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Goldless

Chapter Text

’Oh, great mountain spirit, protect me from the greedy emperor – from all these desirous humans!’ he cried in the winter storm, tears dripping onto his frost-bitten cheeks,” he heard her say with captivating ardour.

The tousle-haired hunter – a young man, merely seventeen years of age – walked up to the porch of the wooden and rundown orphanage and listened to his older sister inside the house. She was telling an old tale to the children, painting history with words in the younglings’ minds of the deity supposedly living on the mountain, which loomed over their little village at its base. Her voice poured out of the old sliding door that stood wide open to let the late summer’s evening air in and clear away the summer heat.

Before doing anything else, he set the two dead rabbits hanging around his neck down beneath the porch, to hide their bloody corpses from the children’s eyes. Then, he peered into the large room through the open door and saw the children gathered around his sister in the company of candlelight that lit up the room. All of them were sitting on the woven straw mats that needed replacement since a long time ago, all meagre looking and dressed in worn clothes, yet happy nonetheless. They cooed in awe and their storyteller continued the story about the mysterious deity; the legend told about the deity’s escape from their master, running away to leave the nation of Vers in financial turmoil. Everything else, like the deity’s earlier history or personality, stayed unknown.

“The wind pulled at his fine silk, and the jewels and gold that covered him jingled as if they played a sad and muffled song. He looked up at the majestic top of the peaceful mountain before him, which was known for its bare valleys and slopes.” She reached up toward the ceiling in a dramatic manner, stretching her arms up like begging a god for mercy. “‘In exchange, I shall make your empty hills and valleys thrive with life of all kinds and make you to the finest of mountains!’ he shouted, begging to be saved.”

After putting down the weaved basket from his back, with it landing with an audible thud against the wooden porch, the children looked up at him as they noticed his company, but – after confirming the hunter’s presence – they turned their little heads to look at Yuki again. The basket contained fruits, herbs, eatable roots and nuts he had found in the forest during his hunt, and he had to wait for the children to go to bed before he could sort them; flaunting food in front of their hungry eyes was cruel. Instead, he sat down on the edge of the porch and looked up at the mountain towering over the forsaken little village while listening to his sister’s story:

“The mountain heard him,” the woman said and made a small but dramatic pause, before continuing: “It allowed him to climb its rocky walls to the snow covered top, and the god was never seen again. Just like that, during that fateful night, he had discarded all traces of his master and cut his ties to the human world, because now, finally – after two-hundred years of exhausting servitude – he was free. That same evening, the peaceful mountain became deadly, because, now, it protected the god with frightening power.”

The children silently cheered for the god, happy for him to finally be free.

A god…’ Inaho thought while staring at the mountain where this god was supposed to live.

Yuki told the children the story merely to teach them new words and train their ability to focus, but even if he knew that, he stared at the mountain with eyes slightly narrowing. A hot and uncomfortable lump in his chest brewed, letting him know he was angry at the myth for even existing, as it did them no good in their current situation.

It’s just a myth.’ He threw a glance over his shoulder at the children and his sister. The oldest child, Rayet, sat in a corner with arms folded over her chest in protest. She was old enough to know what he knew: ‘It won’t save us from starving.’

“And then what did the god do?” a little girl called Nina asked with a shrill voice that was yet to mature. Her little, round face was decorated by large round eyes and a mouth agape, just like her comrades around her. She was six years old but wore a large and torn tunic that had been patched many times with scraps of fabric from old and unsalvageable clothes, from which slender arms and legs pokes out – looking painfully frail.

“Oh!” Yuki said and smiled with glittering eyes despite the dark circles caused by malnourishment beneath them, making her look older than her age. “The mysterious god wandered across the mountain for several years and planted life where he believed it would bloom. That is why,” she told the children and turned her eyes up toward the great mountain neighbouring their poor little village of Shinawara, meeting her brother’s eyes briefly. The children followed her example and looked up at the mountain through the open porch door. “Our ancestors since two hundred years built our village here where the melted water from the mountain top flowed through the mountain’s blooming areas and down to our old river here in the valley,” she said and got a begging look in her eyes while looking at the mountain, and continued less brightly: “The water brought with it nourishment for our land, where crops grew farther than the eye could see.”

“But why did the river dry and disappear?” another child named Calm asked curiously – he, too, wearing a worn tunic. He was, along with Nina, a child to a foreign couple who had fled the war in their nation and found their way to Shinawara, where they had been in hiding from prosecution of being illegal immigrants. Calm’s and Nina’s family had lived in the same house in the village, but sickness had taken the children’s parents two winters ago. “Is the god and mountain angry at us?” he then wondered, having a mix of sadness and frustration in his little voice.

Yuki gave him a wry smile.

“I guess the mountain became angry at our mothers and fathers and their parents for having been spoiled by the fruitful crops and for not showing the mountain the gratitude it deserved,” she said and explained: “An earthquake shook our land fifty years ago and the water stopped flowing from the mountain.”

“Is the god still up there?” the soon seven-year-old child Inko wondered, and Inaho’s sister chuckled and stood up from the floor where they had been sitting among the flickering candles.

“I believe he is,” she answered. “I heard a farmer from our neighbouring village was saved by him ten years ago when he was desperately trying to take a detour to a market in the capital city. He was on a journey to sell his seeds of beautiful flowers to the rich, but he was caught in a snowstorm on his way down from the mountain and got lost. The god saved him and pitied him, and turned the farmer’s flower seeds into gold.”

“Can’t the god turn our seeds into gold so we can buy food? They won’t grow anyway and I’m hungry,” little Okisuke complained with a growling stomach and then gasped like he was out of breath.

The boy was the frailest of them all; he was showing alarming signs of malnourishment, with a lustreless skin and a face hauntingly sallow. The tiny arms and legs were thin, making him too weak to walk on his own and, each time he spoke, he had to catch his breath for a while after.

“Now, now,” Yuki said and reached down to pick up Okisuke from the floor, before she cocked her head toward the children’s bedroom, to let the children know it was bedtime. “Perhaps the god will hear our hungry stomachs and pity us, too, one day, but right now you runts should get some shuteye.”

The children groaned from the boring task of going to bed, but they obeyed Yuki’s command after blowing out the candles and followed her deeper into the house.

Inaho watched them go and began unpacking the basket once the children disappeared from view. He put all the findings onto the porch and sorted them out into nice heaps while listening to the children make a noise about them having to go to sleep. Once Yuki returned with wooden bowls stacked up in her hands, she set them down in front of her brother, and Inaho began cleaning the findings from uneatable parts and filled the bowls slowly. Yuki lit up a fire in the fireplace in the yard and sat down to skin the hunted animals – a task she did each night after her brother had returned with prey.

“So, how did it go?” she asked quietly with a serious tone to her voice, completely different to how she spoke with the children. Now, she spoke to a fellow adult that was just as aware as she of how serious their situation was.

“The area of dead forest has gotten bigger since last month,” Inaho answered concerned. “The animals are also fleeing; there’s not enough food for them and us.”

“You had to go far today?”

“All the way to the edge of the forest,” the young man answered and washed a couple of root vegetables in the bucket of rainwater he had carried to the orphanage that morning, before heading out into the forest to hunt. “If I go any further, the Versian soldiers might notice me and force me to pay toll for hunting on the emperor’s land.”

Financial crisis had struck the nation, with the previous emperor taking desperate measures to fill the treasury. This in turn had led to a food shortage, for the previous emperor had attempted to fill the treasury with high taxes on everything concerning trade and income. Even farmers had not been spared from the high taxes, which had resulted in agricultural decline. Less people could afford being farmers, and less people could pay for the increasing food costs. Now, to prevent the life in the forests from being depleted, the current emperor had been forced to regulate the hunting grounds with toll and the kills with taxes.

A nationwide famine had settled in Vers Empire, leaving no one unaffected.

Shinawara village lay in a forest that had been regulated with toll and taxes, but the authorities had shown no interest in the dying forest and had therefore left the village to die without concern for the villagers who were to die with it. It had probably been forgotten by now; the emperor’s soldiers never patrolled the forest, which allowed Inaho to hunt freely as long as he stayed within the shadows of the trees.

“And they’ll kill you because we don’t have any money to pay the toll,” his sister mumbled and fell into a frustrated silence.

All Inaho could hear was the knife carving through the furry skins and the fire crackling and hissing. When he looked up at her, she had tears in her eyes. The graveness of their situation was painfully clear in them, and she tried to bravely hold back her tears.

“The kids are starving to death,” she said quietly after a while of silence and snivelled, not minding the blood soaking her hands. She was hardened from years of experience of skinning hunted animals, but to watch the children grow thinner for each day pulled at her heartstrings every time she mulled over their wellbeing. Lately, that was all she could do; to worry about the children, as it had become too palpable what fate they were facing. “I pray each night little Okisuke will wake up the next morning; he’s so weak that he’s constantly gasping for air,” she then whispered and took a shaky breath. “We have to do something; there must be something we can sell to get money.”

The starvation in their village was serious.

In the past, Vers Empire had been a rich nation supposedly blessed by the god now living on the mountain. Back then, because of the empire’s superiority in military numbers and weaponry, they had been able to lead a successful war against several nations, claimed them beneath their banner and forced the people to conform to the empire’s laws. Once the god had turned his back on the nation for a reason no one knew, Vers’ wealth had begun to wane. Therefore, the increased taxes had another function: to maintain the military the empire had once been so proud of. Otherwise, nations, which Vers had claimed during the war centuries ago, risked starting a revolt, to reclaim their independence once learning Vers’ military was weakened. The emperor had done what he could, but – according to rumours Inaho had heard – threats from revolutionists and surrounding nations were already increasing.

The area where Inaho lived together with his sister and the orphans had been a thriving village for two and-a-half centuries. As many as a thousand villagers had resided in the densely-built area, before a devastating earthquake had blocked the passage to the water flowing from the mountain. First, their fields had stopped growing. Then the surrounding and young forest had begun to die and dry out. Now, death was spreading rapidly to the forest borders, condemning the village to an unavoidable end.

Before Shinawara had become a ghostly area, the villagers had made several attempts to find the blockage and clear the path for the enriched water. Many women and men had paid with their lives as the blockage had turned out to be high up on one of the most dangerous slopes. Two of these brave individuals had been Inaho’s and Yuki’s parents, who both had perished during a try to save their children’s home.

The mountain was treacherous to climb, and the villagers had decided to adapt to the new poorer conditions after many wives and husbands had been widowed. That adaption had, however, turned out to be destructive, for the land continued to die. Everyone who could afford to flee to the larger cities had done so, abandoning the remaining villagers to their fate – and rightfully so.

What had been left had been those who were too poor to move, the elderly and the orphans. The village's one-thousand inhabitants had decreased into less than a hundred. The adults tried to help the children and elderly by venturing deeper and deeper into the forest to gather whatever eatables they could find, but it was an unsustainable effort, for the forest continued dying – slowly but steadily.

Inaho was one of those who walked the furthest each day to find food, and he had noticed the decline of eatable vegetation and hunting prey better than anyone. He felt alarmed with the constantly worsening situation, for he knew something had to be done as soon as possible before the village would become a graveyard. Some elderly already refused food, sacrificing themselves to give the children their portions, and others ventured out into the forest and never returned. Inaho would later – if he was unlucky – stumble over their corpses lying deep in the forest.

“I could go to the nearest city and-“ Yuki began, but Inaho interrupted her immediately, knowing her well enough to hear in the tone of her voice that she was about to say something he had already rejected several times before:

“You will not end up like a streetwalker; you know you’ll get sick from that. We’ve lost enough people; we cannot lose you too,” he said with his usual stolid tone, uncoloured by his frustration that was born from worry.

It was impossible to argue about it with him, and Yuki knew this.

“I don’t want to either…” she whispered with a voice thick from sorrow. “… but what else can we do?”

Inaho did not answer, as there was no need to argue with her; he knew an argument would start if he decided to remind her she had more important assets than her womanhood. Thankfully, Yuki let it pass and finished skinning the first rabbit.

“Do you think the god is really up there?” she asked softly after they had been silent for a while. She made a pause in skinning the second animal and looked up at the dark mountain. Night was falling, making the shadows on the mountain deeper. “Do you think the story about the traveller ten years ago is true?”

“It’s nothing but superstition,” Inaho answered, feeling the hot lump brew in his chest once again, and continued cleaning and sorting the vegetables and fruits before portioning them up for the children. “Praying to a god hasn’t helped to fill the stomachs of the children or elderly, neither has it saved any lives.”

“I guess,” Yuki sighed with slumped shoulders, lowering her eyes to stare at the dancing flames. She hissed the moment a spark flew onto her dress, burning another hole on the already worn skirt. To prevent the hole from getting larger she quickly brushed the spark away, and continued: “But what if it’s true?” She turned her eyes to the mountain once more. “There’s a reason why the myth is so young, right? It only came to be about three centuries ago.”

“Myths are born each day and old ones die as quickly. They merely serve to explain real phenomenon with superstitious stories to give them some purpose,” the brunet answered, clearly rejecting any religious or spiritual belief as he found it a waste of time to pray for food when people kept starving. “We shouldn’t waste our energy or time on such things; we need to focus on facing our reality and find a way to earn enough money so we can buy food.”

“Spoken like a true adult…” his sister grumbled, which made Inaho feel the responsibility hanging heavily on his shoulders; he was a young man who was not experienced enough to find a solution to their problem.

With those words ending their conversation, the siblings prepared the next day’s food in mutual silence, both perfectly aware of their despairing situation.

 

In the morning, the seven-year-old Okisuke was found sleeping in an eternal sleep, not waking from his friend Inko’s brusque shakings and loud cries. The house was deathly silent in the morning, devoid of the usual running steps and laughter and cries of the orphans, for a heavy and intense hollowness rested in the rooms were the steps of a child was now missing.

Yuki gathered the children, who once again were forced to part with a friend, in the backyard while Inaho carried the little body that hung limply in his arms into the forest – without being respectfully covered as the orphanage had no fabric to spare even for a child’s corpse. There he buried the boy among the other villagers who had also departed to the next world and, once he announced the grave was ready, all the remaining villagers came to say their farewells.

While Inaho stood there and watched the villagers grieve over the lost life of yet another precious child, he listened to the silently crying children’s stomachs grumble from hunger. They held each other’s hands and wept over their friend, who had gone away to someplace better, standing on thin legs that shook beneath their weight. The sight was painful and distressing along with the grief of losing yet another child who was supposed to get a better chance in life than this. Dreadfully, Inaho knew that if he did nothing to fix this, all the children would be dead when winter came – and the hollowness would swallow them all.

“Here you go, Okojo,” Calm said and offered his breakfast – a handful of nuts and bitter berries – to the boy beneath the ground by placing them on the grave. “You don’t have to go hungry anymore,” he then said and bravely gritted his teeth to bite tears back while holding Nina’s hand tightly.

When the children were not looking, Inaho had to gather the offering and put the berries and nuts back into the bowls for the children to eat later that night. Nothing was sacred anymore, not even the offerings to the departed.

We have come as far as we can; we can’t keep going like this,’ he thought and turned his eyes to the mountain. ‘A god…’ he then thought and felt a strange form of desperation grip his heart, which made him feel slightly delusional.

The thought held his heart hostage, and he squeezed his hands into fists from determination. The children’s last hope of surviving was to rely on a ridiculous superstition. Without the government’s aid and with the forest dying around them, he knew this was his last option; he had tried everything else thus far. The village had reached a dead end and there was no other way of keeping the residents alive:

If you’re up there, I will find you and ask for your help. If you refuse, I’ll capture you,’ he swore and made up his mind while staring at the mountain, knowing full well it was nothing but ridiculous to hunt a god.

And yet – just like his sister had said the evening before – what else could they do when they had already tried everything? If there was a chance the story about the lost traveller was true, then perhaps Shinawara could be saved as well?

By the time the children had said their goodbyes to the forever-resting Okisuke and returned to the orphanage to recover from the difficult morning, Inaho had already finished his plan to climb the mountain and search for the village’s last hope. When he shared this plan with his sister, Yuki took him away from the children's ears and looked at him with great worry.

“Are you insane?!” she asked with a whisper and held his shoulders firmly. “You’ll die trying to climb that accursed rock!”

“I’ll die soon enough anyway, and if I won’t try solving our situation, the entire village will perish,” he told her and looked her in the eyes without blinking, to show her his resolution.

He knew she was aware of his stubbornness that was just as solid as the mountain he was to climb; she could not budge his decisions without the aid of an almighty power. Inaho was known for his determined nature, and no one else knew about his tenaciousness better than his sister. That was why he was one of those who walked the furthest every day, and that was why he could convince himself to rely on the hope of finding this god he had heard about all his life.

Now, however, hopelessness looked back at him as the sister stared at her brother with pleading eyes.

“And without you to hunt and gather food, we’ll perish within just a couple of weeks,” Yuki scolded and looked around to make sure no child was close by to listen to the siblings argue. “Listen,” she then said and looked back to her brother. “You’re the only one keeping us alive with your hunting skills and knowledge of the area; no one knows the forest better than you. You can’t go!”

When Inaho had been young and had lived in the same orphanage he and his sister maintained now, he had been a victim of bullies. To escape their harsh games, he had sought shelter in the forest and hid so deeply among the trees his tormentors had not dared to follow. Because of this, he had gotten to know the forest well – like he was a creature of the forestry rather than a child of the village.

Inaho knew that what his sister said was true: He was a great asset in keeping the village alive and if he died on the mountain the life in the village would disappear in a faster pace than it already was.

How desperate are we to trust the myths and legends of a deity we have only heard about but never seen?’ he asked himself. ‘But if what Yuki said about the traveller from ten years ago is true, then there might be a chance the god will help us, too – if the god exists.

Were gods not intended for the purpose of keeping order in the world they governed?, he wondered. Should the gods not save those who were in great need and begged for assistance?

“I know what worth I have in keeping this village alive – especially the children – but you know how serious our situation is,” he told her. “Okisuke died this morning after days of bodily misery. You know a child can smile even when in pain.” Grief was dragged back into Yuki’s eyes, and he watched her grit her teeth while probably thinking back to the deceased boy’s fate. “That is why we must act now. Even if the children don’t show their pain, it doesn’t mean it’s not there; another child might die tomorrow, or even tonight. We mustn’t forget that,” he continued and took a hold of Yuki’s wrists and pulled her hands off his shoulders. “No one will come to save us, sis,” he said quietly. “You know that, and that is why I have to go.”

“But going up there for a god that only lives in legends and myths…!” she said and finally snivelled. A tear dropped down onto her cheek and then fell on the straw mat between the siblings’ feet. “Can’t we make a new attempt to find and clear the blockage of the water?” she then hopelessly suggested.

“There’s no one strong enough left in the village to aid us with a task like that; we need more than one or two people who aren’t affected by a hungry stomach,” Inaho reminded her. “We’re already condemned. Only a god can save us now.”

A pained whimper escaped his sister’s throat and her lower lip trembled from sorrow.

She knew he was right, but she had tried to believe their situation was not as impossible as it was by trying to find hope in even the smallest of signs of the starvation coming to an end. Whenever a flower bloomed in the yard, she would smile with hope that perhaps the land was recovering. As it withered, she would say it was because the temperature had been too low or found another excuse that would not trample her hope.

“Even I am growing weaker by the day,” Inaho said after his sister had battled her sorrow for a while. “I won’t be able to hunt much longer. If I don’t go now, my chances to come back alive will eventually diminish into none.” Yuki lowered her head to bury her face in slender hands, and Inaho took that as her blessing of letting him go on this outrageously desperate journey. “Yesterday’s food will keep the children fed for at least three days if you won’t share any of it with the neighbours,” he said and turned to leave the room and prepare his gear that was needed when climbing the mountain. “Be firm and explain to those who ask that the food is only for the children, because I have been forced to go for a several days’ journey,” he then advised her, and that was when his expedition to find the legend began.

∞Ϋ∞

“An aeon hath pass’d since I sought shelter here. E’en the mountain spirit besleepeth since many summers agone.” A leaf from the old and wise maple tree fluttered down into his lap where he sat next to the quietly rippling stream of water. The surface of the water glittered in the summer sun. “For me?” The tree’s leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. “Woe? Nay, I am fain to belong here, yet I thank thee.” The grass tickled his bare legs each time it swayed in the gentle wind, which also shook the leaves of the tree once more. “Be not discomfort’d: Solitude is Fate’s endowment to me, it keepeth me safe; I crave for no human company, for all of ye art the lone company I would for. I am your guardian and father; I can not forsake this place.” Another leaf fluttered down, but this time landed in his blond hair. “Wholesome my heart and mind is; thou worriest in vain.” The breeze stopped and the leaves went silent. He smiled: “Nay, no human hath durst venture up the slopes, e’en now as the mountain spirit slumbereth; I am protect’d for as long as I tarry here.” The green hill was a paradisiac sight from where he watched it; blooming with life that spoke with loudness only he could hear. “This is all I need.” The old and golden shackles rested heavily around his wrists and ankles. “All I need…”

∞Ϋ∞

A strong and freezing wind blew against him, and the arrows in the quiver on his back rustled like they were protesting this journey along with the unstrung bow he carried in a sheath. He squinted to protect his eyes from drying out in the wind but could do nothing to ease his breathing; the wind was strong that it seemed like it blew all the oxygen away, making his breathing difficult. In turn, Inaho was out of breath much sooner than he should have, and he began to doubt his ability to move forward.

This mountain had nearly lived up to its notorious reputation thus far. The hills were all covered by sharp and pointy rocks, and gravel and dry grass made him slip and slide if he was careless of his foothold. He had already fallen over a couple of times, which had resulted in a bleeding cut on his leg and scratches and bruises on various parts of his body.

For how long had he been climbing? He had gotten quite high up by the time the sun was setting, and his bones ached while strained muscles burned from exhaustion. A stop was needed soon; he had only made four stops during the day to eat and rest, but now he had to find shelter for the night; once darkness fell, the hills and slopes would turn deadly.

What puzzled him about his climb was that even if he had been hurt and felt exhausted, he had still managed to stay alive and well. He had only heard horrifying tales of this mountain during his short lifetime, which made him wonder at his relatively unscathed condition; countless people had died while climbing its hills. Inaho momentarily wondered if his parents’ corpses still decorated the mountain somewhere but knew that even if he found them he would not recognize them. He had no memory of them after all, and their corpses were most likely decayed to mere skeletons by now.

Merciless exhaustion struck him abruptly, and he lost his balance. His right foot slipped on the gravel and dry grass, and his left leg was too weak to support the suddenly shifting weight. As he slipped down the steep slope, he instinctively grabbed for something to hold on to, to prevent falling down the path he had climbed; if he fell, he would likely hit his head and keep falling, or risked having his body severely injured, leaving him helpless on the mountain hill.

A sharp rock offered him support, and he grabbed it for dear life. Instantly, a cutting pain coursed through his hand and arm. A moment later, the bow sheath he wore across his back hooked onto a rock, forcing the leather strap against his neck, cutting the skin and pushing against his windpipe.

“Agh!” he gasped, choking, and desperately tried to find his footing by kicking and scraping the soles of his leather boots against the ground to clear the treacherous gravel away.

The moment his foot found support in the crevasse of a rock, he pushed his body up to free the bow sheath and ease the pressure from the leather strap from his neck. Then, after securing his footing, he let go of the rock and coughed violently when his windpipe was freed. After a moment of rest and once his breath and strength had recovered, he looked at his stinging hand. It was bleeding from a cut.

I’m too exhausted to continue; I’m becoming disoriented,’ he concluded and looked around to find a place where he could stay the night. A small alcove cave came into view when looking to his right, and he decided to stay the night there.

When he reached it after carefully moving closer to the cave – keeping a watchful eye on the ground as he could not afford slipping again – he took his bow sheath and quiver off and put them safely down on the ground.

While cleaning his wounds with water from one of the leather pouches hanging on his belt, he wondered how the children and Yuki were faring in the village. Were they safe and coping well after Okisuke’s death?

Yuki probably doesn’t expect me to return,’ he thought and looked out over the mountain area. It was desolate; not covered by the wonderful greenery the so-called god had supposedly planted here. Dry grass and dead bushes had accompanied him thus far, and Inaho began to doubt the legend of the god with green and gilded powers. ‘Should I head back once daylight breaks?’ he wondered and ripped some cloth from the hem of his tunic, to tie the rags around his bleeding hand and wounded leg. ‘This was ridiculous of me; a mere desperate act and nothing more. I’ll have to figure out something else.’

After securing the knots and after a couple of gulps of water, he pulled his mantle tightly around himself and sat down next to the rocky wall, leaning against it and closing his eyes to get some sleep. No firewood lay around, which forced him to endure the night without a fire to keep him warm. Because it was summer, Inaho was confident he would be safe in the alcove cave despite the temperature drops; with the mantle around him, sleeping would be somewhat comfortable even though the night was chilly.

There, in the shadow of the cave and darkening world, he fell asleep after an exhausting climb.

∞Ϋ∞

The trees were relaxed and in slumber. They breathed heavily, standing silent with drooping branches and leaves. Most of the plants were imbibing the precious air while resting after sunset, except for the plants that either already had or were about to open their flowers to gaze at the slowly appearing stars. The birds were either asleep or watched him with sleepy eyes, and the diurnal beings had hidden away to give room for the nocturnal animals that were waking up.

The path he walked was quiet. The grass had pulled back to offer him a passage he could walk on with a clear conscience, and he looked around to make sure the life around him was safe and well. When coming across a patch occupied by humble yellow flowers, a bud yawned open and spread its petals, stretching itself into full bloom while gazing at him with a friendly spirit.

“Good evening,” he wished it and squatted down to watch its siblings wake up as well. “Hast ye beslept well? The day was quite hot.” He chuckled. “Good. The vesper welkin dome is bare; the stars art yours to watch and admire all night.” A second flower yawned and stretched, opening itself entirely. “Oh, thank thee for the summons, howbeit I shall withdraw to my chamber for the night.” Then a third flower opened, also curious to see if the stars were visible. He frowned while looking at the first flower. “Others hath express’d concern as well. Do I wear an aspect of a heavy heart?” A breeze caressed his pale hair, sending a strand across his cheek to tickle his lips. He brushed it away with nimble fingers, lips pressed tightly together, before saying with a mellow tone: “The traveller? His presence is long gone; a decade hath pass’d. I am well; worriest not.”

The newly awakened flowers looked back at him while he told them this, and he felt the dead heart warm up inside him by their whispers. It had been a passionate heart in the past, and it was slowly awakening for each day that passed, beating again after hundreds of years of slumber. After the visit of the human who had been brave enough to climb this mountain many summers ago, his heart had grown to want to leap for a second time. Then again, the golden corpses shackling his wrists and ankles reminded him of the dangers below, and he knew he could not abandon this place.

“Ye mayest be right; I have wast’d agood years on these hills, yet I must assure ye this be where I stay; descend the mountain I will not. Ye art awarest of what awaits me down alow, and ye – my children – shalt wither in the cold whenas the autumn god wakes. I can not allow ye to be replac’d by stone.” The stigma of the yellow flower rose slightly and the petals shook in the gentle breeze. “I would for no human at my side; this place is all I need.”

Although he said it with a confident voice, he suspected it to be a lie. Ignoring the heart that had grown excited after his previous visitor was an awfully difficult thing to do.

After wishing the flowers a good night of stargazing, he withdrew to his resting place beneath a willow tree’s heavy and thick crown. He went inside and lay down to rest on top of the soft moss, and – by him caressing the ground gently – the branches came together into a thick roof and sealed him away from the outside world. A heavy breath later, he closed his eyes and listened to the moss that softly whispered him to sleep.

∞Ϋ∞

The sun tickled his nose when it rose from behind the horizon. Inaho opened his eyes and squinted in the bright light, recognizing the rocky scenery as the mountain he had climbed the day before. His body felt heavy and ached, and it felt stiff at the same time. Lying on the hard ground for several chilly hours always led to this, giving him a slow start. When the mantle fell open after sitting up from the ground, the chilly and moist air prickled his skin.

The wind had calmed considerably, he concluded, and the morning seemed to develop into a beautiful summer day – unlike yesterday’s hard wind.

While rummaging through the leather bag of provisions, he wondered if he should continue climbing just for a little while more now that the weather allowed him to. Even though he had decided to head back to the village after declaring this mission to be a failure the night before, he had to admit he would have come this far all for nothing if he decided to abandon his hope of ever finding the god that – according to the urban legend – had saved a traveller ten years ago. If he moved now when the sun was still climbing, he should be able to get back down to the forest below the mountain before tomorrow night.

I shouldn’t give up now, even if the legend turns out to be nothing more than a legend,’ he thought and felt perplexed by the strange feeling that told him he had to continue climbing. His sister always told him to trust his gut feeling even though he thought of it as illogical and risky, but – this time, during the riskiest time of his life on the hills of a deadly mountain – he felt he had to follow her advice and listen to the hunch that tried to convince him to continue the climb. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he could not help but to think.

After eating a poor breakfast, consisting of nuts and foul-tasting but nutritious roots, he stepped out of the alcove cave and warmed up the tired muscles and stiff joints before continuing to ascend the mountain. The injuries from yesterday ached, but he paid them no mind as the pain was not alarming enough for him to want to turn around.

Without the wind to suffocate him and disorientate him, the climb went smoothly despite the slippery gravel and dry grass covering his path. The brightness of the sun also helped him to see where he put his feet, and the slowly heating air kept his spirit up. As long as the sun shone on this side of the mountain, he could see where he was going.

This is too easy,’ he thought after a while and got up onto a ledge, where he decided to take a break, and looked down the slope. ‘This mountain should be deadly.’

Perhaps it was unwise to scale down the dangers he had heard throughout his life by underestimating the mountain this early despite yesterday’s difficulties, but Inaho felt disappointed by the sudden easiness. So many people had died up here that the mountain had become notorious, but here he was and gazed down the path he had taken with just a couple of cuts here and there; he was still alive.

After a short break, he continued climbing, finding a way toward the summit that was still overwhelmingly far away. The disappointment continued to dwell in his thoughts, occupying his mind and distracting him somewhat, but when he got up onto another ledge – much smaller than the previous one – his thoughts stopped along with his breaths.

A white flower swayed in the gentle wind.

A flower? Up here?’ he thought curiously after releasing his breath and walked up to examine the floret closer.

It turned out to be a flower that had thrived in the forest around Shinawara before the forest had begun to die, but here it grew on this cold, rocky mountain, far away from its usual latitude and completely exposed to the weather.

It’s not supposed to be able to live up here,’ he thought and looked around the area.

A second flower came into view, and a third. Inaho got up from his crouching position and followed the small trail of white flowers with a heart that pounded harder for each flower he saw. The longer he walked – moving further away from the sun and into the shadows – the more flowers and bushes he encountered. This surprised him greatly and he hurried his steps, eager to find out where this trail of strange plant life would lead him.

The steep slopes turned into gentler hills – rounder and softer than the sharp rocks on the mountain’s morning-side – and he found his way to a dark cave. When looking inside through the mouth of the cave, he could see moss on the walls and plants that thrived in poor light conditions replace the bright flowers and bushes growing in the light. When he stepped inside the cave, the sound of running water murmured not too far away from where he stood, and this sparked hope in him.

The water,’ he thought and walked deeper into the cave, hearing a body of running water for the first time in his life. ‘The water that used to flow to our village is still here.

All sorts of thoughts began blowing through his mind when chasing the sound of the streamlet that beckoned him deeper into the cave. He had found the water, which meant the blockage must be somewhere below him. If he could clear it, the precious water would find its way back to Shinawara and the crops could grow once more.

The cave ended abruptly when he hurried around a rocky corner, but the opening revealed a scenery of an elysian paradise in slumber, greener than anything he had seen before, hidden away in a small dale created by the mountain walls.

Strong banyan trees with bewilderingly huge crowns cast a beautiful shadow over the area that was covered by grass and bushes, moss, flowers and mushrooms. The trees were growing out of the trunks of much taller trees, and they reached toward the sky with confidence. Fruits and vegetables thrived at the base of the trunks in groups wherever he looked, and a softly puddling brook cut through the still greenery. The beautiful branches from heavy willows next to the brook swayed in the weak breeze, which had sneaked through the rocky walls surrounding the dale and softly tickled the greenery. The trees caressed the streamlet with their silvery leaves that shone and twinkled at him as if welcoming him to the valley, and a couple of birds chirped tiredly from the top of the trees, as though they had woken up recently. Some looked at the young man with tired eyes from where they rested on the branches, puffing their feathers after stretching their sleepy wings.

The forest was inexplicable; it was completely out of place here on the murderous mountain. Nothing of what bloomed in front of him was supposed to be here. The plants created a soothing and harmonious stillness, making Inaho feel like he had stepped into a sacred place made for the gods, and had he had the luxury of time and unconcern, he could have appreciated the calmness of this peculiar dale to its fullest.

After a short and dumbfounded while, a deep breath of the fresh and humid air that had the smell of a healthy forest cleared his mind, and he stepped out of the cave while thinking this was a hallucination born from light-headedness of being high above sea level. His first and careful step landed in the grass, and the softness of the ground let him know there was a lot of soil beneath the green. It was in stark contrast to the rocky side of the mountain which he had climbed.

A second step, and then a third, and he kept walking deeper into this majestic forest.

He wondered why it was up here but stopped abruptly in front of a shrub of black berries growing in small clusters on the twigs. He recognized them as eatable and reached out a hand to take a berry and have a taste.

As he pulled, the leaves shook slightly when the berry was released from the twig, sprinkling drops of morning dew onto his boots. The sweetness spreading on his tongue sent a shiver down his spine when crushing the berry between his teeth, and it turned out to be sweeter than anything he had eaten before.

Rich with nourishment,’ he concluded and looked at the other fruits and berries in the area. ‘There are too many kinds for this place to be natural.’ A young tree of plums beckoned him closer, and he studied the fruits. Everything seemed ripe. When he tasted a plum, the juice overflowed and dripped down his chin. ‘How is this possible?

After brushing away the spilled juice, he headed for the brook and knelt next to it. The water was crystal clear, which most likely meant it was safe to drink. He leaned closer and watched his distorted reflection on the surface, and after taking a deep breath, he bravely dipped his head into the water. It was cool and pleasant with a soft stream playing with his hair, and he opened his lips beneath the surface and swallowed a mouthful of water.

Clean.

The water ran off his head when pulling his head back up again. While inhaling a large portion of fresh air, the water continued dripping and soaked his back and chest.

I’ve never tasted water this clean before,’ he thought curiously and opened his eyes to stare at the glittering stream. ‘Is this the water that used to run down into the village?

If that was true, then there had to be a larger river somewhere. If he followed this stream, would he find it? If he did, he would find the blockage as well, and – if he was lucky – he could clear the water’s path.

Thrilled, he got up from the ground and walked along the brook – careful to not slip on the roots that coiled beneath the grass with feet as light as feathers and heart beating in his throat. If he could clear the blockage, the children and elderly could take a proper bath. The land would grow again, and the threats of winter would be no more.

Hope spurred his steps to quicken when thinking of what could be, until he finally ran next to the brook. The arrows rattled in the quiver when his steps pounded against the ground, and the sound of the streamlet slowly increased in volume.

The brook ended abruptly in a small waterfall, and he stopped at the edge of the cliff and gasped for air.

A nearly perfectly round lake spread out beneath. It was unexpectedly big to be located on a mountain, and many small streams from all around gathered in it. The greenery continued here as well, with trees and flowers spreading across the land like a carpet of life. A river continued further away, down the gentle hills, and Inaho decided to follow the stream and see where it took him.

Right as he grabbed the branch of a tree and prepared to climb down from the ledge, the first rays of the sun reached this side of the mountain. As the green valley was illuminated by the late morning light, he saw a flash of pale gold and movement in the corner of his eye. Immediately, like a predator hiding to locate a prey, he ducked behind a flowery bush and looked at the creature that had attracted his attention. What he saw made him confused.

A human; some young man the same age as himself.

The other was dressed in something that looked like a silky robe. It was burgundy in colour with beautiful white embroideries on the outer front panels, and on his wrists and ankles golden bracelets glimmered in the light. The expensive-looking clothes and jewellery made the hunter wonder if this stranger was royalty. The stranger had pale golden hair that glistened healthily, and his skin was as white as the porcelain from the capital city.

A foreigner?’ he thought while watching the other slowly but graciously walk to the edge of the lake and stop beneath a willow tree.

It was hypnotizing the way the green beauty around the stranger seemed to pale, and the hunter was nearly spellbound by the young man’s appearance and movements. His thoughts stilled for a while when watching the other kneel next to the lake and cup his hands in the water to wash his face, and then he saw his lips move. He seemed to speak to himself, but then chuckled and looked up at a tree, speaking directly to it.

Inaho’s heart ached from anxious bewilderment when the sudden realization hit him, and then he took a deep breath to calm down:

The god?!

Could it be possible that the god from the legend was real? Could it be possible he was right there next to the lake, unaware of him being caught in Inaho’s gaze? If it was so, then it would explain why the paradisiac forest existed this high up, in a place where it was not supposed to grow.

If the god was real, then what would Inaho do? Capture him? Beg him to help his village? Ask him to turn the provision he carried into gold?

The latter option was the easiest and least productive. If he asked him to turn the nuts and roots into gold, Inaho would only be able to buy food for a limited amount of time and then the villagers would live in hunger once more.

A permanent solution was a must, and perhaps asking the god for help was the right one? Even so, it was also the riskiest alternative. If he would beg the god for help, the god could deny his request and banish him from his presence. There must have been a good reason why the god lived up here alone, after all, and Inaho had a feeling he would not be welcomed by him.

But if I capture him, he won’t be able to refuse helping us.’

Carefully, Inaho began climbing down the cliff by the tree closest to the edge. He made sure he was not seen or heard – a task easy for the experienced hunter – and once he landed behind bushes, he took the bow from the sheath and strung it with slow and careful movements to not alarm his prey. Once he was done, he took an arrow from the quiver and moved closer.