The International Writers Magazine: First Chapters
Land, First Book, All The Way.
He was travelling in the Mountains of Loathing when it happened.
First the sound of hooves on the trail; behind him, not ahead.
He drew rein and looked back.
Then the dreaded sound: the rattling of chains. They had
found him. There was no time to waste. He spurred his horse on
to a fast trot; the soft thumps quickened beneath him.
He turned a boulder
and saw the trail like a straight thread leading to a pass. He glanced
back: still out of sight. The trot became a full gallop. At the pass
the empty trail danced behind him and vanished. He looked ahead again.
The trail wound smoothly for a mile or more; too far, no escape.
But then, just before bolting by, he saw it: a pattern in the rocks,
a mere furrow; to the right and upwards. He forced the horse away from
the trail; they rushed up between the crags.
Just as the trail disappeared from his sight the sounds returned.
He stopped, dismounted, and crept back. They were fourteen and two pack
horses. At a steady trot they rode past the furrow without a glance.
He saw them vanish and reappear twice before they were gone.
The silence was overwhelming; relief engulfed him.
When he regained his senses he heard a soft whinny and looked into the
eyes of Ashmane.
He sat up. Never before had anyone escaped them. But had he?
He decided to stay overnight. Which way should he choose tomorrow? To
follow would be dangerous: they were known to retread a doubtful trail
to make sure. To go back might be disastrous: they were known to split
up and reunite. His eyes fell upon the crags and the peaks above. Maybe.
He rose and caressed the large white steed. A long way: three
years, always on the move. He wished he could have offered him a better
life: wide plains and ease instead of dark roads and flight.
He led him back to the crags and removed the wrappers; they had
saved them more than once. Ashmane scraped the gravel as always when
he was rid of them. They were almost worn and needed mending. Maybe
one day more, before he had to change them. But if he chose the heights
there would be no need until they came down again; if they ever did.
They went on for an hour, maybe two; ever upwards, ever north.
He was tired, but he felt that he had to get higher up. Suddenly his
legs gave way. He knew that he was unable to walk and climb any further.
He unpacked the leather bucket and filled it halfway. While Ashmane
drank he poured water into his mug and emptied it thrice. At last he
filled the nosebag and opened the haversack; same as always, thrice
a day. Afterwards he stretched out and looked for the first stars.
This was not right: there were no clouds, and yet the day faded
into a gloom. Last night on the trail the stars had been there. He remembered
the gloom which had seemed to reek from the mountains, more and more
during the day.
Now he was inside the gloom. All shapes blurred and vanished;
even Ashmane disappeared. The sounds changed too. The slow and steady
munching turned into a dim rumble. When the gloom thickened into darkness
time seemed to halt. At last he fell asleep.
He woke slowly and saw the gloom give way to a new bright day. He felt
better; he felt safe: he might disappear in these mountains.
As soon as they had finished their meal he led Ashmane upwards,
between the rocks. Every time he looked back the trail seemed less threatening.
At noon he saw two riders meet and part.
After that the valley seemed to become formless, fading to the
southwest. By evening he reached a shelf, and he never saw the trail
again. The gloom returned, and he dived into a dreamless sleep.
He did not wake until Ashmane snorted right into his face. He
got up slowly and looked round. Then he remembered where he was. The
waterbag was almost empty now; soon he had to find a spring.
Late in the forenoon, trying to find a way across a gorge, he
noticed that he cast no shadow. He could feel the heat of the sun in
the back of his head. He turned and faced the deep blue sky.
The day waned. Of a sudden he became aware of the long shadows
all around. He raised his eyes and saw it right over the ridge: the
sun; blue in blue. He stood dumbstricken and saw it shimmer before it
melted into the peaks and was gone.
He came across a brook in the evening. He was so deep in thought
that he might just have waded through if Ashmane had not stopped to
drink; only then he felt the coldness of the water.
That night he changed between sleep and wake and wondered why
he was there. The sky was pitch black, but the nearest hollows seemed
to gleam faintly. It was like a reflexion of unseen stars.
The next day, the fourth day of his climb. Of a sudden he recalled his
narrow escape and the days before it. He did not even know when it had
slipped his mind. After a few moments it seemed to fade into unimportance;
but he did not forget it again.
He had reached the northern tableland: the heart of the mountains.
He had heard of it, and now he was here. If you want to know: go. He
had never been sure whether it was a challenge or a warning; and he
had neither decided to seek it nor to avoid it. He wondered whether
he had been driven or dragged. There was no trace of the sun. The sky
had grown deeper, all shadows were gone. He lifted his eyes again. The
sky was like an opening into a vast nothingness: an abyss above him.
He looked round. The mountains glowed; the peaks, the rocks,
the stones, the smallest grain of sand, the ground itself, seemed to
hold an inner sheen. He glanced at Ashmane. The belly was lit up from
below, the back was dark; almost as dark as the eyebrim.
He sat down and picked up a little round stone. It dragged his
fingers into a clutch. It was warm, and the light penetrated his fingers.
Ashmane pushed him hard with the muzzle. He dropped the stone as he
put out his hand; his palm glowed faintly. Ashmane pushed him again,
gently. The fright of the horse stirred him; he rose and mounted. After
a short while the palm ceased to glow.
By evening the glow rose and filled the air. The darkness of the night
was shut out. Every time he was dozing off Ashmane neighed fiercely
and tossed his head.
He began to recall things long forgotten; fragments scattered
over his entire life: small incidents in his childhood, the decision
to leave, his first horse, mishaps and windfalls. There was no pattern;
and yet they were all linked, like beads on a string.
At last the day broke. They ate quickly and set out early. All day he
felt Ashmane quiver beneath him. They moved slowly upwards. The sky
was almost black, the glow had become brighter. At sunset he dismounted
to find a path round a boulder; and he saw that Ashmane glowed up to
the fetlocks. The stallion trod as if on embers. After that he led him
by the reins.
At nightfall they both glowed up to the knees. Ashmane seemed
to be in pain, and there was a certain numbness in his calves. The sensation
disappeared as soon as they stopped.
All night he stayed awake. He was immersed in vivid memories:
names, places, facts. Every now and then he looked up and saw the wide
staring eyes of Ashmane mirror the glow of the ground and the air.
On the sixth day the sky was a black void; the mountains blazed. He
saw small wisps of clear light winding into the still air. Ashmane glowed,
and his eyes were red; the hooves were like live coals; the mane and
the tail seemed dark, like ashes on a smouldering fire. His hands were
almost transparent with light. He felt warm and a little dizzy.
Now Ashmane led the way. Most of the time the reins were tight.
It became more and more difficult to go on. At last Ashmane halted sideways
in front of him. He mounted and rode until he suddenly slipped and fell
to the ground. They were on a shelf with small mounds and a sharp edge
to the north.
He felt a deep weariness and lay down. Soon the blackness of
the void sky disappeared beyond the blazing air. Ashmane stopped gasping
and put his soft muzzle to his ear. The live warmth and care made him
feel refreshed; he prepared their meal.
© Jacob Bugge Feb 2005
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