Everyone knows the tale of How The Planets Were Tamed. But few know the tale of the mountains, how they roamed across the faces of the planets, feeding from them and causing great destruction as they fed. Fewer still know the tale of those that tracked and trapped the mountains and brought them to heel, those who watch over them to this day.
What they call themselves they have never told. To the common people, to you and to me, they are the Mountainherds or the Stonesailors. They sail their wooden ships over the land, their keels cutting the earth beneath them as they chase and chivvy the mountains themselves, keeping them huddled in their ranges, unmoving. They are an old tribe and long-lived, strong-armed and weatherbeaten, with eyes that can outstare the sun. When the ground trembles or the mountain smokes and groans a mountain herd has failed in her task. And then her ship is broken and she is sent from her people, to wander alone or to fall among outsiders, flotsam from her own wreck.
The work of the Mountainherds is hard. They ride their ships through the ranges and along the valleys, watching, always watching, for the least sign of a mountain’s stirring. When a mountain is restless they will set a guard upon it, never sleeping, for days, for weeks, for months on end, until the stone quiets once more. And while they are at guard, they will occupy themselves, their thoughts, their hands, with craft. And this, they say, is the great pride of the Mountainherds, for among them there are men who can break a heart with a word and women who can capture a sigh in clay.
Every two years, at the festival of The Brother and The Sister, there is a great meeting of the Mountainherds and all those who are free to go ride their ships over the earth to a secret place known only to them, where they compete against each other in their displays of skill, and drink much and eat much and award a carved crown to those with the greatest skill in each craft.
Now there were two Mountainherds, Cherrak and Churst, who had long been rivals. Cherrak was a worker of wood. In every tree, in every branch, in every twig, he could see the forms of birds and animals and his skill was such that, working only with his hands, he could draw out their shapes, guiding the leaping lion and the scuttering mouse from out of the wood and into the net of his art. His works were prized the world over and sat in pride of place among the collections of the mighty.
But, for all Cherrak’s skill, Churst was the true master. He worked the stone known as mountainsbreath, exhaled by the mountains each morning, the Stonesailors say, just as the earth exhales the dew. Where Cherrak’s art could net beasts and birds, Churst could enmesh thoughts. A single carving, no larger than a child’s fist, could move a man to tears or a woman to laughter. Though given away freely by their creator, his works were sold in distant lands for the price of armies and of empires. All who saw Churst’s carvings were moved by them, all except for Cherrak, though Cherrak was Churst’s brother.
Churst and Cherrak spent most of their lives apart, Cherrak having care over some of the lofty peaks of the Tail Massif, in far-off Erst, while Churst had the honour of guarding two great summits within The Spine of the World itself. But every two years they would meet at The Festival of The Brother and The Sister, where each would offer up their finest work for judgment. And every two years Cherrak would stand and watch and murmur in a voice so low only he could hear, while Churst took up the carved crown and placed it on his own brow, as was his right as victor.
It was at one of these festivals that Cherrak met Fraiyke, long-necked and wise-smiling. Her craft was bow-making and her skill large1. Never before had Fraiyke competed at the Feast, for the peaks she guarded were often restless and there were few she could trust to watch them in her place. But this year the mountains were quiet and Fraiyke had come at last to display her skill before the gathered Mountainherds. And, at the same time, all unconscious, she displayed her wisdom and her laughing voice and her strength and her beauty.
And so fortune sat Fraiyke beside Cherrak and soon they were talking easily with each other, sharing their knowledge of the working of wood, of its strengths and subtleties, of the way it warms to a skilful hand. And as they talked, Cherrak began to think not of wood but of flesh and the fire-crackle touch of skin against skin. The flames of his thought flashed in his eyes but in the eyes of Fraiyke he saw only the warmth of friendship. And at this Cherrak was greatly pained.
His pain was only to worsen, for that same night, the Mountainherds awarded the carved crowns that mark out those whose craft exceeded all others, and among those crowned were Churst and Fraiyke, and the pair of them were sat beside each other and as they sat they turned to each other and smiled and their eyes flamed. And, when all the days of the Feast were ended, and all the Mountainherds made their way back to the mountains, the ship of Churst and the ship of Fraiyke sailed side by side.
Cherrak sailed alone and bitterly, discovering only harsh land and foul weather in his long path home to Erst. One night, so violent was the storm that he was forced to anchor within a forest’s depths. As he was making his ship secure, he was disturbed by the sound of something crashing through the trees. Turning, he saw amid the lightning, the shape of a cottage, gliding among the tops of the trees, borne on two enormous, shaggy arms, like the arms of monkeys. And there, framed in the doorway by a thunderbolt, was a shape at once of one woman and of three. And now Cherrak remembered the old tales and knew that he had seen the home of Magra, Thela, Bes. And now the great arms ceased to move, and the cottage became still and the woman in the doorway looked towards Cherrak in the lightning-silvered rain and beckoned towards him.
What occurred between Cherrak and Magra, Thela, Bes none have ever said, but at the end of their time together Cherrak sailed not for Erst but for The Spine of The World, in pursuit of Churst and Fraiyke. This time his journeying was harsher even than before. Great winds battered Cherrak’s ship, heavy rains beat upon its deck and wild tremors rocked the secret ways that it sailed. And such was Cherrak’s constant struggle against the elements that he had no time to think upon the path on which he had resolved, nor to repent of it.
At last, tired, windlashed and rainbeaten, Cherrak came upon the valley where he knew his brother to dwell, and there he found the sun high and the grass green and the breeze soft, and there he saw Churst’s ship and Fraiyke’s ship moored together and he heard the sound of twinned laughter. And such was Cherrak’s exhaustion and such his anger at this pleasant sight that he acted without thought, whispering the secret words that Magra, Thela, Bes had taught him while he resided with her. And then a mount began to stir, and then one more, and soon all the five peaks that surrounded that happy valley and the many peaks beyond them were awaking from their long slumber, intent on wreck and ruin.
And then Cherrak saw Churst and Fraiyke run each to their own ship and set them to sail and heard them call the ancient words of the Mountainherds that can calm the greatest peaks. But the mountains did not heed them, instead they set the earth shivering around them and the ships of Churst and Fraiyke and even Cherrak were tossed as if on a wild sea.
Yet Churst and Fraiyke were unbowed. They set their craft sailing once more, sweeping hither and thither among the angry peaks, their voices ringing ever louder amid the roaring of the mountains’ movement. But, for all the power of the Mountainherds’ secret words, the words of Magra, Thela, Bes were stronger yet and the peaks would not be stilled.
And now, at last, Cherrak began to see what he had done, and that in his jealousy he had doomed not merely Churst but Fraiyke too, and much of the world beyond. And so he too set his ship to sailing that churning valley and he too called out the Mountainherds’ secret words and sought to still that which he had set in motion. And seeing him at last, Churst and Fraiyke called to him in desperation and in thanks and Cherrak knew a great pain in his heart.
Some say they fought the mountains for hours, some for days, some for the turning of seasons into years. All know that in the middle of the struggle, Fraiyke’s ship was swallowed and smashed and Fraiyke herself was dashed between the rocks. And at this both Churst and Cherrak cried out so loud that their voices echoed to each other even amongst the roar of the battle. And such was Cherrak’s cry that Churst knew at once his brother’s feelings for Fraiyke. And it is here that shadow falls over the tale.
How long it was before the other Mountainherds came I do not know. Yet at last they made their way to the roiling sea of rock that had risen at the words of Magra, Thela, Bes and brought all their force and all their voices together and calmed the mountains and set them once more in their proper place. And in the middle of the mountains, in the valley at their very heart, they found much wreckage and, in the middle of the wreckage, a single ship, battered and near broken.
On the ship was a man, cradling a bow and a wooden lion and a sliver of mountainsbreath, carved in such a manner as to make the heart sing. And beside him were two bodies, one of a man and one of a woman, and each was bound in a tapestry new-woven from mountain flowers with a skill beyond even the Mountainherds’ imagining. And the man did not speak when they found him but simply delivered the things which he held into their hands and stepped down from his ship and walked off alone along a path none had seen before nor ever would see again. And whether the man was Churst or Cherrak none can say, for Churst and Cherrak were twins.
1. Even to this day, one of the great prides of the House of Vulpa is one of Fraiyke’s bows, handed down to the eldest child of the line and as strong and true today as it was when Fraiyke’s hand first made it.↩