Up the Mountain
The sounds of raging battle were deafening. Shouts and explosions from all sides erupted into a stream of endless cacophony. I and a few remaining soldiers, scarred and wounded, were all that was left from that once noble band of fighters. We slogged up the mountain that had kept us from being encircled completely, our defense, had now turned into our newest adversary. Five days ago, I had given the order to retreat up the face. Five days ago the worrisome thoughts of snow were now a reality as we set up camp. The first few flakes stung our cheeks and drove our hearts to the brink of despair.
Going back would be certain destruction. But how long could we hold out here in freezing conditions and no supplies to speak of, rations for two more days, three at most and meager shelters meant for warmer climates. I looked up the mountain slope, with more than half still left and wondered why I had agreed to lead this fight. Was it glory or pride? An easy victory and quick–one last war with such riches promised that I, no we all! could live in retired ease.
I ran my eyes over the battle-weary warriors. Was this their only reward, to starve or freeze, to which I led them? I walked quietly away, with orders to my second to take command while I scouted a better position. There was a chance, there were tales I remembered from long ago, legends used to scare the younger ones round the summer campfires of my youth and kept us in our tents till daybreak and the odors of breakfast drove our stomachs to rebel, and take with them our selves from out that cloister of the night. But sometimes legends are rooted in fact, however strange or bleak the chance might be.
The darkness deepened, the snow fell harder. I cast around for a place to shelter for the night when a glint of light caught my eye. I scrambled to the place I thought I’d seen the light, and soon was greeted with a cheery glow spilling forth from a cave just high enough for me to fit without bending over.
Not far in, just around a gentle bend in the path, I saw the source of the fire and what had to be its two progenitors. One was large, fat, adorned with gold and silken fabric. The lobes of his ears struck me as being quite longer than the normal sort; his half-smile was one of seeming content, and in his eyes a depth of peace and understanding beyond my ability to measure.
The other was his opposite, emaciated and gaunt with a thin, tattered, patched cloth his only garment. He sat upon the ground, his eyes were closed and about him hung a cold and darkened space despite the fire. He spoke first. His voice as strong as judgement day sent chills along my spine.
“We have been waiting for you to arrive. Your test has been prepared. Are you ready?”
The old man, who hadn’t opened his eyes as he spoke, opened them now. My knees grew weak. His gaze pierced through my soul. The legendary fate of those who dared the test was grim indeed, and in that gaze I felt my certain failure.
“I am,” I said. The whole cave spun around me, and something cold and hard like stone hit my head with the force of a giants punch, then all went dark.