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This story is another one of my experimentations in unusual writing styles and settings. It's about a knight who is given a task that seems simple (to climb the mountain), but it isn't.
As usual, feel free to drop me a line at the end, and let me know what you think. Thanks!
Updated on 6/3/2011
The Forbidden Mountain
Part 1 of 3
I sit inside the grey stone of the courtyard, both nervous and determined underneath my calm exterior. I feel like a young squire again, apprehensive before his first dual with a true knight. The only difference is that unlike the reckless squire I used to be, this time I will win. I have already won.
The rain beats down relentlessly, driving the cold into my bones. Honor, the grey stallion that was given to me at my knighting, shifts beneath me. His ear flicks back at me reproachfully, but he makes no other sign of his discomfort. A gust of freezing wind whips spitefully around us, sliding maliciously under my cloak and wrapping its numbing fingers around my body. Yet despite the chill, I do not move as it slowly penetrates my warmth. The forge of anger burning in my chest is enough to heat me through, despite the relentless autumn night.
Two men stand in the shadows in the far side of the courtyard, partially sheltered by the angle of the rough stone wall. I recognize them as the Weapon Master and the Stable Master. Even in the blinding rain and blanketing shadows I can distinguish them. Their faces and voices come back to me from memory as familiar as the day that I left. They are two men that I know I can trust with my life, but even so, they cannot help me now. I wonder if they stand there to let me know that I am not alone today, or if it is just curiosity that brings them here this night, in the rain and the cold. I know by the way that they glance at me when they think I am not looking that I am the subject of their whispered conference. I know what they say even though I cannot hear them through the noise of the raindrops striking the cobbles. Why is be here? They wonder, but they cannot guess. Why did he come back after what happened only a fortnight ago? They cannot understand, though they are glad that I have come. Can he have something else to say to the man that denied him as kin after being gone so long? Can he have something with him to right the wrong that is here now? They wonder, but little do they truly know.
And now I sit outside my own hall, waiting for my cousin to admit me. I am calm, but I am also angry. I knew that he was always the kind of person that was never satisfied with what he had. I knew he wanted power and fame. But I had no idea that he would go this far. When I rode into this very courtyard two weeks ago, after being gone in the war for nearly seven years, I did not know what I expected. But never in my life did I suspect what really happened. My father had died only a year after I had left, and five years after that my cousin somehow managing to convince everyone that I too had died. Dead in the war, he had said. And now he was master of Brookhurst hall. He now owns my land and my house. Two weeks ago, when I was finally able to come back, he declared me an imposter. “Sir Ryan is dead,” he said with a sneer, “everyone knows that. Now leave of your own accord before I have you taken out.”
Shocked and furious I challenged him then for the honor of my house and received only his mocking laughter for my reply. I looked around me at all the faces that I had once known so well and received only impassive stares in response. Disgusted, I would have left then. Let him take my title if he wished! He could not deny me my honor. I had plenty friends in the King’s army that would take me in. If my old life would reject me, if each and every one of the people that I had known since childhood would deny me, then so be it. They would have to learn to live with the choice that they had made. If this was the loyalty they showed to the heir to Brookurst Hall, then I wanted none of it.
But then I somehow caught my lady’s eye. The Lady Alice and I had been friends since childhood. I knew her better that anyone else and I loved her like none other. She and I had been engaged shortly before I left, to be married upon my return. I had recalled that memory so often in the past years. She had been so beautiful with her vibrant green eyes shining into mine. But now, in that quick glance I saw something that chilled my shock into cold, just anger. I knew that she knew me. And I also know that she was afraid. The terror was well hidden on the surface, and her sculpted face betrayed nothing. But she was terrified of the man that she sat next to. She knew me, but there was nothing that she could say or do. There was nothing that anyone here could say against this traitor, for fear of the power he held over them. But at least I knew now that I was not alone. They wanted me to do something. They wanted this tyrant gone and they were looking to me. All of them were, but most importantly my Lady’s eyes were on me, hoping against hope that I could free her.
My cousin was still laughing. “Does that mean you accept?” I asked with cold conviction in my voice.
His mocking humor turned to anger swifter than a storm on the sea. “Get this man out of my hall!” he snarled, and several guards moved forward, though reluctantly.
I slipped my sword from its sheath quicker that the eye could follow. “Touch me and it will be the last thing that you ever do.” I said it quietly and without moving my gaze from my enemy’s eye but the men stopped, hesitating, in a ring about me. I addressed my cousin again.
“I will regain the honor of my hall, Sir Myles,” I said. “I give you a chance to name your terms before I name mine.”
He leaned back in his chair and contemplated me. The air seemed to thicken as a cold, still silence settled over the hall, holding us captivated as everyone awaited his answer. I do not know what he expected of me, but I had obviously caught him off guard. He was trying to figure out a way to get rid of me while still denying me as the rightful heir to my lands. A scornful smile pulled at his lips, and an unwelcome knot of apprehension squeezed my gut.
“If you are Sir Ryan, then you will climb the Mountain.” A murmur of disbelief rippled through the hall and his smile widened maliciously. “Bring me back a tale of what is at the top like my cousin always talked of, and I will acknowledge that you are who you claim to be. You will be master of Brookhurst Hall despite whether it is true or not.”
A satisfied smile pulled at his mouth. He expected me to refuse. He thought that he had won. The Mountain was a solitary, mammoth mound of gray, foreboding stone that lurked at the edge of my lands. It had stood there longer than the hundreds of years of my family’s history. Many thought it was cursed. Sometimes, an adventurous youth would strike out into its base to prove his worth. Many came back after only the first day, silent and scared. Those youths grew up with an unnatural fear of the Mountain that haunted them for the rest of their days. Those that stayed only one night were never seen again. One, two, or sometimes three days later their bodies would be found laid at the base of the hard stone, placed there sometime in the night. No one could ever guess how they died or what they saw at the top of the Mountain. All that we knew was that the Mountain did not welcome visitors, and those that pushed their way onto its secrets were cast out. Many paid for it with their life. When I was a young boy I dreamed of what it would be like at the top of the Mountain. My father used to joke that if I could not find out its secrets then no one ever would. He also used to say that there are some things that men should never know.
“Very well,” I said, and Sir Myles thought that he had won. He looked surprised and delighted though he tried to hide it. “I will go. Expect me back soon Sir Myles, for I am not done with you.”
I sheathed my sword and strode from the hall, but not before I saw the disbelief in Lady Alice’s eyes. She did not know what to think of my acceptance. Did she think that I was going to my death? I would not die. I would not let this happen to my family. Whatever the Mountain wanted to test me with, I was ready. I did not know if I would succeed, but I would face whatever I had to in order to see her smile again.
And now I sit in the driving rain and wait for Sir Myles to admit me. He is probably wondering why I am here. He does not believe that I could have really done it. But he is worried. He does not understand. He thought that he had gotten rid of me for good when I walked out of his hall, no my hall, two weeks ago. And now, here I am again.
Eventually they let me in. I walk into the hall and it is silent, just as it was when I left. All eyes are on me, wondering at my return. Most are also hoping, or wondering if they dare to let themselves hope. Little do they know what I have been through. Even they, who know where I have gone, cannot possibly imagine what I found. But even though they will not believe me, I must try. I will tell them the truth and listen to them laugh before I cast the imposter from my house.
I shake back my hood, and a few stray drops of stubborn rain slide through my hair and down my neck. The hall seems overly warm after the numbing cold outside, and I welcome the small comfort gratefully. I stop before Sir Myles, standing as I had a fortnight before. He looks at me, lazily, as if he barely has enough time to deal with this nonsense. But I am not fooled. He is worried, I can see it in his eyes…and he should be. I am here to finish him.
“I thought I had made things completely clear to you last time we talked,” he says, and takes a sip of wine.
“You told me to climb the Mountain and to bring you back a tale,” I say, just as indifferently. “I have been up the Mountain, and I am here to tell you my story.”
There is a rising of voices as everyone starts talking at once, but Sir Myles silences it with a swift gesture.
“Bring the man a chair,” he says finally. “Let’s hear what the mad fool has to say.”
I sit down, struggling with outward calm, but I am nowhere near relaxed. Unconsciously, my hand drifts down to my sword hilt; a habit that I developed through long months of war. I fix my eyes on my cousin’s face and begin to speak.
“I left for the Mountain the same night that I disappeared from this hall. I rode until the first rays of dawn began to streak the sky and by that time I was at its base, at the very borderline between the safe lands and the cursed. I paused then to sleep as I had not rested for over a full day and night. I rested to brace myself for what was to come, for I knew all too well that what I faced was impossible to defeat.”
I had everyone’s attention now. My Lady’s eyes were watching me, transfixed. I did not look at her though my heart punished me sorely. I kept my gaze steadily on Sir Myles, forcing him to read the truth in my eyes and challenging him to contradict me.
“At noon I mounted Honor again but instead of heading straight into the Mountain, I began to circle its base to look for the best way to mount the dark stone. It was nearly dark again when I stumbled by chance upon a path that wound its precarious way upward. I say ‘by chance,’ because if I had not stepped onto it, and also been looking carefully at the ground, then I never would have noticed it. It was barely visible, though it seemed to run steadily upward, and so I followed. I did not hesitate to rest again for fear of wasting more time than necessary. As the last rays of the dying sun faded away, abandoning me in darkness, I began to climb.
“As I continued, the path became increasingly difficult to traverse. It twisted and wound around the Mountain face like whoever had formed it had done so purely on the whims of fancy. It snaked abruptly around jutting boulders and slid crazily under the mammoth roots of old and determined trees. Many times along its course, there was a solid wall of rock on one side of me and a sheer drop on the other with little room for error. A single ill step or instant of misplaced concentration could send me plunging to my death. Very soon I was forced to dismount and lead Honor, for it was too dangerous to ride on the steep slope and shifting stones.
“As far as I could tell, it was almost exactly midnight when the sounds began. At first it seemed far away and I did not notice, preoccupied as I was by where I was placing my feet. But very soon I became aware of the distant noises around me. It constantly changed, first sounding like the howl of the wind then like a murmured whisper, now like a voice crying out, then like a hiss of indrawn breath. There were no sounds like you usually hear at night. No chirp of crickets or howl of wolf. There was no rustle of forest creatures in the brush nor was there any movement of wind. It was still and silent except for the lamenting of the Mountain. The whole night seemed as if it was watching me, holding its breath to see what would become of my defiance to venture into the Mountain’s secrets. It was watching me, and warning me back.
“But still I continued. The sounds grew louder and sharper. Once I swear I heard a voice whispering right into my ear. “Beware,” it said. But when I swung around with my sword in hand, there was no one there. There was only the Mountain, drenched in the moonlight and shadows.
“It was then that I came around a sharp bend and I met my first obstacle. The path had been sheared away by a long ago landslide, and all that was left was a treacherous slope of shifting rubble. I could see the path continuing a little way beyond, but I had no way to get to it. Frustration boiled through me. I had to continue, but I did not know how. I also knew that I could not go back.
“I stripped off Honor’s saddle and bridle. Quickly, I rubbed him down, murmuring softly to try to calm him. The bridle and saddle I placed by the side of the path behind an outcropping of rock where it was out if sight, though I doubted anyone would be mad enough to follow me to this cursed place. I stripped off my light armor as well, stacking it carefully with the saddle to protect it from the wind and rain. I gathered my bedroll and few belongings into a pack and slung it over my shoulder with my short bow. This done, I went over to Honor, who stood still and patient, not moving from the spot where he had stopped. I placed my arm over his neck and leaned into his mane, breathing through the fine strands and taking comfort one last time in not being alone. Suffice to say, I did not relish facing an unknown enemy knowing that there would be no help, however small the assistance may be. After only a moment I pulled away and gave him the command to go. Never before had Honor refused a command that I had given him, and this was a command that I had drilled into him for years. But despite all his training, he would not leave me. No matter what I said or did he planted his feet like a stubborn mule and would not move. In the end, it was I that left him as I could not afford to waste any more time.
“I climbed. Slowly and cautiously, thinking every moment that my next breath would be my last, I climbed the slope. I went up first as far as I could go, then I began to slide down and to my right to where the path continued. Many times I thought that I would not make it as the loose rubble suddenly shifted or gave way beneath me. But each time I barely managed to catch myself on some small stone or stubborn branch, and before I realized that I had done it, I was on the other side.
“It was dawn by the time I finished my treacherous climb. With the growing light, the restless curses of the Mountain began to slowly fade, and with it went some of my fear. I continued on along the path, and eventually the plants and trees grew less plentiful. Many times that day I was forced to climb again due to obstacles in my path. Landslides were common, jutting in to the harsh landscape and creating long cascades of treacherous footing that threatened to plunge me to my death. Deep gorges sprang suddenly from around bends in the path, laced with multiple colors of gray and red rock. More than once, towering waterfalls plunged thundering into them, in sparkling contrast to the vivid green and gray of the slopes, and the brilliant blue of the sky. It was a gorgeous sight to see, but even so, it was no game. Every beautiful view was to me another test to see if I could survive. Some luck must have been with me however, because somehow I always found a way through or around.
“The day grew hot and the air thin. Sweat soaked my body and exhaustion dragged at my will. Shortly after noon I paused to eat and sleep. I had not gone far since I had left Honor behind, but the way had been so clogged with dangers and delays that I do not see how I could have gone farther. I slept then, for I was sure that the sounds of the night would return as soon as the moon rose once again. I did not think that I could manage to rest under the moaning of the Mountain.
“Just before dark I started away again. This night was much like the one before, though the sounds grew louder and more insistent. Again I heard the whispered warnings by my ears though I could never catch the maker of the voice. Always when I looked there was only empty air, no matter how fast I turned. Above it all, the constant wailing, wind-like sound of the Mountain grated in my ears, daring me to continue to my death. Once, when I set down my pack for a moment to refill my waterskin in a small brook, I turned around to find its contents scattered over the rocks. I picked it up as quickly as I could, but over half my provisions were gone. Where they were, I could only guess.
“But still I continued. I did not relish the thought of going forward any farther, but going back was not an option that I could even consider. And so I went on with increasing difficulty. Though when I say ‘difficulty’ I refer only to the terrain and the terror of the night for nothing else haunted me…as of yet.”
I closed my eyes for a brief second, trying to control my sudden chill at the memory of what I had seen. It had been so shocking…but I had to continue. One step at a time, I told myself. I took a breath and opened my eyes to find Alice looking at me intently. She had a strange look in her eyes; it seemed as if concern, hope, and fear were all warring for her heart. I felt a stab of pity for her. I wanted to tell her that everything was all right, to comfort her. I could not say it aloud, not here, but it was only the memory of her that had kept me going on into the Mountain. Looking back now, it was probably the only thing that had kept me sane.
“The next day continued much the same. I could tell you more; I could go on forever I think, if I let myself be lost in the memory of those terrors. In truth, that is one memory that will always haunt me, but I will spare you the tale as it is not your burden to share. Let me instead move ahead to the next of the nightmarish events that were so common on the Mountain.
“The air had grown colder and thinner as I foraged higher. On the night of the fourth day, a dense fog settled over the Mountain, covering everything in a gray and shifting cloak. As dusk faded and total darkness approached, for no moon or stars could penetrate the mist, the path made a sharp turn and disappeared between two large pillars of stone that looked at first glance like a doorway. I paused and looked at it carefully, as it seemed to have no purpose that I could see. The pillars themselves were the same ominous, drab gray as the rest of the mountain, and they were covered haphazardly in strange writings and symbols that I could not understand, but nevertheless they filled me with a nameless and unspeakable apprehension. The doorway stood before me, a silent and imposing threat, just like everything else that I had faced thus far. I was afraid, even more so because I did not know why I was afraid. An instinct that compelled every part of my being was telling me to leave if I still could, that there was an unnamed evil here that I could not possibly understand, and yet I could not give any explanation for this new terror. I could see the path continuing under the doorway, though I could not follow it far with my eyes. Beyond, the path leveled off for a little way and then took another precarious leap upward and vanished behind a boulder, out of my sight. Such was my fear of passing under the useless door that I considered going around it, but steep rock lunged upward on both sides of me. I was staring up at it, wondering if I should try the futile climb anyway when a sharp wind swirled past my neck, startling me. The voices of the Mountain were back.
“Turn back…” it said, very distinctly in my ear, and this time I could hear urgency in its tone. With an effort I controlled my impulse to turn around, for I knew that I would see nothing.
I sighed, and for the first time I spoke back to the wind. After all, who was there to hear me but the wind?
“There is no going back for me,” I said. “Not now and not later. This is the only path left for me to walk.”
“The winds brushed by me again like a gentle sigh, and a terrible hollowness clutched my heart. It was a feeling that I could not understand any more than my terror, but it felt as if I had sealed my own fate. Nevertheless, my resolve had steadied with the words I had spoken. It was true, I knew. I could not go back. I did not want to go back, for there would be no justice in it. Forward was the only honorable way open to me, and so, to my mind, it was the only way open to me at all. Failure was not an option. I drew my sword, and with the naked blade glinting dully in the mist, I ventured forward through the doorway.
“And then, in a single instant, my world vanished and I knew only darkness.”
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