mountain, in innocence and delight at the challenge, and the sun on the snow, and they had found the statue, alone up here on the peak. He remembered looking at the stone boy, younger than him, even then, and stretching for something that would never arrive. He remembered the loneliness and the desolation in the stone eyes. That was there still. The man sighed.
Slowly, he slid the pelt, carried lovingly all this way, from his lap and unwrapped the weight within it. A small stone mountain dog, curled asleep, on ear raised, lay there carved in exquisite detail. It was in red-grey stone, clearly not from this mountain, but the man was not worried about it not being welcome. Slowly, he slid it from the pelt, and shifted it around on the ledge until the stone boy’s dangling hand hovered just above the lifted ear. The man sighed again, with more release this time.
“Boy should have a dog.” He said.
The siren watched in silence. Below, the blizzard spent the worst of its fury, and began to wane.
The man got to his feet, after a while and, a little clumsily from the cold, tied the pelt across the stone boy’s shoulders. Before leaving he ran a hand through the thick grey fur with an act of finality. At that moment the siren moved. She poured across the pelt in the snow-flakes and pulled it gently away from the statue. The man started, but before he could say anything she pressed it into his hands. “Here. You must keep this. The mountain will only weather and destroy it. The trappings of life do not last long up here. It will at least help ease the sting of the coming cold”
Resolute the man shook his head and thrust the pelt back at her. “Give it to the winds then. This is a spirit thing and cannot ever be put to mundane use.”
The snow-maiden snorted in annoyance and the man grew angry.
“This is the skin of my dog. My large-eyed mountain dog to whom I owe my life. I took this from him after he died, the day my carving of his puppy-hood was finished. I took this from him the day the last thread tying me to the world snapped!”
“You call this bloody pelt your dog’s spirit thing? This empty husk? Why do you look to the empty house and not the dweller of the house?” She pointed at the ground.
The snow was falling far slower now, so the man’s footprints from where he’d walked to the bare ledge were still sharp and easy to see, but they weren’t the only prints. Wonderingly the man knelt to trace the paw marks, stark against the white. Spinning he followed them, as damp marks on the stone ledge, up to the statues, around dog and boy, and back to his side. They were big prints, widely spaced, indicating a long stride. The man looked up at the siren wordlessly.
She shrugged, feigning nonchalance to hide a small smile. “The dead have little interest in object, or ritual, but sometimes people retain some importance to them. Do not confuse loneliness with being alone. Now, the blizzard below is all but over. Take your pelt and leave my mountain. I tire of people and your tiny, tragic, wondrous stories.”