... Despite all that had befallen us on our previous Journey across The Spine of The World1, my good friend Merrum had insisted on accompanying me once more, assuring me that he was fully recovered from his encounter with the Snowstorm and that strange Band with whom we had shared such shelter as was to be found. This was perhaps unsurprising given he remains almost Oblivious of all that occurred on that day.
|A View of The Spine of The World|
In any event, we set out in good heart and made our way deep into the mountain passes, which were, thanks to the season, almost entirely clear of snow. For the first three days it seemed unlikely that anything of great moment should befall us and we contented ourselves with exchanging Stories, Merrum skipping through his extensive store of Otherwan lore while I answered in my turn with the tales of ancient Shende that I had picked up whilst being dandled on my Mother's knee. On the third evening, with each of us conscious that the other had long ago started to supplement his portion of Folklore with the inventions of his own Mind, we settled down to camp both hoping that some Event should supply us with a new Subject upon which to dwell.
As Luck would have it, our Wishes were soon fulfilled. For no sooner had we sat down than there came a Sound the like of which I had never heard before and sincerely hope never to hear again. Though I hear it in so many Dreams and it haunts many waking hours even to this day, it remains beyond my humble Powers to capture it in Words. I can only say that there was something about it suggestive both of Enormousness and Enormity, loud beyond enduring and somehow very Wrong. It was enough to inspire Fear in the stoutest Heart and Merrum and I had cause to assume that our servants would desert us. Happily, after learning of my previous Adventure in the Mountains, our attendants had come to the Conclusion that I was some sort of Charm against Ill-Fortune and better to stay with than to quit. As a result they remained nearby, despite the dreadful Sound, though they had to Fight long and Hard to keep our horses from bolting.
The dreadful Sound continued long into the Night, galloping about the Mountains, darting hither and thither, as if taking part in some monstrous Chase. And all this in the absolute dark of a Moonless, Cloud-filled night. And so we sat by our campfire, staring into the Flames, none daring to speak, sure in the Knowledge that any Words would be torn away and Lost in that shuddersome Pandemonium. At length, my man, Reech, persuaded me that the wiser course was to retire to my tent. I confess it was advice I accepted eagerly, knowing that, though the walls of my tent would offer little to lessen the Clamour from without, they would at least serve to hide its Effects upon my Countenance from Merrum and our attendants. Whether I slept or no I cannot Say for, waking or dreaming, the Sound echoed in my Mind throughout the Night. At length Dawn came and, with it, blissful silence. And then, I feel, I Slept.
"When mountains run
And stars fall
And ships sail over land ..."
- fragment of Otherwan doggerel
Doubtless Your Most Ineffable of Majesties will assume that, the next Morning, Merrum and I made sure to give a wide berth to that Location from which the Sound had issued. However, knowing Your Most Highness's deep Interest ...2 I resolved to press on towards that very Spot, determined to gain some Clue as to what may have Occurred. There was little demur from our Retinue who, though doubtless Disturbed by the singular Events of the Night, remained Convinced of my Worth as a Talisman.
We tracked on for some Hours, led by our most Able guide, a little, light-boned man, whose age I could not hazard beyond the Fact that he was Past childhood and not yet into his Dotage. He seemed to have the Mountain Scree in his blood on one side and Mountain Goat on the other, and skipped across those climbs and through those passes with absolute Ease and Certainty and without any recourse to a Map. For Hour after Hour we followed him, never stopping, until, of a sudden, he came to an absolute Halt. We had been leading our mounts along a thin track, carved close in to the Wall of a steep-sided Valley and had at last rounded a long corner near the valley's End, expecting to come to a narrow Pass of which our guide had Warned, but instead found ourselves staring into a smooth-bottomed Basin, wide enough that it would have taken our horses perhaps half an hour to cross at a good Canter. For some Reason, perhaps the egregiousness of his Error, the sight seemed to Offend our guide beyond all Imagining. He closed his eyes and placed an arm across them, then turned Away insisting that all was Wrong, and could not in any way be Consoled until he had been plied with large amounts of Drink by Reech.
As hard as herding mountains.
- Otherwan expression, used both to mean very easy and, rarely, very difficult.
It was while Reech was so engaged that Merrum and I looked down into the Basin and happened to espy what appeared to be a man lurking among the Shadows at the basin's far Edge. Thinking that he might have some Knowledge of the Occurrences of the previous night, we remounted and rode off to Speak with him.
Thinking it foolish to approach a Stranger in these Wild mountains without first taking some steps to assess both him and his demeanour, and perhaps still a little Unsettled by the dreadful Noises of the previous night and the sudden change in the Demeanour of our guide, Merrum and I reined our horses in while we were still at a pretty distance from our target, the better to Examine him. He was seated on the ground, leaning against what appeared at that distance to be the wreckage of a cart or carriage, though clearly one of some Substance given the size and number of the pieces; indeed, Merrum remarked that the figure leant perhaps against the Wreckage of his home, destroyed in some dreadful Storm. As for the man himself, he was perhaps a little under average height and leanly built, though well-muscled, having the corded aspect of one of those sailors whose time at Sea has turned them half into Rope themselves. We agreed that he seemed no threat and eased our Horses forwards. As we approached, it became plain that the man was Sobbing, and in such a heartfelt Manner it seemed there could be little ease for his Pain in all this wide World.
To have the patience of a mountain herd.
- Otherwan expression meaning to be very, very patient indeed.
"A moment", he cried, "that is all! One moment in forty years of watching". And then he returned to his sobbing.
Merrum and I dismounted and approached the figure, but he seemed heedless of us being all at Sea on his grief. At length, Merrum spoke up, asking the fellow who he was and what could Pain him so and whether we might offer him some small Aid. The man looked up, and turned a misty Eye - an Eye I feel sure had been as clear as a hawk's but one Night before - upon us.
"I have lost a sheep from my flock", he said, "and my ship is wrecked".
And then we asked him more and he began his Tale.
[Unfortunately, I've not yet had time to transcribe the rest of Lemnick's letter. As a result, I'm afraid, the tale of this sad man of the mountains will have to wait for another time. With any luck, it will be worth it.]
1. Details of which can be found here.↩
2. I have omitted here a lengthy digression by Lemnick on His Highness's deep and abiding "Interest" and "Knowledge" of "the Fantastickal", partly for length and partly because throwing a "k" into the middle of "fantastical" is perilously close to lobbing one onto the end of "magic" and that way lies Tarot cards and healing crystals]↩