“We’re all going to die,” he said, over supper.
He’d timed it right, so he thought – lull in the conversation, wind down, baby quiet, and he’d said it matter-of-factly, like he was commenting on the color of the sky, but just then Erain stuck out her elbow and knocked a cup of goat’s milk off the low wooden table. Landed in Ekaits' lap and she jumped up, wiping furiously at her skirts. “Clumsy!”
Hayet snorted, and Ekaits leaned across the little table and fetched him a clip on the brow. The baby fat in Ostad’s lap commenced to making little whining noises and Ostad jiggled it, put her lips on the top of its head and cooed.
He sat, annoyed, as his horrible family collapsed back into their usual chaos. The too-dark hut creaked at a sudden gust of wind and everyone went still for a moment, even the baby; he knocked his fist down on the table and tried again. “We’re all going to die.”
“Yes, father,” Hayet said. The baby, evidently deciding she was unimpressed by the noise, banged her hands on her mother’s thighs. Ostad put her down on the floor. “Everyone dies, and we should live – ”
“Shut up, boy, I didn’t mean it like that.” He adjusted himself up on the ibex-skin pillow, back straight against the woodpile. “Mother Mountain has told me a secret. There are raiders coming from the east and we’re all going to die.”
He paused, hoping for some reaction, but they just stared at him. Except for Ostad, who was preoccupied with the baby trying to climb onto her lap.
Akets broke the silence. “Was this a dream?”
“Of course it was a dream, stupid boy, how else does Mother Mountain talk to anyone.” Mother Mountain didn't talk to anyone else. He could tell they were unconvinced, so he rolled his eyes back into his head to be dramatic and pushed air up from his belly.
“They will come riding on white horses and they will have copper blades the length of a man’s arm and we will die in the snow.”
“Hasn’t snowed for weeks,” Erain said.
He hunched back in his seat, eyes rolling forward, and scowled at her. “Has there never been a spring snow, girl?”
Ekaits put out a hand to calm him.
“It hasn’t snowed much in spring these past three years,” Hayet said. He had arranged himself direct across from the old man. His mother’s knuckles hadn’t made an imprint on him and in the firelight his skin shone. His new wife was back at their hut, tending to her own child – Ekaits liked the child but clashed with the wife, so he’d be bringing back a parcel of dinner for them. "Perhaps your dream means next winter. Perhaps the white horses are snowstorms."
Perhaps it means nothing at all and you're a mad old man hung in the air. Hayet had huge flocks and had, this past moon, brought down a bear - with the help of Aldek and Sorol, yeah, but he'd fired the arrow that pierced its heart. Hayet went up the hills after the goats when his old bones creaked too hard to rouse him. He hadn't said anything yet, but Hayet's wife had the swell of pregnancy around her again. In due time he would be a fine man to lead the valley. In due time.
He glowered at the insubordination, but it was his own fault - he kept his conversations with Mother Mountain tight to his chest, like flakes of gold. He never prophesied. He got up on his creaky legs and fetched his cloak from where it lay.
"Where are you going?" Ekaits was used to him running out, but she liked to know where he walked.
"Talk to Mother Mountain."
"It's night, uncle," Ostad said.
He plucked the small lantern from the table. Jangled it like a taunt and plucked a small oilskin from the row pinned to the wall.
"Father," Hayet said, "there are wolves."
His staff came up too. He had stained it black, so he could trick the night into thinking he was part of it. So nothing would touch him. Akets and Erain made to get up - so did Ostad, baby on her hip or not, but Hayet sat, staring at him.
"Father," he said, slowly, "what else did Mother Mountain say?"
But he had undone the hook of the door and padded out into the dark.
He had done well.
The lantern smacked against his leg, Hayet's insubordination stung, but he had done well.
He grouched, of course, about chasing sheep down from the godsforsaken mountains, about the crick in his joints, about his belly's war with milk, but he had a staff and he would sit by the fire and poke black lines all over his skin until the pain spirits limped off to torture some other man. His brother had died when Akets and Erain were barely babes in Ekaits' belly, and he’d married her quick enough for most people to assume he’d fathered a son. Much as he complained about his brother’s children, they were fine enough. They loved him, they’d given him what he would claim as descendents, they brewed him beer and got the goats down in the valley when his joints complained too much to get him out of bed. Hayet and Akets were fine men; Hayet called him Father, though he had sure been old enough to remember his real father. Ostad had a plump daughter and Erain would, in due time.
He’d always been an old man; that’s what his mother would call him, as she lifted him fussy and screeching to her breast. As a child he’d preferred goats to people – he followed them, limber and quiet, up the ledges, cursed them for going where he couldn’t follow. He’d get lost in the empty valleys, following ibexes, and he’d tear lichens from the rocks and stuff them in his mouth so as not to starve. He would lie flat on his back on the ridges of the mountain and watch the stars reel overhead, and Mother Mountain would speak to him in a voice roughened by gravel and ice.
In his thirteenth winter the lake-men came crawling like ants up the pass, copper spears bright in their hands. He’d sat half-naked in front of his hut as the rest of the village scrambled, for spears, for shelter, and finally his old father had come up to him and kicked him. Why are you sitting there? Get up!
No need, he’d said, and his father wailed, certain his child had gone mad in the face of the lake-men. They hunted the wild goats on the hills, raided the pastures of the valley people, took sisters and daughters and left corpses on the glaciers to be dessicated by the wind.
No need, he said again, and snapped his fingers, and, just like that, Mother Mountain roared. The avalanche buried all the lake-men but one, and he got to his feet and strode to the man and plucked the copper axe from his belt and set it right in the lake-man’s throat.
And so they’d called him shaman, and, when old Burus breathed his last, headman.
“So stupid,” he grumbled, whenever there was a chance to grumble about it. “Did you think I brought down the avalanche? It was Mother Mountain.”
“Yes, headman,” everyone would say, and would silently note that the ewes dropped twins more often than not, that the plague that arced through the lake-men did not climb up to the valley, that the furnaces set up to melt and reshape the dug-up copper never sputtered out. As if it was his doing. As if he’d settled the copper in the mountains – though it must be said that he knew how to breed a twinning ewe and he killed ibexes at full moons to throw the sickness spirits elsewhere.The memory of the avalanche had become distant and warped. He’d killed a battalion of lake-men by magic, they’d say, which was stupid. He’d killed a battalion of lake-men but that was after he married Ekaits, right before the twins were born – he led a raid down the pass and plundered like a vulture, his axe splitting heads.
He’d grow tired of their fawning misunderstandings – if he could bring down avalanches, he could resurrect the dead, right? Idiots. And yet, now, they would not give him truck for prophecy. He’d trundle up the mountain away from the demands of his wretched people, and he did that now, hooking his walking-stick in the soft ground. Spring green gave way to bare rock and then ice, eternal ice; when Mother Mountain birthed her children the unfeeling blackness of Night say caught winter from the specks of ice glittering in the sky, froze her breast milk as it flowed – but the sun, friendly woman she was, made it melt again, drained it into the lake down the pass, and there the first ones had browsed and raised their herds. He found a suitable patch of snow and lay down. If he pushed his head into the snow where it was thin above the rock, Mother Mountain would show him herself. Thin from a hard pregnancy, wrapped in wild ibex skins, shivering in the shadow of the night. She sat down beside him and shifted his head into her lap. She strung his fading hair through her fingers. He felt the mild sting of her reproach.
“I was so alone,” she said – she’d say this, whenever he fought with his family. He pushed his head back in her lap. Her dress had not half the embroidery on Ekaits’ simplest, and the bearfur cloak she twined about him was badly cured and smelled faintly of rot. “You’re lucky, my man, to be so surrounded by family.”
He harrumphed. “By rights, it’s not mine.”
She sighed. “And so thought he…”
Night, even more convinced of her infidelity now that Moon’s sister had saved her from mastitis and death, poured water from the lake all over her and left her in the summit in the darkest of winter. The ice entombed her and she curled up atop the mountain until she freed one hand and with it brought down the enemies of the only one who’d had ears to listen.
“And you must make them listen now.”
“They won’t. Ungrateful children.”
She pulled him up to sit next to her. Under night sky frightened her. He took the stone lamp and fed it with the oil from the skin. He hadn’t brought much; he should go back down the mountain soon. Ekaits would have honey cakes.
“The mountain is forever,” she said, “but I am not. You, old man, are not. But your wisdom could be.”
“It’s Hayet.” He folded the musty bearskin over his head. “He loves me but he thinks I’m too old to make sense.”
“You’re not old.”
He flung out his arm, all speckled as it was with black tattoos. She, ageless, murdered before she reached her twentieth year, caught his arm and rubbed his sore elbow. Her hands were cool and moist.
Men on white horses, bannered for their god - they thought the Sun was a man, stuck in a rock, freed by another man smashing it open. They came not from mountains but from rolling grassy steppe, such as he'd never seen.
"It's their god, is the problem," she sighed. She stretched out her arm, and he could see that even as solid as she was she was transluscent. "He's - different."
"All gods are the same. All men are the same."
"I'm of this mountain," she corrected, "and my bones are in the mountain chain, but that's it. I don't bleed out into the earth. I can barely call down to the lake-men."
The lake-men did not call her Mother Mountain - they hated her, feared her, but their fear had a tinge of respect, and they burned effigies to her all the same. You hated the endless Night but you killed an ibex for it anyway.
"They don't understand who I am and they hate you. Old Man of the Mountain," she said. Her smile flickered for an instant and then broke away. "But these men, coming from the hills - "
Their god, he surmised, was a god that devoured the world. That blazed everywhere. They paid not attention to the little gods in the valleys who maybe did not spin the stars but helped the people when they left gifts - all of those, consumed by the great god, the Tespadur. He-Who-Was-The-Sun.
"And he is coming into his glory," she intoned. Her eyes had gone white.
"When is he coming?" The dream had been unclear. He'd felt blood in the spring snows, the future running past, but nothing more.
She shook her head, impatient. Her limp hair dusted his shoulders. "They're coming. You must stop them. You must turn the tide against them."
He thought of his days down raiding the lake-men, of coming back home, weighted with copper, to Ekaits. He'd said in his mind a dedication, gave up the glory of the raid to the mountain, and his piety bought an easy birth and two healthy children.
"I feel a dying coming to this mountain," she said. She looked up at the sky and bared her teeth at her estranged husband. "Blood and arrows. You are my only believer. You will stir up belief so I can have the power to fight this creeping monster. You will save my people."
"Gladly," he said, and kissed the upturned palm of her hand.
The lamp flickered out. He felt her weight against him for a moment, smelled her scent, and then she was gone, and the bearskin gone with her. He'd climbed the mountain enough in the daylight to know how to scrabble down it at night.
He danced. Sang. In the middle of the valley, the dip equidistant between the rise of hills, directly in the shadow of Mother Mountain. Before the sun had risen he'd picked the best ewe from his flock and killed her. Her bloodied skin draped around his shoulders, her blood wet in his hands, the best parts of her burning and spitting. He could feel Mother Mountain - as the sheep's flesh turned to ash she took it raw into her hands and ate it to stave against the cold.
The people of the valley came out to watch him. Nodded their approval, if they were old enough; children pressed their cheeks against their mothers' thighs and tried not to catch his eye. He ululated and purred, and chanted, chanted, til his throat burned raw - They are coming from the east, on white horses, riding the sun. Trust in Mother Mountain. Glory in her.
Only Hayet seemed unmoved. He caught him out of the corner of his eye. Hayet had spent the morning over the smelters but had come out to see his father's theatrics. Arms crossed over his chest. He had a scar on his forearm from where the bear had sought to escape its fate. He watched, and then turned and disappeared back into the press of huts.
Hayet came down the dip at noon with a sackful of water and offered it. He waved it away and ululated towards the bright blue sky.
"Father," Hayet said. "Father - "
But he waved him away, and the crowd surrounded pulled him back, muttering about his respect. They turned towards the mountain, shining in the spring sun, greened from the watering of winter, and Mother Mountain caught their gazes in her hands and sang out. A gout of water from melting pack-ice met up with the mountain streams.
"She's listening," he cried, and the crowd cooed.
He did not notice Hayet slipping away.
"No deaths," he called, up to Mother Mountain. Every family in the valley had come forward with something for the goddess - copper axeheads, beads taken from raids on the lake-men. Gold flakes. The first lambs. "Are you feeling better, my dear?"
Mother Mountain still had the thinness of a hard pregnancy, a hard winter, but she had washed her limp hair in the mountain streams and her eyes flashed. She had blood near her mouth from eating lambhearts raw. She kissed him on his hairy cheek. "Much."
Spring in the valley had come quick this year and it was quickened again by the Mother. She did not need him to lug oilskins up to where the snow still sat - she could make her own fire. He sat next to her and when he did the years fell off and he was fresh and limber as the day he'd come into the bridal hut for beautiful Ekaits. She was more beautiful than Ekaits had ever been, her slate eyes sharp, her lips full. When he kissed her this time it was with the fullness of a lover.
After, they both of them came down into the valley - it was dark, but for the fires of the smelter across the way. Hayet working, making blades, but he looked west instead of east, he did. West, down to the lake.
"They don't matter anymore," she said. She curled her fingers round his wrist and her grip was tighter than he'd ever known it. "They won't dare fight me. When the men on horses come, they'll join with the valley, and they will glory in me. And in you."
He grunted, secretly pleased.
"But your son - "
"My nephew - "
"Your nephew." She sighed. "It's like having a pebble in a shoe, a rotten fruit on the tree. Such a small thing and you notice it all the more."
"He's always been stubborn."
"I can't have anything less than a united front," she said.
"I'll talk to him."
"He's - you must take him up the mountain." She seemed embarrassed. She pinched her fingers around his wrist ever tighter. "There are three hundred and thirty-six people in this valley, my love."
"Thirty-six," she said, and looked away.
It took a moment. He wanted to jerk his hand from her grip but did not.
"Three hundred and thirty six," she repeated, softly, "and the hundred and seventeen down on the lakeshore..."
"Would you have me pour water on him and leave him on the summit? The father of my grandchildren? Of my legacy?"
"You will have no legacy if I am too weak to fight when the white horses come." She caressed his cheek. "And you have another son...and daughters...and grandnieces. Grandnephews, my sweet, and they will sing praises of your wisdom, and they will say, look at the strength of this man who brought his son up to the summit."
He wanted to tear away from her but could not. Hayet as a toddler holding on to his finger as they crunched through the snow to find the buried food caches. Hayet a child milking goats and washing sheepwool. Hayet the young man learning how to snare birds, breeding his first flocks, Hayet bringing his lovely bride to the hut he had built himself in the shadow of his father-uncle's stone-ringed house...
She didn't say anything more. Hung around his neck, though, and he could hear her heart beating. Slow, faint, steady. He had never heard that before. Hooves in the distance when he put his lips to her neck. Flashing sun. Blood.
He sighed, and made plans.
The people of the valley rarely needed to hunt anything larger than birds or ibexes, but the spring bears were coming out, and if unchecked they could wander into the pastures and wreak havoc. He'd claimed to have spotted one coming too close to the herds, claimed it denned up the mountain, and Hayet came with him, armed with arrows and a short spear. He had his copper axe, he had a copper dagger and a sling, and his feet sank in the wet, semi-melted snow as they went higher and higher.
Hayet had been quiet, even as they went far past where a bear might den, even as they came up to the glacier that made a bowl dent in the mountain. The summit was far and farther up. The valley below was antlike.
"Stop to eat," he offered, when they came to a collection of rocks that could serve as a table. He had taken two water-skins, one for him, one for Hayet, filled them both with berry wine, but Hayet's, the one with the nick at the edge, Hayet's had a dark stew in it. He'd stayed up late last night brewing it. Hayet might notice the sharpness but then he'd go back to climbing up the mountain, and then his eyes would droop, his legs would bow, and he would collapse down in the snow to sleep, and then. "To drink. It's been a long walk."
Hayet pointed over his shoulder, and he turned, expecting, somehow, a real bear. Just a bird, flickering in the sky. He shrugged and turned back and there was Hayet with his bow strung up and an arrow pointed at his heart.
"I have dreams too," Hayet said. He was calm, or he might have been, if not for his chattering teeth. "I have dreams too, father, about the coming of the horses..."
"Hayet - "
"The sun god - "
"Hayet - "
"It's not enough, Father, what you're doing. Surely you can tell. Everyone - " Hayet had tears running down his face, whipped up by the cold or coming from within, he could not tell. "Everyone could burn all they had for Mother, and it wouldn't be enough. Do you know why?"
He had taken the sack of Hayet's wine and drank of it, perhaps. He could not be faced with an arrow, not with Mother Mountain so eager for him.
"Because," Hayet said, soft and calming, like he was talking to his toddler child. "Because it isn't really giving back, you know. Mother Mountain gave her your wisdom, and...she needs everything, you know. She needs you to give it back."
He turned to run, but the arrow was like a lightning bolt. It pushed him forwards, and he hit his head on the rocks. He thought to stand up but could not. His legs stiff in the snow.
"Not like that," came a familiar voice. She knelt beside him and caressed the back of his head. Hayet had dropped to his knees and was weeping, perhaps in disbelief. "Oh, my love. Thank you. Thank you."
She pulled the arrow out of his back. Most of it. The arrowhead slid out and then caught, and in the pulling it tore another vein. He burbled into the snow.
"You've saved me," she said, into his ear. "You've set me free. You're Father Mountain now, my love."
Set her free?
"It's been thousands of years but I'm strong enough now," she said, her breath tickling his ear. "I'm strong enough now to break into the next world."
And as he watched, through blurry eyes, she cut a hole in the air and disappeared through it. The power she'd given him over the years snapped away from his body and now he was nothing, nothing, an old man lying in the snow. He coughed a gout of red and went still, still, still.
Hayet stood. She'd told him not to touch the body because the spirit of the recent dead could be wicked. He'd found her, her corpse, an ugly brown mummy dried up in a flat dress, scars of recent pregnancy on it, he'd found it years ago and he burned it at her request. That had only half freed her, but that was all right, they'd figured out how to do it all the way. Her people, the long-ago ones, they'd brought her up to replace the previous mountain spirit, as they had done every ten, twenty years, but then they hadn't replaced her, and she'd been stuck on the summit ever since.
He'd replace his father. He swore it. When his own son was grown, he'd stagger up the mountain, no falsities needed, and he'd find the copper axe on this still-warm corpse, and he'd install himself as the valley's protector. He swore it.
"Goodbye, father," he said, to the angry spirits flickering in the air, and he went back down the mountain.
The men on white horses came a week later.
They did not spare anyone.