Confidence. It’s a wonderful thing. That is, until it’s blown away by the sour breath of reality. I am no adventurer.
Buoyed as I was by the false bravado of my manly pursuits in the employ of the inn, the frail and inflated expectations I had of myself came to be well short of requirements. For all the hammering and sawing; sweat and toil; boldness and bravado; and underneath the shallow veil, I was still a soft son of the city. The residents of that decrepit old inn may have bought my display easily enough, but the mountains were not such fools. No indeed – they ate my disguise for breakfast.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
It was my shoes that went first. I had invested in a new pair of sturdy trekkers, but I had, of course, been conned once more. They were expensive, very dear when I think on it, but the harder leather, as it transpired, was still woefully soft. They may have felt like rugged walkers around the muddy slick of the crossroads of the Between, but in these hard mountains, they may as-well have been cloth. In fact, I stretched their working life by a few days by lining these new shoes with the tattered cloth remnants of my old city ones. When I finally reached my goal, my feet were so shattered and scarred that I walked as an aged old man.
But alas, I also looked and felt like an old man. So perhaps my gait was appropriate.
The second thing to fail was my clothing. Again, I was disillusioned into believing that I had purchased fine traveller’s wear, but my assumptions were brutally swept aside by the chill bite of the Adunas Mahija. Damn, but these are harsh mountains, and each step I took in their presence reinforced my growing respect for Dara and the first of Society. My goodness, what respect. How they spent ten long years in the embrace of the mountains’ icy clutches, I will never understand. It is simply remarkable.
You see, it is not a single facet of the mountains’ armoury that singly kills. The path through the mountains is tough and stony, hardly a path at all in places, but it is passable. The wind is bone-shudderingly cold, really proper deeply cold, but I have been out in similar temperatures in the deepest of winter. Even the squalid rains and clammy flurries of snow were not entirely incomparable, and the exertion of climbing, climbing, climbing is not so dire as to obliterate my resolve. No indeed, in isolation I could handle these challenges, but these brutal mountains do not offer such graces.
It is the persistent and collective vindictiveness of the mountains that kills, and I was well within their grasp.
Loneliness is not something I have ever had to worry myself with. In the worst outcome – and in my mind this is no worst outcome – one would comfort oneself with a whore. Crass I know, but that is the truth of Callij; it is distracting. Oh how often in those mountains I found my mind wandering to soft pink flesh, but such imaginations were brief and infuriating, cut-off as they were by the latest knife of wind in the gut.
At least Dara and his refugees will not have suffered the curse of loneliness, a condition that coerces one into spiralling and grim thoughts. But then, they were at the mercy of that harder and even more cruel mistress. The mountains had time on their side.
Ten years in this desolation is almost unthinkable.
These are hard lands, and as I try to occupy my thoughts, I wonder even further at Dara and his leadership. The soil, where there is soil at all, is desperately thin, and any sort of substantive agriculture would be futile at best. And that left foraging or the hunt, neither of which appear to be routes to bountiful yields. It is said that the distinguishing frugal nature of the Mandari diet – a trait that is being steadily rescinded in Callij, with wobbly consequences – is a legacy of these days, and I can now see why. I was not portly before embarking on this foolish adventure, but I am now positively emaciated.
Honest – I can see the stark outline of every rib as I breathe. I swear my skin is hanging loosely from my frame.
Of course, this is partly my fault because the third key component to fail was … me. I was broken, so very, very broken, and my inflated optimism at outset only served to exaggerate the fall. I had brought food for four days, sure as I was from my knowledge of geography that the time would be more than sufficient to cross that narrow obstruction. But of course, I had no clue as to the punishing impact of the ascent, or the slow and stodgy haul through the ever thinning air. I found myself eating hungrily to restore myself and to compensate for lacking sleep, but of course, that was a mistake. By the fourth day, I was foraging berries in a desperate attempt to stretch my sadly depleted crumbs of bread. I was unravelling before my very eyes, and after six days, just another day from the summit, I closed my eyes as I hunkered down beneath a thorny bush, and did not expect to open them again. I fell asleep to the sound of my teeth chattering.
But I did wake! And what fortune – for otherwise you, my glorious readership, would have nothing to stoke your intrigue or imagination. And more importantly, I would not have encountered the glory that I did. Because, eventually, ultimately, I crested the mountains, conquered their peaks, and came upon the glory of that outcome. Oh the views.
Oh the unimaginable views!
At the peaks there is a permanent covering of crisp snow, a consequence of the deep chill at that height. But that snow lends itself to remarkable beauty, a reflective mirror for light, and a clear canvas against which to assess one’s surroundings. The mountain itself was beautiful in its sparse frugality, rugged and sharp as it was, glorious edges of stone and shard populated by the most scant but remarkable examples of life that I have ever stumbled across. The flora is rugged and sparse, necessarily so, and the fauna has a sleek and purposeful look to it – adapted for survival in the harshest environment.
Just like the Mandari.
Well, just like the Mandari who have not been infected by the disease of Callij.
And from up here, I can see Callij. She spills down the side of the mountain, dark against the ancient stone. And from up here, she does look like a disease; a wart on the side of nature’s majesty; a limpet. I have been told many times that “to get a different perspective on things, one has to leave what one knows.” Up here is the first time I have believed this.
The only identifiable building from this height is the dark monolith of the House of Rha, and such is the height of that temple that even from this elevation, the top appears almost on a level. And it burns, just as the stories say; the top of the temple burns. The red glow is fairly passive from this distance, but clear and crisp flame is identifiable even from here. Rhanna speaks up there, and from where I stand, it appeared that he speaks in anger.
There are many stories as to the source of that mysterious red glow, but none are truly recognised. The official version is that the flame does represent the Mandari God, Rhanna’s – a white dragon you will understand – breath as he communes his wishes with the priests of Society. But the fact that a flying white beast is obviously absent does rather tarnish that story. Most believe that the light is a trick of the Ranji priests, an illusion maintained at great expense to continually reassert the right of the priest class. More dismissive stories suggest that the flames are the result of a strange Ranji mating ritual, for the priests are famously celibate and yet increasingly numerous. And more strange stories still claim that the lights represent the ‘Peeling of the Veil’ – whatever that means.
All I know, with my tiredness, is that the sight is even eerier from up here, and I wish to think on it no more. I avert my eyes and look West – ato the Finder to the residents of wider l’Unna. I take a few stumbling steps, and cast my eyes to the other side of the Adunas Mahija, and what I see is what I expected to see, but as the lady of the sky dips over the horizon, I am still left speechless.
The mist hangs in the distant air, and even though I cannot see it, I know it is there. The place where the man meets the sea – Namcalla is calling.
The journey down the other side would be far more straightforward.