Monday, March 30, 2015

The Haunted Valley


Of the Lost City of Gaxmoor and the World of Aihrde....

The blood was hot, and sticky. It clung to him even as it oozed across his palm and down his wrist. Flinging it off he continued his cutting. The kill must be bled first, to lighten the load if nothing else. Besides, the hunt was long and hard and the boy was hungry. The others could wait. He cleaned his hands in the dirt.

As the beast's warmth spilled into grass he gathered some deadfall from the scant brush that grew in the long narrow valley. Pulling flint and steel he struck a fire in short order. The warmth was inviting, relaxing; for a moment he allowed himself to breath.

The air was fresh, but held the sting of winter, which had only recently released its grasp upon the high mountains. The sky was clear and blue, not a cloud in sight. Ea-vette raced across the heavens, far in the west now, where her trail always led. But the light of her passage remained, lying upon the steep valley walls and the narrow gulch far down to the valley floor. The creek caught her light still and cast it back all the length of its long course. The valley itself was coming alive. Wild grasses were growing thick and fast, bushes and scrub oak clung to rocks. Flowers were beginning to bloom everywhere along the valley walls and the ridgeline. All came alive fast and furious in these high mountain passes.

Turning he used his knife to cut a flank of his kill. Spitting it, he crouched next to the fire and began cooking a bite. Something for the long trip home he told himself.

“May I join you?”

The boy froze. His blood turned cold and the color left his face. There were ghosts in these mountains.

Turning, he saw a man standing not far from him, near his kill, his feet in the blood on the ground.

“I mean you know harm.” He held up his hands, shaking back his tattered cloak to show that he bore no weapons. His knit gloves were old, tattered, without fingers . . . the mark of a bowman the boy thought . . . and stained with all manner of tales. He wore no armor, but a thick wool shirt and pants. His boots were worn too nubs and the sole of his left foot all but gone. He'd been on the road a long time. His hair was long, matted and dirty. We wore no jewelry, nor carried any weapon the boy could see. “Truly boy. I mean you no harm. I saw your fire and smelt the blood and thought I might join you. I am weary and my journey is not yet over.”

The boy rose and crossed over to the kill. He cut off a long strip of flesh and handed it the vagabond. But as he did so he looked around, up the long slope behind the traveler, following it first west and then east. There were no signs of any companions. Nor were there any signs of his passage on the grass behind him.

The man smiled. “You have a good eye, boy. But I am alone. I am always alone. My brothers and sisters cast me out long ago. May I?” He gestured toward the fire.

The boy nodded.

Both sat down then, one across from the other. The meat sizzled over the open flame, popping as the tongues of fire danced over the moist flesh. The boy turned his meat slowly, cooking it all round without burning. But the vagabond had no such patience, turning quickly or lingering too long, the met charred in places and remained raw in others. After a few minutes he tore into the flesh and ate like a hungry wolf. His teeth were white and strong.

“I've been wandering these valleys all the long winter. Its hard work, walking up these jumbled slopes. The gods must have chiseled them for the dwarves, for no man's legs were meant to walk here. And the winter's been hard. Too much snow. Too little game. Why in the world do people live here?”

The boy just watched him.
He didn't answer, for people who passed through the high Bergrucken always asked the same questions. Why do you live here? Why not move south? And so on. His father offered no answer to such questions and he wouldn't either. He kept eating, watching the man's every move.

“You don't talk much I see. It’s a good thing in these strange times. The Winter's Dark is past and the world come to life, both the good and the bad. You can't be too careful.” He finished off his meat and wiped his greasy fingers on his cloak. “Have you anything to drink?”

“No.”

“But you have a cup. It is the way of your people up here is it not. You have a cup that you carry with you so you may drink from the creeks and streams, or melt your own over an open flame like this.”

“I have a cup.”

The vagabond smiled. “But you will not share it.”

“It is rude to ask.”

“Aye, it is. You do your father proud. If ever I see him I'll tell him so. So how's a man to wash down his meal?”

“There is water there, beneath the rock.”

The vagabond followed the boys gesture by crossing over to a large boulder and looking beneath it. There a cool puddle of water sat in the cusp of the stone, clean and pure. “That was well done boy. You offer me the mountain's best, unsullied by dirt or beast.” Using his hands he cupped and drank the water, leaving little for the boy. “I thank you.” Crossing back over he sat down by the fire to warm his hands and feet.

“Why did they cast you out?”

“Eh? Who? Ah, my brothers and sisters.” He smiled, laughing a little. His demeanor changed and he seemed kind and a little sad. “Well you know. Families. Sometimes they don't get along. I made light of many things, joked if you will. And they did not like it. Well, not all of them mind you. One of my brothers always enjoyed my company, even when I caused him trouble . . . which I confess I did once or twice.

“And really they did not cast me out. I misspoke. They are just less inclined to see me, if that makes sense.”

The boy grunted, pulling his meat from the fire at last. He ate it slowly, all the while watching the vagabond, who in turn lay back and looked up at the sky where the first of Wenafar's lights began to glow.

Suddenly the man sat up. “Two good turns deserve another! Least wise that's what they say in the east. So help me if you can.”

The boy started at the man's sudden movement and he went for his knife, but let go as the man began to talk.

“I'm looking for an echo.”

“An echo?” The boy smiled. “Those are easy enough. Climb to that hillock there and shout as you want, and your voice will carry down all the length of this valley. It will come back quick enough and you can have your echo. As many as you please. But be careful, and wait until I am gone, for your like to wake the dead and other things worse besides.”

“Other things? Worse than the dead? You are a hearty people if the rising dead are not the toughest thing you must deal with.”

“We are.”

“But alas, I speak with too gilded tongue, for the echo I seek is not made by any voice of man or . . . god.” He smiled at some inner thought. “But rather the echo of our past, of those who came before. I'm seeking the dwellings of those who dwelt here long ago, if any such remain.”

“There are ruins aplenty in these mountains. Old walls line some ridges. Houses in the valleys. Towers and keeps and what lies beneath and more besides. They are empty and have no wealth . . . but for maybe this echo of yours.”

“Aye, to the untrained eye. But to one such as myself, who makes a habit of studying such things, such places are full of wealth. Treasure for the ages, as it were. Scripts written on walls. Buildings whose design defines a people. You get the idea.”

“I don't. The dead should lie in the ground, for to disturb them is to offer them hope, and risk bringing them back from the Endless Pools, hopeless and forlorn and angry. Least wise that is what the priests say.”

“Priests would know I suppose. But I don't wish to disturb the dead, only remember them.”

The boy looked over at him. He devoured the last of the flesh and wiped his fingers on the grass. Rising he crossed over to another outcrop of rock. Here a small wisp of water bubbled up for a few feet only, before it slipped beneath the ground. He filled his cup before sitting down again.

The vagabond was smiling. He liked this boy.

“There is a place. You are upon its doorstep.” The boy pointed east, down the long valley. “See that creek there, upon the valley floor? Follow it for two days and you'll come to the valley's end. There the water enters a thick patch of wild trees, follow it until it passes beyond them and come to a high cliff. There you'll find an old stone wall, much in ruins, beyond is the haunted plain and the place you seek.”

“The haunted plain?”

“Aye.”

“You speak so causally of a place seemingly haunted.”

“I do not disturb the dead.”

“So tell me of this place. What do you know of it? It’s late in the day and I've another long walk ahead of me, but won't start until the morning.”

“I only a know a little. What my father has told me and what I have heard others tell him. There was a city there once, built by the Anosh, demon lords from the east. They ruled over all the world for many years and built cities to guard their treasures. But they were overthrown by their own folly and eventually devoured by the Winter Dark. The haunted plain has such a city in it, though the demons that ruled it sought to hide it, and the cast sorceries to keep it from the ravages of time and enemy. That is why you cannot see the city during the open day or at night. Only when the sun, Ea-Vette, slips beneath the world or is first rising above can the city be seen. Then, and only then, can you see the shadows of it and the shadows of those that haunt it. It is ruins now, fallen into decay. I've seen them, from the abandoned wall, when the sun is setting.”

“Anosh, eh? They were Aenochians my boy, and men, not demons, ruled by Kings who styled themselves God-Emperors. They cast off the gods in those days and worshiped their own ancestors and the wilderness of their own power.” He smiled as if some distant memory came to him. He soaked in it for a minute or so, before he continued. “Aye. They built towns and cities all the world over and peopled them with their treasure.

“But there was one that stood out for it was, in those days, a favored place of the Traveler, a god of men. He loved that town and its people. Why? I could not tell you. But he did. And they loved him. Godless as they were, he was one that did not seek payment or tribute, and asked nothing of those who turned to him but good tales and a warm bed. He was more man than god in that respect.

“When war consumed the world he was fearful that his beloved town would be destroyed and its people with it. So he sought to protect it and he did. He cast a powerful spell upon its people and the town. He used the blood runes and slowed time. The city, and its people, became immune to time . . . well not immune, but rather set apart from time, for to them it moved much slower, much, much slower. In effect, it removed them from the world, from the Arc of Time, for none could find them, and none could harm them. They lived in another world, another state, unaware of the world around them, unable to even see what had happened. They became ghosts of themselves.

“But time is a wicked master and the Arc will not be long denied, so that slowly the city and its people were ground away. The walls and buildings crumbled, the domes of the temples fell in, the castle's keeps lay abandoned. And her people? They passed on to the Endless Pools.”

The boy stared for a long while. He had heard bits and pieces of this tale over the years, but nothing with such detail. He had seen the ghostly walls, shimmering in the morning's light and
seen, or thought he had seen, figures walking the streets of the long vanished city. But he avoided the place and rarely spoke of it, for like all the wise, he bore no desire to disturb the dead.
“Why do you seek it?”

The vagabond’s eyes lit up and he smiled. He seemed warm and comforting, like an old man who offers you hearth and home. “We must feed our bellies when they are hungry, eh? And the mind must be fed too! Remember that boy . . . nay, I shall not call you boy. Remember that, my friend. Feast upon all things and you'll never be hungry for long.

“But I seek it, for I am curious. I am curious about all things, and this is a mystery I have heard about from time to time, and hadn't the opportunity to explore. In truth I had forgotten about it and not until you pointed out the water did it come back to my mind. Then I thought it and startled you with my jumping about.”

“If you did not come to this high place seeking the Lost City, why did you come here? Surely not to break bread with me?”

“The truth?”

“Aye.” The boy grew aware of himself. Suddenly he could see the world around him far better than before. The grass was dry. The stone cold. A bird called in the distance. He watched the man, seemingly aware of him for the first time.

“The truth is a hard coin friend. Hard to spend, harder still to pay back.” The vagabond stood and looked east down the long valley. “The truth is, I was just passing through. I had no errand, nor design on this day's labor. I had no direction. But there is so much in the wide world that you can't help but stumble upon it if you just . . . walk. So I was and I have.”

“Have what?”

“Stumbled upon it my friend. Stumbled upon you.” Turning, he looked down at the boy. “It isn't all planned you know? They will tell you that it is, but it isn't. The Shepard does not always watch the flock, other things occupy his mind. Sometimes he lives it to chance. And that is where I come in. I am chance.”

The boy knew him then. He saw the world around him, teaming with magic of creation. He saw through the god's eyes, for that god allowed him to. “You are Narrheit. You are of the Val Eahrakun. You are chaos. You are evil.” The blood flowed from his veins and he saw death and madness before him. He thought to flee, but his legs would no longer listen to him.

“Careful. I have named you “friend,” and it is unkind to cast aspirations amongst friends, even in jest.”

“I . . . what . . .”

“I like you. You shared food and water with me. And it was good water, not that there, in the muddy puddle beneath that hassock of grass. But from the shelter of the stone, good and clean.” He smiled. “But it was not the best, was it? You wisely kept that for yourself. For this is your house, isn't it? You built it with your fire and your kill and I intruded. But you welcomed me.”

The world seemed to spin. The boy rose slowly, then sank back down. “Lord . . ..”

“Do not call me that friend. I am Narrheit, one of the First Born, that is all. We are friends, you and I. And I am a good friend to have, for I leave nothing to chance . . . and everything.”

The blood began to flow again and his strength returned. His people were hard, made like the stone they lived upon. Many generations ago they had remained in the mountains as their people wandered south to the Ethvold. Ever since his people had cut their living from the rock they had become inured to the fates. They lived and they died by the will of the mountains. So it came to the boy that the meeting was fated and his fate set before him, for good or ill. He would meet it as his forefathers had, with head held high and standing on his own feet.

Narrheit turned then and sat back down, a vagabond again. No god. Only a man, filled with tales of the deeds of men. And the boy sat back down and listened though for all the long evening he did not speak, nor ask any questions, he only listened. And Narrheit spun yarns, great and small, into the early hours of the morning, until at last the boy dozed and fell asleep, curled up by the dying embers of the fire.

Then and only then did Narrheit rise. Standing over the boy he looked at him for a long while. He did not thing about what to do for no thoughts clouded Narrheit's mind, not musings, no plans or machinations. His was the cruel reaction to circumstance, the overzealous hand, the rage of intemperance, the action without thinking.

“Three good turns you have given me friend. You have fed me. You have given me clean water. You have shown me the way. I shall repay your kindness by sowing this valley with fear and death for all those who come here from the Lost City.”

And so it was.

The boy never returned home. His father found his camp and his kill, half eaten by crows. He found the trail of the kill, the blood where it was drained. He found where the boy slept upon the grasses and the pool of blood where his throat must have lain. And he wept and cursed for he found no body, but knew his son was dead. At last he called on Heth, Crow God and Guide of the Dead, to guide his son to the Stone Fields and keep him from the Endless Pools. But the crows only cawed their confusion for there was no spirit upon the Arc of Time, no spirit to guide.

Soon thereafter the sorcery that held the Lost City in its other world was broken, and evil came to the high Bergrucken Mountains. Creatures great and small crawled from the town, or into it, and they set to plundering all about. But soon they found that crossing the wall that led to the long valley where the boy died was deadly, for a spirit haunted the valley there and it raged its madness upon any evil that followed its length.

Thus the mountain people knew that somehow the boy's spirit remained in the valley and protected them from the evil and chaos that followed after.


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