Wonder on the Mountain

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To read Chapter Two, click here.

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BY ROBERT DIGITALE

In the blackish cave, Roj’s mind beheld a vision. He saw a pale horse with a red mane. The animal advanced with eyes afire. Roj knew it was an omen, but of what? To steady himself, he put a hand on the gritty nubs of the rock wall. At once the vision faded. Once more Roj noticed the sound of rain falling outside, and he remembered his own stallion tethered nearby. The recollection caused him to turn back toward the glare of the cave’s mouth. To his surprise, he saw the silhouette of a man with a drawn sword standing at the entrance. Roj raised a hand to shield his eyes, even as the stranger called out, “Be you MuKierin?”

“Yes, sir,” said Roj. “Are you?”

“I ask the questions, boy. Now step out to your horse.”

The young MuKierin passed the stranger and exited the cave, halting beneath a rock overhang that sheltered them both from a drenching rain. There, Roj took his first good look at the man. He was old and small in stature, with sunken cheeks, a thin gray beard and close-set eyes. His tattered, brown robe was tied with a horsehair belt. Around his neck rested a leather thong with a jagged, black volcanic rock hanging upon it—the sacred stone of Roj’s people. The man’s right hand tightly gripped a small sword. Overall, the stranger seemed a fierce-enough opponent, despite his age and ragged appearance. Roj felt his heart pounding.

“What brings you up the mountain?” the old man demanded. The stranger’s eyes glanced left to Roj’s sorrel stallion standing forlornly in the downpour. Next he scanned to his right for any signs of movement.

“I’m a horse hunter,” said Roj. “I’ve come up here chasing a great horse.”

“What horse?”

“A Spotted Stallion. I’ve tracked him for over two days. He passed up that main trail not long ago. I might have caught him, but the lightning flashed nearby and I thought I’d better find shelter from the rain. Look at me. I’m soaked. Anyway, I got underneath this overhang and thought I smelled Bitter Root cooking inside this cave. So I went inside to have a look.”

The old man took a step back and looked askance. “Rare be the man who can track a prince of horses up this mountain. And never did I hear of such a deed by a boy. Never.”

“I’m not a boy,” said Roj. “I’ve lived twenty years, long enough to see both my parents die of the camp fever. For the last four years I’ve hunted horses in the low country. And I did track that Spotted Stallion up into these mountains.”

The old man gave Roj a stern look. “Indeed, you be a strange one, boy. But still you bring trouble. Big trouble.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“I ask the questions.” The old man brought his glaring face so close that Roj could smell his foul breath—the Bitter Root, all right, just as he had smelled in the cave. “Where be your kinsmen?” the stranger demanded.

“Maybe I don’t have any. How can you ask about my kinsmen when it looks like you mean to slit their throats? If you are MuKierin, please let me go. Let me take my horse and ride away.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed and his weathered face seemed to drain of life. “I be MuKierin,” he whispered slowly. In silence, he looked over the young horse hunter. He beheld a young man of medium height, with a thick brown beard and hair that reached the shoulders of his dark cloak. Beneath his outer garment, he wore a simple cotton shirt and trousers with a horsehair belt tied around his waist. Around his neck rested a leather thong with a sacred black stone upon it.

The hermit put away his sword, folded his arms and stepped closer to his intruder. “Hear me, boy,” he said, lowering his voice and sounding almost fatherly. “You bring trouble. Plenty bad for me. Plenty bad for you. If you be Barsk, you be dead already and then I slap your horse to run back to the Red River. But you be MuKierin, so under my wing you go. You cannot leave me and live. Now we go, unless there be friends. MuKierin friends. Barsk friends do not count.”

Roj nodded and looked away. The sudden encounter with the old man had flustered him. But now he realized that the stranger’s fractured dialect came from the old line of horse hunters, most likely those from the hill country between Kierinswell and Orres. Roj decided to take a chance on this ragged MuKierin. “I have a kinsman, my sister’s man,” he said. “He’s following behind me with our packhorse and a spare mount. He’ll show up soon enough.”

The old man winced at the news, but checked himself and turned away. Stepping out into the rain, he scanned the jagged peaks above the cave. He seemed to be calculating something in his mind. At length he muttered out loud, “The day be long now and the horse be spent…The boy cannot get away…The sky fire be good, but what if there be not enough light left to climb the mountain?”

Roj leaned back against a rock and gently rubbed his beard. He tried his best to look calm. “Please, kinsman,” he called to the stranger. “You and I both belong to the Clan of the Horse. The Stone Woman is your mother as well as mine. Please tell me what sort of trouble is lurking in these hills?”

The old man stepped back to the overhang and pursed his thin lips. “There be evil ones nearby,” he whispered. “Fierce evil ones. They find you, boy, they eat you.”

“What evil ones? Are you telling me a campfire tale for scaring little boys?”

“The old tales hold truth, though the storytellers only guess at the danger. Long, long ago the Stone Woman warn her people to stay off the high places. She say not to pass beyond the foothills above Kierinswell. But the MuKierin trespass here and live, and so the people pay the Stone Woman no heed. In truth, the evil ones play the foxes. At first, they let some come to the high places and live, and so they lure many more here to die. For generations, the horse hunters come up the mountain, but they never go back down. Their bones be trophies here. The people never learn their fate. The dead tell no tales.”

“But who are these evil ones? To which clan do they belong?”

“They be not of the Seven Clans, but of their own kind. They be old as stone and fierce as wolves, great warriors who strike from the caves.”

Roj stared at the stranger, struggling to grasp his words. “But how do you know so much about them? Why haven’t these evil ones eaten you?”

“I be a seeker, boy,” the old man replied, a proud lilt to his voice. “One seeker be good. One seeker and one boy be plenty trouble.”

“What’s a seeker?”

“You ask the Grand Elder in Kierinswell about seekers, boy. There be no answers on the mountain.”

Roj frowned. “Very well, then how will you keep me from getting eaten?”

“You go under my wing. A seeker knows the mountain. We go to someone as fierce as the evil ones. But we go soon, while there be light, or we both be dead.”

They began their wait for Roj’s brother-in-law. Roj used the time to scan the ridges above the cave. The mountains before him rose above a land of high desert, a country of sagebrush valleys and foothills strewn with impenetrable thickets of brush. Water was scarce and found mostly in wells. For good reason the inhabitants called this country the Dry Lands. At least his people, the MuKierin, had the great peaks of the Powder Mountains that rose on the eastern flank of their homeland. The high places had few stands of timber but many cairns and outcroppings of scarred rock. Snow dusted the mountains in autumn and capped them white in winter. For most of the year, the high reaches belonged to the panther and the eagle, or so it seemed.

The old man sat down on a squat slab of rock. From his pouch he removed a patch of bearskin and placed it fur side down upon his knee. In his left hand he grabbed a long, slender piece of the sacred black stone. In his right hand he took the pointed end of a deer antler and used it to peel off dark, glassy flakes. After using the antler to shape an edge of stone, he grabbed a flat piece of gray sandstone and dulled the black edges. Then he repeated the process. After a few minutes he looked up at his young guest. “Where did you find the stallion?” he asked.

“We came upon him two days ago on the edge of the foothills,” Roj said. “It was just the two of us, me and Noli, my brother-in-law. When we saw him, our hunting party was back a ways getting ready to close in on a herd of wild horses. There were about a dozen of us, not a big camp like you see in the South Lands near Orres. Anyway, Noli and I had figured our group would catch a few colts and fillies and sell them in Kierinswell. But then the two of us came over a ridge and saw that stallion loping through the brush. I’ve never seen anything like him. My heart felt like it would burst from all the excitement of watching him slide past us. He was big and he had a creamy white hide and those black markings across his chest and rump. Well, we went right after him. Noli figured he would soon circle back to the herd. Then we could drive him into the ropes of our kinsmen. But he never circled back. He just kept climbing these cursed hills.

“Noli let me do the tracking, and for two days I never lost his trail. I just seemed to be able to sense his path. I’ve never felt anything like it before. Even so, this morning I was ready to turn back. I told Noli that my sister would skin the both of us if we got lost in these mountains. But he just called me a boy and said that we’d never get another chance like this. He’s steadfast when he makes up his mind, and he’s made up his mind to become the first MuKierin to ever catch a Spotted Stallion.”

The hermit noticed that a quirt hung from Roj’s right wrist, while his left hand was covered with a leather wrap that the horse hunters used to prevent rope burns. He rested his hands on his knees and asked, “Boy, you throw left?”

Roj smiled as he looked down at the stained wrap. “Yes, I always have, ever since I first picked up a rope. I swing a hammer with my right hand and I take hold of my knife with it, too. But I have always thrown a rope with my left hand. I guess it makes me a bit odd.”

The old man grunted and once more thrust the antler against the black stone. “I know you be a strange one.”

“What do you mean?”

“Long ago they say you come to me some day. They urge me to save you. I say, ‘How will I know him?’ ‘You will know him,’ they say. So I know you be a strange one. And so you be, a boy who throws left and tracks a great stallion.”

Roj’s throat and ears began to tingle. “Wait, kinsman. Who said I would be coming to you?”

“The fierce ones who do not eat the people. One day they see me cry and they give me the promise. ‘If he comes, bring him to us,’ they say. ‘We will take him under our wing.’”

Roj squinted as the old man went back to fashioning the glassy, veined stone. He stood up and asked himself, Is this old man mad? Has he conjured up this whole story, this tale of fierce ones who will eat you and others who will keep you alive? He seems touched, all right, but what if he is telling the truth? My papa and other men did warn of unknown danger on the high places. Some say a great evil haunts these mountains. All I know is this ground scares me.

Suddenly he recalled the recent vision, though now only from memory. Even so, it dawned on him that the horse he had envisioned was probably the very Spotted Stallion he had been chasing. He strained to remember whether the dream horse had the same creamy white hide and the distinctive black markings. His mental efforts made him feel strangely weak, and his balance began to give way. He wobbled to a nearby boulder and sank to the earth. When he regained his bearings, he looked up to see that the hermit had stopped his stone work and was staring soberly at him. Roj tried to think of some way to explain what he had just experienced. No, just keep your mouth shut, he thought. This old man won’t believe you.

The two men turned their eyes back to the main trail as Roj’s brother-in-law emerged riding a bay stallion and leading a packhorse and a spare mount, a black-faced piebald. As soon as Noli spied Roj near the shadows of the cave, he swung his horse smoothly onto the rocky trace. The rain poured harder and the horses sloshed through puddles until they stopped underneath the rock canopy.

“Greetings, kinsman,” Noli said to the hermit. He pulled off the hood of his cloak and shook out his damp beard and stringy hair. “In all my days I’ve never seen such a rain. I thought I would be sleeping in a puddle all night long.”

“Off the horse,” the old MuKierin retorted. Noli glanced a moment at Roj, then obediently swung a leg over his sheepskin-lined saddle and slipped down. Immediately the old man grabbed the reins and the halter ropes and led all four horses back toward the main trail. As the host disappeared, Noli stepped forward and grinned at his brother-in-law.

“How did you ever manage to find a kinsman in these lonely mountains?” he asked.

“We stumbled on one another,” said Roj.

“Well, at least you found us a dry place to rest from the storm.”

“The old man doesn’t want us to stay here, Noli. He claims that bad ones are lurking nearby who will kill us if they find us. I don’t know if he’s telling the truth or if he’s mad. But he’s dead serious.”

“Bad ones? What bad ones?”

“I don’t know. He calls them old and evil, and says they belong to none of the Seven Clans. And he says some other people live up here that can protect us from the bad ones. He’s offered to take us to them. I know he sounds crazy. Even so, he has me scared. My papa warned me to stay out of these mountains, and now this old man is talking about creatures from some old campfire tale.” Roj debated whether or not to tell Noli that the hermit seemed to be expecting someone in need of rescue. For now he kept silent about that. Instead, he stepped into the downpour and looked back toward the main trail. The path up the mountain disappeared in a thicket of prickly brush. The way down vanished among the rocks. Far beyond the ridge a bolt of lightning flashed against the darkened sky. “What should we do, Noli?” he asked. “Part of me wants to turn around and hurry back to Kierinswell. And yet the old man says we can’t survive without his help.”

“You’re forgetting something,” said Noli. “We don’t want to give up on our stallion. We’ve got to take the upward trail and find our prize.”

“But we can’t just ignore the old man’s warnings.”

“What we can’t ignore is the opportunity of a lifetime. Listen, we have a chance to be the first MuKierin to ever catch a Spotted Stallion. Do you hear me? Only a few men have even seen such an amazing horse, and none have ever claimed one for their own. But we have seen that stallion and soon we can take him. Tell me, what greater thing could you do on this earth? And this storm will help us. In this rain that horse will stop and rest. If we find the right spot amid these canyons, we can rope him before dark. So we’ll rest here a few minutes and then we’ll push ahead.”

The two men grew silent as the old MuKierin returned without their animals. At their feet he threw two horsehair ropes. One was Roj’s black lariat; the other was speckled with the colors of sorrels, grays and bays. “We go now,” he said, pointing to the ropes. “I know these be dear. Take them with you.”

Noli bent down and grabbed the speckled rope. “Yes, they’re dear,” he said. “This was my papa’s rope. And that rope belonged to Roj’s papa before he died. But if we’re leaving, we’ll take our horses, too.”

“No, they go back down the mountain without you.”

“You mean you let them loose?” Noli asked, anger rising in his voice. “Why would you do that? Did the boy here do something to offend you?”

“Those horses be trouble. The bad ones look for you on the trail. We trek over the mountain. No horses.”

“No, by the Stone Woman, we’re going our own way!” Noli insisted. “And we’ll take our horses with us!”

The old man drew his sword. “So be it, boy. Then one of us dies over those horses. You go with me or you fight me. You boys already be plenty trouble. If the evil ones come here, they kill me, too. If you be Barsk, I leave your bones in a pile. If you run, I kill you both so the bad ones leave me be.”

Noli stepped back and reached for the knife on his belt. Roj called out, “Wait, Noli. Please let me say something.” He turned to the hermit and spread out his arms in a sign of peace. “Those horses are all we possess,” he said. “And you want us to just let them wander off?”

“Dead men need no horses. Without me, the evil ones pull you off those horses and split you open. But here you stand in my cave, so now my life be forfeit, too. So I kill you and save my life, or I take you under my wing. No more talk. Choose, Strange One.”

“Strange One?” Noli asked, squinting.

“Very well,” Roj said, putting a hand on his brother-in-law’s shoulder. “Please, Noli, let loose your knife. Let’s not spill any blood here.”

“We need our horses,” Noli replied.

“He has a sword. You have a knife. You can’t take him alone. And I can’t raise an arm against this old man. Listen to him. He speaks in the tongue of the old horse hunters. And he is offering to help us, even though he should know better than to threaten his kinsmen.”

“Two men with knives could take him,” Noli sneered. “But I guess I still have a boy for a partner.” Reluctantly he took his hand off his blade.

Now the old man let loose, shaking a finger at Roj. “I be MuKierin! I watch over MuKierin! You cost me plenty, more than you know, but under my wing you go. You live or you die under my wing. Now we go!”

Roj frowned, first at the old man, next at his brother-in-law. Slowly he reached down and grabbed the remaining rope, the black one. Warily the younger men stepped back from their host. The hermit shifted a few steps away from the entrance but kept himself between the two horse hunters and the main trail. Roj looked out at the downpour and once more felt the chill of damp clothes clinging to his body. Reluctantly, he left the cave’s overhang. Out through the rain the men slogged, moving along a smaller trace and up a rock gully. Roj and Noli led the way under the old man’s direction. They were upward bound, passing among the boulders and scrub brush along the slopes. Soon they crested a ridge. There in the afternoon rain, the high country seemed to open up before them. Lightning strikes had set a score of brush fires along the distant hilltops, the smoke drifting up in great, gray plumes. On a slope below them, the ground smoldered black and grayish-white, the sickly sweet odor of scorched earth rising up to their nostrils. The smoke and the clouds came together and shrouded the pale sky in a dreary light that seemed to spread out forever. To Roj, it appeared too vast a country for a man on foot. But the old man smiled at the scene. “The storm be good,” he muttered. “The bad ones fear the sky fire. For now, they leave the high ground to us.” He kept a defensive stance as he eyed the two younger men. His right hand stayed close to his sword.

Noli drew close to Roj as they hiked ahead up a slope of loose rock. “Get ready to make a break for it,” he whispered. “When we get to the top of this ridge, I’ll go left. You run right and we’ll escape this madman.”

“No, Noli, that’s too risky,” said Roj. “He knows this ground. We don’t. We run and before we have caught the horses and found each other, he will have ambushed one of us, maybe both of us, among these rocks. And if he doesn’t find us, maybe somebody else will.”

“Who? Do you really believe there are bad ones out there? I just think this hermit is crazy. He’s been out here alone for too long.”

“Maybe he is crazy, but we’ve got to keep our wits. He’s the one with the sword. We’ve got to be sure we can both get safely away before we try anything.”

“We can’t wait long,” Noli said. “We need those horses. I doubt we can make it out of these mountains alive without them.” He turned back to sneak a glance at the old MuKierin. The swordsman halted and glared back, touching his hand to the hilt of his sheathed blade. Noli whipped his head around and trudged on.

To read Chapter Two, “A Light From Within,” click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Robert Digitale