by Slawomir Rapala
part 1 of 3
Amidst this ancient world of ice,
— from a Lyonese folk song
Snow fell softly from the dark sky, slowly drifting through the air before coming to a halt in the thick and ever-growing layer of down that covered the whole world. Darkness grew with each passing moment, the sun having some time ago disappeared beyond the mountain tops. Perhaps far in the valleys below sunlight still lingered, but here, high up on the barely accessible slopes of the Dreary Mountains, dusk came early and the night, a black mistress, would rule the world until the sun crept back to these heights alongside morning mists.
But even this world of darkness and frost was not void of life, as evidenced by specks of light that appeared by the dozens in a nook of a distant gorge as soon as the sun began to set. Strong alpine winds did not reach this part of Dreary Mountains and for this reason a small tribe of highlanders decided to raise the stilts for their winter homestead here.
Valley-dwellers seldom ventured to these heights for fear of ice, deep snows and treacherous passes, and believed much of this area to be unreachable. Stories of man-eating wolves that traveled in packs numbering by the hundreds and whose unquenched thirst for blood sounded in their vicious howls; tales of giant bears, of snow dragons, and of mythic ice-men who lived in the frozen lakes of the Lyonese mountains, they all further fueled the fears of common folk and added to the mystery that shrouded these lands.
The Lyonese highlanders themselves were said to be a brutish and beastly breed and the very thought of their homesteads, the dreaded cholchoz, sent shivers down the backs of most men. No one entered them save for those destined to be tortured and killed on the altars of their savage mountain gods, and no living man or woman was ever reported to leave their homesteads alive.
The screams of those maimed and sacrificed before the unmoving eyes of the horrible highlands deities often echoed throughout the mountains and turned whole caravans around, forcing them to seek different routes to Biyack and the Viking Realms of Othar and Arynos.
For all these reasons, these parts of the Lyonese ranges were named the Dreary Mountains and no King claimed rule over it. Tax-collectors never visited the highland communities and they were left to rule themselves, much to their content, as they claimed no allegiance to any Kingdom or Realm. The problems of the world were not theirs and they did not wish to be involved in the struggles that claimed other nations.
A vicious civil war, therefore, that had recently engulfed the small State of Lyons was of no concern to the highlanders. Let the valley-dwellers settle their own differences, they agreed at a general meeting held in spring. They may have aided the Lyonese in defeating the Vikings at Knoss some time ago, but much had changed since then. War-lord Vaherra was dead, General Aezubah had disappeared, and Biyack XIV and his ancient and evil dynasty ruled supreme. Hidden in deep valleys, amidst sky-scraping mountains of the North where darkness was queen and frost ruled with an iron fist, the highland cholchoz remained free to make a living off the harsh land.
Each homestead was led by an ataman and it was he who decided where the community would spend the winter and the summer months, where the sheep were to be grazed, how much meat was to be stored and how much to be distributed, and who to war with and for what purpose. An ataman was an indisputable leader of the cholchoz and his orders obeyed without question.
To have a ruthless leader who made the difficult choices and carried them through with the help of other men was the only way for this tough folk to survive in their harsh world. Those who did not conform were banished and left as charity for the fury of nature or the ferociousness of wild life, in which the ranges were abundant.
The position of an ataman carried with it much prestige and rewards, but was a dangerous one as well, as many sought it and the leader was often challenged, even for the most trivial reasons. Seldom did an ataman live to see old age and where he did, one could be sure that he was a man of uncommon skill and talent. The role of an ataman was that of a diplomat and warrior, and few men could be both.
The man who claimed leadership in this particular cholchoz was an aging highlander, who called himself Suna. He was of giant stature and unsurpassed strength, though age had by now somewhat diminished it. Still, however, he held himself straight and he could outmuscle most men in the village.
Under Suna’s leaderships, the cholchoz had experienced much prosperity, as his choice of grazing fields was always correct and his timing for moving from winter to summer homesteads always right. The highlanders did not suffer with him as ataman. His aim was still perfect despite advancing age and he still led hunters into the mountain ranges, following the tracks of alpine rams with an almost supernatural skill. And although challenged on many occasions, Suna was always able to emerge from contests victorious and unscathed.
He seldom called his men for war because he valued their blood and would not waste it for trivial reasons. At those time when he did, however, they could be sure of success because his military skill was unmatched by any other living ataman. Some said that Suna learned the art of war during his long voyages throughout Biyackian lands which he traveled as a young man. He was also rumored to have spent some time in the King’s dungeons for aiding a General in an uprising that almost toppled the ancient dynasty.
Suna himself never talked of the matter as he was a man of few words. Many questioned him about his past, but he only smiled and shook his head, leaving the highlanders free to use their imagination. That they did and in time Suna’s fame grew, especially since he continued to prove himself as ataman. Whatever was said of him, one thing was certain: he was a man who kept many secrets and who possessed many talents.
One of these talents was brewing mead from honey, which he skillfully collected in the spring from the nests of alpine hornets, a particularly vicious breed, and brewed to perfection during long winter evenings. He was presently tasting his last batch, when the door of his hut swung open and a young highlander entered.
“Ataman!” he said as he stomped his feet in an attempt to break the snow away from his long sheep-skin boots.
Suna put the long wooden spoon away and raised his head from the large metal pot hanging over a blazing fire. A flash of impatience appeared on his long face. “Shut the door,” he said, “the heat’s escaping.”
The young man did as he was told.
“What is it?” the ataman questioned.
“A man at the gates. He asks for shelter.”
“From the valleys below.”
Suna gazed at the news-bearer as if he had gone mad. No one could reach the cholchoz from the valleys in the winter months. The passes were glazed over with ice and the snow too deep to travel. And only a madman would venture out in the cold such as it was.
The highlander caught his leader’s gaze and shrugged. “I thought it impossible, too,” he added. “Many creatures wander the mountains in the winter, many pretend to be human to gain entrance to fires and food. I would have shot him on the spot, but he mentioned your name.”
“Rruq and I both took aim, but he then said, ‘Tell your ataman Suna that the bread still tastes like mold and that the cage is too small for its wings. He’ll know who I am’.”
The highlander looked questioningly as Suna. The ataman, in the meantime, turned his back to him and walked over to the hearth. He slowly reached for two clay cups that hung on hooks fixed to the wooden wall and carefully filled them both with hot mead, almost to the edges.
The young gate-keeper remained still, waiting for his ataman to say something. He could not see Suna’s eyes because his back was turned, but they were filling up with tears. The aging highlander wished to hide his weakness from the younger man.
Having quickly collected himself, Suna faced the gate-keeper again. “Send him in!” his voice was firm and strong.
“Ataman?” the highlander hesitated, unsure if he had heard correctly.
“Do it!” Suna commanded.
The door opened and closed again as the young highlander left the hut. The fire continued to blaze cheerfully in the hearth, filling the one-room structure with precious heat. The mead bubbled in the large pot. Suna remained unmoved, with his eyes fixed on the door before him, waiting for the stranger to arrive. The features of his face tightened and it was clear that unhappy thoughts and memories visited. His eyes were distanced.
It took some time, but finally the door opened again and amidst twirling snow and howling wind a tall man entered. He calmly closed the door behind him and leaned against it, separating himself from the fury of nature. The hood of his cloak slipped back and he raised his head, locking his eyes with the ataman’s. The two men gazed at one another for some time.
“Aezubah,” Suna broke the silence after a long moment during which he studied the newcomer as if seeing him for the first time. He was tall and slim, and despite advancing age his body showed no signs of frailty.
The man was clad in a heavy fur cloak that wrapped his whole frame, leaving only the head exposed. His features were tough, as if chiseled in stone, unmoved and merciless. High cheekbones and thin, tightly locked lips revealed a ruthless temperament. A tall forehead suggested a high degree of intelligence, but it was the man’s eyes that most betrayed his character. They were keen and sharp, alive and burning with the intensity of an unbroken spirit.
The man who presently stood before Suna was a warrior as tough as steel, hardened by a thousand battles and wars, an uncommon man whose name was known throughout the world, in turn praised and cursed. A military genius and a hardened criminal who toppled nations and broke the backs of kings, but whose untamed passions left behind a path of destruction, a world of carnage and death.
“Am I still welcome in your cholchoz?” the man asked. His voice was low and calm, but Suna was not deceived by it. Behind this voice was an awesome power, unmatched in its ferociousness by anything found in the natural world.
“You are always welcome here, General,” the ataman said.
A small smile surfaced on Aezubah’s lips as he took his cloak off and put it away. A travel bag he had thus far hanging on his arm, rested beside it. He stomped his feet to warm a little and Suna heard the musical clink of an armor-shirt hidden beneath Aezubah’s thick overcoat. The man had on him wide-legged britches and a pair of riding boots which ended just above his knees. He noted the highlander’s gaze.
“My horse died when we crossed the Serpent’s Tail,” he said in a form of explanation.
“It is a wonder you made it this far,” Suna remarked. “Most men die before they reach the slopes of Dreary Mountains, falling through the ice and snow. Traveling in winter is madness, Aezubah, you should know that.”
“Not when lingering behind means death.”
Suna watched in silence as the newcomer sat by the hearth, held his hands over the fire and then rubbed them together. The ataman rested on the bench as well and handed the General a full cup of mead.
“You have a pursuer?” he asked.
“Yes,” Aezubah took the cup that Suna offered him. The mead was hot and it warmed his hands. “A dangerous foe.”
“Who is it?”
“A demon?” the old highlander looked keenly at the General.
“A demon from the Underworld,” Aezubah added after a moment during which the only sound breaking the silence were the sparks flying out of the blazing fire.
“A shape-shifter or necromancer?”
“A shape-shifter, from what I gather.”
“Why is he after you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you wronged a sorcerer?”
“I haven’t warred with one since Dristan, and that was a long time ago.”
“I don’t know. Demons are a breed of their own. You cannot guess their thoughts.”
“There is always a master behind the demon.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t change anything. For whatever reason, he follows me.”
“How far behind?”
“Two days, maybe less.”
“Have you seen him?”
“He’s a shape-shifter,” Aezubah dismissed the question with a shrug.
“And you don’t have his name?”
The highlander sighed and quietly gazed into the fire for a long time. The mead continued to boil in the pot and the batch, left unattended, and was probably ruined by now.
“I always thought the Underworld was a myth.”
“No more than dragons are.”
“If you had his name,” Suna continued, “maybe then you could find someone who knows him, someone who had battled him and knows how to defeat or banish him. A wizard or a witch.”
“Don’t you think I know?” Aezubah asked with a hint of impatience. “ I don’t have his name, I don’t know what shape he takes or who sent him, if anyone. I don’t know what he wants. All I know is that he’s after me.”
“Did you think he would stop the pursuit in the mountains?”
“No,” the General shook his head. “I didn’t.”
“Then why come here, Aezubah? Why bring a creature of darkness into our small homesteads? We cannot fight him.”
“Neither can I,” Aezubah sipped on the mead. “Perhaps at one time, but today...,” he hesitated and then shook his head. “Age is my enemy today. I cannot defeat a demon.”
“Why then?” Suna raised his head.
“You know why,” the General peered into the man’s eyes.
The old highlander sighed. Rising from the bench, he walked to the corner of the hut where a small pile of dried dung lay. He gathered a few cakes and added them to the fire.
“I’ve always hoped you would leave him in peace,” he said as he sat back down. “Now I know it was only wishful thinking.”
“I saved his life.”
“Yes, and you brought him here, for me to feed and to care for.”
“And you have done it over the years?”
“Is he well?”
“It has been more than fifteen years. He is well, but frustrated after having been hidden for so long. He doesn’t like people all that much now.”
“He’d prefer the company of his kind, but as far as I know, he is the last one.”
“Yes, the time of the dragon is long gone.”
“Only the Yitians remain now.”
The old highlander shrugged and a scowl passed over his face.
“Spoiled caricatures of a pure race,” he remarked and spat into the fire with distaste. “He is a pure dragon, the last of his kind. The Yitians are mere shadows, slithering snakes.”
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala