Tolan must rescue his sisters from the shades who slaughtered his family, but he cannot save them without first finding an honorable man upon the mountain.
a story from the Unshut World
An Honorable Man upon the Mountain
by Stephen Measure
The shades slaughtered his father before Tolan even realized they had burst into the room, one knife buried in his father’s throat, another in his side. His mother and sisters screamed, but the shades had already leapt to his older brother, burying twisted blades into him as he tried to stand. Tolan’s chair was kicked away from the table by a shade who towered over him, the shade’s black robe seeming darker than night itself. Taller than the others, the shade held a knife pointed at Tolan’s heart and smiled at him with thin colorless lips.
His oldest sister screamed as a shade yanked her to her feet by her hair. Another shade cut a slit in the middle of her dress and thrust it open, exposing her belly. Tolan needed to rise and protect her, but the tall shade’s blade was so close. A single thrust and all would be over. And so, terrified of the shade’s blade and the shade’s hateful smile, Tolan forgot to not see what he had been taught to not see—and he saw it: the potential for life swirling deep within his sister’s womb. His sister was passed roughly to a fourth shade that stood by the door. Grabbing her arm, the shade held his blade tight against her throat as Tolan’s second sister was hauled to her feet and her stomach examined in the same way. The potential for life swirled within her as well. Then the shades pulled Tolan’s mother to her feet, ripping her away from his father’s side, where she had been wailing. They cut her dress and exposed her stomach as they had done to her daughters. But there was no life swirling deep within, and Tolan knew what was going to happen.
His mother made the best meat pies and she always gave him extra. They didn’t always have meat and when they had meat they didn’t always have meat pies but when they had meat and when they had meat pies, hers were the best and she always gave him extra because he was the youngest. His brother was the oldest, then another brother who died from the fevers, then a sister, then a sister, and then Tolan because Tolan was the youngest because his mother didn’t have any life swirling deep inside her anymore like his sisters did. And the shades were taking his sisters and the shades had killed his father and the shades had killed his brother and his other brother had died of the fevers and his mother didn’t have life swirling deep inside her anymore and Tolan knew what was going to happen.
He screamed as the shade holding his mother by her hair raised a blade to her neck and slit her throat, his scream not ending even after her body had crumpled lifeless to the ground. Tolan tried to stand, wanting to rush to her and pick her up off the dirty ground. But the tall shade pushed his knife hard against Tolan’s chest, forcing Tolan to sit back into the chair. Tears of frustration, rage, and helplessness poured from his eyes.
The other shades were dragging his screaming sisters out of their home, yet Tolan could do nothing but watch. The table was empty, the rest of his family dead on the floor. Then the tall shade put his knife away. Sensing an opening, Tolan tried once again to stand, but the shade raised a hand and pointed a finger at him, a finger with a charred wooden fingernail embedded in its tip. Tolan cowered from that fingernail, the memory of countless nursery bogey tales returning to him, of shades coming for disobedient boys, shades that could twist the earth through the magic in their fingers, shades that could rip him limb from limb with a word, shades that could burn him into ashes.
The tall shade laughed at his terror. “Are you afraid, little cattle?”
Tolan couldn’t look at him, turning instead to the ground and seeing the back of his mother, whose body lay on the other side of the table. Tears continued to pour down his cheeks.
“Do you mourn, little cattle?” the shade asked, twisting his fingernail before Tolan. “They were nothing. Why do you mourn nothing? A woman is life. A woman is the future. But that woman had no future, little cattle. I know that you saw it.”
Tolan shook his head, not wanting to admit it even to himself.
“Do not lie, little cattle. All men can see it. She had no future and you saw it and she was nothing because she had no future. And your father was nothing, and your brother was nothing. They could have been men, but they chose instead to live like animals, toiling and sweating in the field. Cattle, that is what you are, not men, just cattle.”
Tolan shivered, seeing the fingernail out of the corner of his eye.
“Look at me!” the shade commanded.
Tolan slowly looked up, but he could not meet the shade’s eyes.
“A man is power,” the shade said. “A man bends the world to his will. A man takes what he wants. A man owns the future because he takes what he wants and makes it his own. But you will die, little cattle. You will die because you are nothing and because true men steal the future from you—for we are men and you are nothing but cattle.”
Reaching forward, the shade scratched a line with his wooden fingernail across Tolan’s forehead. The shade’s arm was exposed from the thick black robes and Tolan was surprised at how thin it seemed and how little muscle it held.
“And what shall I do with you now, little cattle?” the shade taunted. “Shall I bend the air and skin you alive? Shall I open the earth and bury you? Or shall I call fire and burn away your shame?”
Tolan trembled and closed his eyes, the shade’s wooden fingernail resting right above them. He heard the shade laugh.
“You know nothing about power, little cattle.” the shade said. “But rejoice—we always leave our mercy payment.”
There was a large thud as the shade struck Tolan’s head with the hilt of the shade’s dagger. Then everything went black.
* * *
Tolan woke on the hard ground. The lamp upon the table above was growing dim. How did I get down here? he asked himself. Then he saw the bodies on the other side of the table and he remembered. Moaning, he crawled underneath the table to his mother, picked her up, and hugged her tightly. Her body was already cold.
Why? he asked himself, struck by the needless injustice. The shades killed his father and brother because they were a threat, but why had the shades taken his mother away from him?
And he knew the answer. Holding the body of his mother tightly, knowing she would never hold him in return, Tolan told himself why they had done it: when shades see a woman, they see only a womb, nothing more than that. To shades, his mother was nothing.
His father lay to one side, his brother to the other, their chairs spilled upon the ground beside them, blood cold upon the ground. And what of his sisters? Tolan needed to grieve, but there was no time for that now. His sisters had been taken, and he was the only one left to save them. But then he remembered the tall shade and the wooden fingernail that could have ripped him to pieces.
How can I face men that can tear the world apart? he asked himself. But he wondered: if they could tear the world apart, why didn’t the shade just kill me? Because they always leave a mercy payment? But what about my father and my brother? Why kill with blades and weak muscles when magic is in your fingertips?
“Because of my sisters,” Tolan answered, everything falling into place in his mind. A barren woman is useless to a shade. That is why they used no magic. They couldn’t because if they had, then their raid would have been worthless.
Could I beat them, then? Tolan wondered. Physically they are weak, and they can’t use magic with women around, so could I beat them? But they would use magic if their lives were threatened, he told himself. I would have to be quick. Could I kill all four shades before they knew I was there? Probably not, he thought, but maybe I won’t have to. They always leave a mercy payment, don’t they? I can gather the other boys from the homes in the valley. All of us together could defeat four shades. But we would need to stop them before they make it through the mountain pass. If they reach their own land, then my sisters will be forever lost.
Tolan felt fear at the thought of facing the tall shade again even if he were able to gather help from others in the valley. But he remembered what his father had taught him: a man always does his duty. He was only a boy, not a man, but his father and brother were dead, leaving him alone with the duty. There was no one else.
His mind decided, Tolan laid his mother down gently on the ground. Then he rolled his father to rest beside her. He took his mother’s hand and placed it in his father’s, knowing they would want to be together. He laid his brother’s body on the other side. Then he gathered a sheet and covered them all. He would need to bury them in an honorable grave, but now he needed to save his sisters. He bowed his head in respect to the dead, and then he left the silent home and went outside, where he grabbed a pitchfork that was leaned against the house, a pitchfork, which had been laid there by his brother, his brother, who often wrestled with him and always let him win, his brother, who had almost died from the fevers three years ago, and Tolan had sat by his bed for hours, and his mother had been there too, constantly caring for her son, constantly worrying, his mother, who now lay cold upon the floor, holding the cold hand of his father next to the cold body of his brother, but his sisters were not there, and he needed to save them. So he ran as hard as he could, carrying his brother’s pitchfork and heading in the direction of the nearest home, the moon full overhead, lighting the fields he rushed through.
It’s foolish for us to live so far apart, he realized. If we all lived together in a group, the shades would never dare attack us. They are too weak without magic. They can only fight with overwhelming odds.
Emerging from the fields, he came upon their closest neighbors. He saw light from the open doorway and a boy sitting in front of his home, his head in his hands. Tolan knew him. They were the same age. The boy looked up as Tolan approached.
“They killed them, Tolan,” the boy said, “my father and my brothers. They killed them and they took our women.”
“We can get them back,” Tolan told the boy. “There are enough of us left. We can overpower them. They are weak. They never learned to be strong.”
“Shadow men are horrible,” the boy said, as if he hadn’t even heard what Tolan had told him. “They are horrible, horrible men. They can’t have daughters anymore, only sons. They burnt it out of themselves through using too much magic. They are horrible. They stole my mother and sisters, Tolan.”
“Then let us get them back! Let us rescue them!”
“They are horrible men, Tolan. They breed them and they breed them until the women are used up and then...” The boy paused. He seemed so small in front of his silent home. “And they took my mother. They took my sisters. How can anyone be so horrible?”
“Yes, let us rescue them!”
The boy shook his head and rocked back and forth. “They are horrible, horrible, horrible. They took my sisters and my mother. They are horrible, horrible, horrible.”
“So do something about it! Don’t just sit there and complain about how horrible they are. Do something! They took your mother. They took your sisters. They killed your father and your brothers. Now, will you do something about it?”
But the boy would not. He rocked and he talked, but he seemed incapable of doing anything to help. Tolan shook his head in disgust and ran to the next home. But there was no help there either. The mercy payment was older than Tolan this time, larger, but completely unwilling to even lift a finger.
“I hate them, Tolan” the larger boy told him. “They are disgusting. Did you see them? They have drained all color out of themselves. Did you see their fingernails? Witches carry wands or staffs, but shades want to always have magic in their hands. I thought that was just stories, like the story of the honorable man upon the mountain, but shades really do embed the wood into their fingers. Did you see it?”
Tolan thought of the tall shade standing before him and taunting him as the shade pointed a charred wooden fingernail at him, and Tolan’s knees trembled. The shade could have torn Tolan apart if he had wanted to. But Tolan reminded himself that shades would not use magic in the presence of their captives. He gathered strength and stood tall again, banishing his fear of the shade deep down inside himself. His sisters were out there and he could not leave them to the shades.
“We can defeat them,” Tolan told the boy. “There are only four of them and they won’t dare use magic until it is too late. Come with me and let us rescue your family, let us avenge your fallen. Come with me!”
But the boy would not, so Tolan ran to the next house and the next, speaking to mercy payment after mercy payment, hearing complaint after complaint, but finding none who were willing to actually do anything about what they all agreed was wrong.
Despair filled Tolan as he came to the last two homes in the valley. He had planned to overpower the shades through numbers, but that wasn’t possible, not with no one willing to stand beside him. What can I do then? he asked himself. Should I simply sit down in front of my home and complain like the rest? Is it worthless to even try? Are the shades simply too powerful? Who would stand with me? Who would help me rescue my sisters?
Then he thought of what the second boy had said about stories and about the story of the honorable man upon the mountain. He remembered that story: something about shades who had come down through the pass being stopped by the honorable man upon the mountain. Could such a man exist? Tolan wondered. Could he help me save my sisters?
Tolan looked up at the mountains, tall and dark against the night sky. His brother claimed to have once seen the light from the cave of the honorable man upon the mountain. Could the man be real? Tolan approached the next home and found the mercy payment in the same position as the others: sitting in front of his home with his head in his hands. The boy complained like the rest and seemed unwilling to do anything, just like the rest. But, desperate for help, Tolan asked the boy: “Do you think the honorable man upon the mountain exists?”
“Yes,” the boy said. “I have seen him.”
Tolan’s eyes widened. “You have actually seen him? He is real?”
“Of course he is real. Where else would the stories come from?”
“Then he can help us. Come! Let us find him and seek his help to rescue our kin.”
But the boy shook his head. “I will not accept any help from a man like that.”
“What do you mean? He can help us!”
The boy spat on the ground. “He is a Lowlander, Tolan. I do not trust his kind. They are up to no good and are full of tricks.”
“But he can help us!”
“I will not take help from a Lowlander. They let women fight in their armies beside their men. Women, Tolan! And witches too! Witches fighting right there in the army beside normal men rather than hanging from a gallows as they should. And you know about the border—”
“Who cares where he is from or what complaints you have with his countrymen? The border is miles away! Who else is there? Who else would be willing to help?”
“I will not take help from a Lowlander.”
Tolan shook his head in amazement. This boy would let his family be stolen simply because he refused to take help from someone from Low Sebalath. What a fool. When it is pouring rain, why does it matter who made your pavilion so long as it keeps you dry underneath? That is what Tolan’s father used to say, his father, who lay under a sheet in their home, a cold hand holding the cold hand of his mother, both of them slaughtered, his brother too, and no one willing to do anything, no one willing to even lift a finger, no one brave enough to stand beside him and fight.
He turned his back on the boy and walked towards the last home in the valley. He would find no help there. He already knew that. It was Achara’s home. Achara, full of fire, the most beautiful girl in the valley. She lived there with her young brother and her father and mother. But her brother was much too young to help, and Achara would have been taken.
Tolan made his way towards the light that shone from Achara’s home. The front door was open, but he could not see her brother, who was not sitting in front of his home like the rest of them. Would Achara be inside? Had the shades seen no future within her and simply killed her instead? Would I rather that she be dead? He asked himself. Or would I rather that she had been taken captive by the shades? What would Achara rather? Was a life like that even a life, or was it just a prolonged death? Would a quick death be more merciful?
All was still as Tolan entered the home and looked around the room. It was a small room and the only light came from a shrinking candle upon the wall. He could see no one. The room felt empty. But then he heard a small voice coming from the corner of the room.
“Papa, wake up.”
Tolan walked slowly around the table.
“Papa, wake up. Mama is gone. Acha is gone. Papa, wake up!”
Then Tolan saw Achara’s brother, only a toddler, lying on the ground beside his father and shaking his father’s arm.
“Papa, wake up! Please, Papa. Wake up, Papa.”
Tolan knelt beside the boy and put a hand on his shoulder. The boy jumped but relaxed when he saw it was Tolan. He sat up and threw his arms around Tolan.
“They took Mama and Acha,” the boy said. “They took Mama and Acha.”
Tolan embraced him.
“I will get them back,” he promised.
The boy hugged him tighter. Then Tolan pulled him to his feet. They covered the boy’s father as Tolan had covered his own family, Achara’s brother leaning down to kiss his father’s forehead before Tolan covered it with the sheet. Then they walked out of the house and Tolan pointed to the light from their nearest neighbor.
“I want you to run there and stay until I come back with your mother and Achara.”
“You bring back Mama and Acha?”
“Yes,” Tolan said. “But I want you to stay there until we get back. Your mother will come get you.”
The boy nodded and set off in a run, and Tolan turned to look up at the mountains. The shades were up there somewhere, making their way towards the pass with their captives. What can I do now? he asked himself. One against four. One against four when any one of them could burn me to ashes with a thought and a word. Yet, what about the honorable man upon the mountain?
Tolan looked up and down the mountains but could not see any light. And story or no story, he did not know where to find the man, and he had no time to search. With no one else in the valley willing to fight, he was on his own. The only chance he had would be to catch the shades by surprise when most of them were sleeping. He would have to be quick. If he was quick he might have a chance. But can I find the shades before they make their way through the pass? he wondered. Yes, he thought. There is only one pass and only one trail that leads to it. They will be simple to find. What comes next, he told himself, is the hard part.
* * *
Tolan jogged to the trail that led up the mountain. Then he stopped to look behind him. Dim lights were scattered all around the valley. We were such easy prey, he said to himself, we are too separated. But that was a thought for another night. He looked at the closest light, Achara’s home, and hoped that her brother had made it safely to their neighbors. He hoped that neighbor would be willing at least to look after the young boy. How can they sit and do nothing? Tolan asked himself. Lives come and lives go, but how often is one given the chance to do something truly worthwhile? Yet they sit there, content to having been left alone, hoping that nothing worse will happen to them but unwilling to do anything about it even if it did.
Tolan shook his head in disgust and started up the mountain but then he paused as everything grew dark, clouds having covered the moon. He looked up higher on the mountain, hoping to see a light from the honorable man upon the mountain, but he saw only darkness. Sighing, he continued upward, moving more slowly now as it was hard to see the trail in front of him. He worried about what might find him on the mountain. There were more dangers here than only shades: wolves and who knew what else. But he continued upward despite his fears, reminding himself that his sisters were somewhere ahead, and Achara, and the rest of the captive women. If I don’t rescue them, then who will? he asked himself.
Duty drove him onward and he hiked farther up the trail, using his pitchfork as a walking stick. The moon shone through the clouds at times but was always quickly covered again, leaving Tolan to walk mostly in darkness. They will have to stop for the night on this side of the mountain, Tolan told himself. They won’t be able to make it to the pass, not with all their captives. They must be camping somewhere along here. I’ll find them eventually.
Then Tolan tripped and fell forward, dropping his pitchfork in the darkness. He spat dirt from his mouth as he raised his head to look back at what he had stumbled over but saw only a dark mound across the trail. Unsure what it was, he reached back to touch it but recoiled when he felt hair. Then the moon came out and he found himself staring at a hairy face, a face almost like a man’s, with brown eyes and a mouth frozen in an unrecognizable expression. Sitting up, Tolan scrambled backwards away from the body, but then he bumped into something else—something hairy. He shouted and jumped to his feet, scooping up his pitchfork and clutching it with bold hands and then spinning in a circle. The trail was lit by the light of the moon, and Tolan saw small hairy bodies scattered all around him.
Diggers, Tolan thought in surprise. Although he had never seen one—they never left the mountains—he had heard much about them. Like small, hairy dwarfs, diggers were neither man nor beast, something in-between, like a part of nature itself. Some of the boys in the valley had told scary stories about the diggers, claiming that the diggers would come down at night and steal livestock or dig up crops. But Tolan’s father had called those stories rubbish. He said the diggers never bothered anyone who did not bother them first.
And the shades had certainly bothered them, Tolan thought. Who else could have done this? He examined the bodies, none of which moved. There would be blood, he was sure, even if he could not see it in the moonlight. And, surrounded by wasteful death, Tolan thought of the tall shade again. Had the shade been smiling as he slaughtered digger after digger? Tolan clutched his pitchfork tightly.
But how could four shades have killed so many? Tolan wondered. They could not use magic and they are weak, weak compared to other men, and diggers are much stronger than men. They must have caught them surprised, Tolan decided, unable to think of any other explanation.
Should I cover the bodies? he wondered. They were not men but they were close enough that it seemed like they deserved that respect. Cover them with what? he asked himself. He had neither the means nor the time to bury them, not now. He bowed his head in respect to the dead, feeling regret that he had to leave them in this state, but then the thought occurred to him: peaceful or not, if other diggers see me with the bodies, they might think I killed them. Stepping around the small bodies, he hurried up the trail, leaving the dead diggers behind him as he went in search of their murderers.
The mountain was full of its night song: wind strumming the trees, insects singing, and somewhere far away, the lone note of a wolf. Tolan paused for that one before continuing upward, happy that the call had been so distant. From time to time as he hiked, Tolan looked up higher on the mountain, hoping to see a light. He had lost hope in finding the light from the honorable man upon the mountain, but he expected to see light from the shades’ camp eventually. They would have had to camp, he said to himself, unwilling to believe that the shades would have driven the women without sleep all the way over the pass. If they make it into their own land, then I have failed, he told himself, knowing that in a land full of shades he would have no chance of rescuing the women.
The trail leveled out for a moment, passing through a grove of trees that grew on the side of the mountain; and through the trees, Tolan saw light from a small fire. He had found the shades’ camp at last. Excited yet fearful, he stepped off the trail and crept forward, his eyes and ears searching for any sign of a guard.
There was a large tent in the middle of the camp, and Tolan could hear muffled crying coming from inside. So that is where they are keeping the women, Tolan told himself. And all around the tent he saw shade after shade, much more than four. There were at least a dozen.
Tolan leaned against his pitchfork in dismay. A dozen shades? How can I fight a dozen shades? He was filled with the despair of failure. There was no chance he could kill them all in their sleep. He could do nothing. And there was the tall shade, walking in the midst of the rest. Tolan fell to his knees, remembering the fingernail pointed at him and the certainty of imminent death. He was nothing. He was nothing. Terrified by the memory, he fell backwards and lay upon the ground. His sisters, Achara, all of the women were lost. He could not fight a dozen shades alone. They were lost and he had failed and he was nothing, simply nothing. He could not do it alone.
Then, lying on the ground, Tolan turned his head; and somewhere above, shining between dark trees, a dim light burned high upon the mountain.
* * *
Tolan crawled quickly away from the shades’ camp, afraid to stand and be seen by the shades but also afraid to lose sight of the light. Could it really be the honorable man upon the mountain? Tolan wondered, feeling true hope for the first time since the attack. The honorable man upon the mountain would help him. Tolan knew he would. And now Tolan knew where to find him.
After reaching the trail, Tolan stood and ran up the mountain, the dim light shining above him. It vanished from time to time, hidden by a large tree or outgrowth of rock, but then Tolan would turn a corner and see it again as he hiked higher and higher up the mountain and came closer to the light.
I’ll need to tell him about the camp, Tolan said to himself. He’ll need to know that there are a dozen shades guarding it. And Tolan thought of the shades then and of the sense of wrongness that hung over them like an odor. Although he was thankful they were keeping away from the women, he did wonder why. But then the thought occurred to him: they don’t want to spoil them before it is time. And remembering what the shades intended for their captives, Tolan increased his pace, the bottom of his pitchfork banging upon the ground behind him.
He thought of his father as he ran, and of his mother, and of his brother. It didn’t seem real that they were gone. Something told him he was holding back the truth of it from himself, that facing what he had lost would leave him unable to help his sisters. He felt guilt for not grieving, but he knew they would have wanted him to do what he was doing. He couldn’t let his sisters be taken by the shades. He couldn’t let them be bred and bred into nothing. And Achara was there too. The girl had hardly spoken a word to him, but she was beautiful and full of life and purpose. How long would that life last in the washed-out land of the shades? A land where she would be forced to bear colorless son after colorless son, feeling no love or compassion, only violation. Violation after violation.
Tolan growled and ran even faster, barely able to see the ground in front of him with how fast he was moving. The trail split and he turned to the right, where the light was coming from. But then the trail stopped and a cliff rose before him, the light shining above it.
There is probably another way up, Tolan guessed, but he didn’t have time to search, and he feared he might lose the light if he strayed from the path. So he started to climb, switching the pitchfork from hand to hand as he rose higher. The cliff offered plenty of handholds, but carrying the pitchfork slowed him down. Still, he continued upward, feeling the closeness of help above him and needing to reach it. But then a rock gave way and he slipped and started to slide down the cliff. Dropping the pitchfork, he grasped around with both hands, clasping hold and stopping his fall. He hung there for a moment, his heart beating rapidly, his hands and arms scraped and bloody, his head dizzy with fear. The air was cold this high up the mountain. He could feel the wind upon his back.
Tolan looked up and grabbed a rock above him, then another, rising higher and higher until he pulled himself gratefully over the top. The light was just ahead, coming from the side of the mountain. Tolan glanced over the cliff, unable to see his pitchfork anywhere below. Now I don’t even have a weapon to fight with, he told himself in dismay, but he didn’t have time to worry right then. He needed to find the light that would lead him to the honorable man upon the mountain, a man Tolan knew would offer help. He hurried through a small cluster of stunted trees and then reached a cave with a light burning deep within. He stopped in front of the cave and peered inside, but jumped at a voice from the shadows to his left.
“I have been waiting for you.”
* * *
Tolan reached instinctively for his pitchfork before remembering he had lost it. Looking through the shadows, he strained to see where the voice had come from, the tall shade haunting his memory once more, the shade’s colorless face and merciless eyes, the wooden fingernail raised to destroy him.
A shadow coughed in the darkness.
Tolan backed a few steps away, ready to flee as the shadow rose and moved towards him. But the shadow was small, not tall like the shade, and it moved jerkily. Then it stepped into the light and Tolan saw an old man, hunched over and dragging a lame leg behind him. The old man stopped and coughed again, his entire frame shaking with the exertion. Tolan was confused. Surely this is not the honorable man upon the mountain, he thought. This man could do nothing to help me fight the shades.
“I have been waiting for you,” the man repeated. “At times I worried you might not come.”
Tolan stared at the man in confusion. “How did you know I was coming?”
The old man laughed. “I didn’t know you would be coming. I just hoped someone would come because what would be the point otherwise? What would be the point if no one ever came?”
Is he crazy? Tolan wondered. His hopes for help were vanishing. This was not the man he had been looking for. This was not the honorable man upon the mountain. But what can I do now? Tolan asked himself. I don’t even have a pitchfork to fight with anymore. Then an idea occurred to him: could this old man be the servant of the honorable man upon the mountain? Crazy or not, could the old man lead me to him?
“My sisters have been kidnapped by shades,” Tolan said. “I come seeking help from the honorable man upon the mountain.”
“The honorable man upon the mountain?” the old man asked. “The honorable man upon the mountain? What makes you think there can be only one?”
And hope burst within Tolan. One had felt like enough, but to find more... “How many are there?”
The old man laughed again. “As many as choose to be, I suppose.” Then he turned towards the cave. And, waving his arm over his shoulder, he limped inside. “Come, I want to show you something! I have been waiting. I have been waiting. Come! I need to show you something!”
There was an eagerness in the old man’s voice and a happiness in his movements.
“Do they live here in this cave?” Tolan asked, following after.
The old man coughed. He was moving painfully slowly. “A little bit farther. I have something to show you.”
“There are a dozen shades below. They attacked our valley and have kidnapped many of our women.”
The old man paused at this and looked back at Tolan with sympathy in his eyes. Then he turned and continued leading Tolan farther into the cave. “The shades steal because they have destroyed themselves, and now they must take from others in order to survive. Men are full of pride and vain imagination,” the old man said. “But nature always gets the last word, does it not?”
They stopped and the old man pointed to his left, where a torch was mounted to the wall, its flames filling the cave in both directions. Tolan could see shadows farther within. A bed. Some sort of chest? The old man coughed, covering his mouth with his hand as his body shook. Then he pointed again at the wall underneath the torch. “See! See what I have created for you! I have been waiting—for so long—I have been waiting.”
Tolan’s gaze followed to where the old man was pointing and he was surprised to see a sword lying upon a rock shelf beneath the torch, surprised not by the presence of the sword but by its appearance. The sword was clear, almost transparent, yet Tolan could see how solid it was. He could feel its strength from feet away.
“Can you see it?” the old man asked eagerly.
“Yes, I see it right there,” Tolan responded, unsure what the old man wanted him to say and feeling anxious to find the honorable man upon the mountain. He looked farther into the cave again. Was the honorable man somewhere down there? Was there really more than one?
“No, look at it! Look around it! Can you not see it? Can you not see what I have created?”
Tolan looked again at the sword. There was something different about it, although he could not think of just what. It was made of a beautiful metal, something he had never seen before. But there was something else too. Something solid. Something inflexible. Then he saw it: the world was firm all around it, firmer than Tolan had ever seen it before.
“What is it?” he asked in wonder.
The old man smiled, pleased to see the recognition on Tolan’s face. “It is that which cannot be bent. When this world was left unshut, everything upon it was allowed to be bent—but not everything within.”
“But what is it called?”
“It doesn’t have a name. It is simply that which cannot be bent.”
Tolan turned to the old man. “You have crafted a weapon with something you cannot even name?”
“I know what I need to know,” the old man said. “No man should be expected to know everything. If he did, would he even be man any longer?”
Tolan turned back to the sword, staring in wonder at its design and material. “How long did it take you to make this?”
The old man laughed. “Why does that matter now, now that it is done? It is what I do. What other use would one such as I have? It is what I do. Some are meant to wield swords, others are meant to craft them. Both are important. Both are necessary. One is useless without the other. But now you are here. Now you are here, so perhaps I am not useless after all!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why make a sword if there is no one willing to wield it?”
Tolan looked back down the cave again. Where is the honorable man upon the mountain, he wondered. Is this his sword?
“The world needs brave men and brave women,” the old man said, pausing to cough. “And those brave men and brave women need swords. I can make those swords. I am happy to make them. But would it not be a shame for me to spend so much effort constructing a weapon if no one is willing to wield it?”
Tolan thought of the shades below and of his sisters waiting to be rescued. He didn’t have time to talk about a sword, beautiful or not. He needed to find the honorable man upon the mountain. They needed to return to the shades’ camp and rescue the captives.
“It is a beautiful sword—” Tolan began.
“No, it is not beautiful. Not yet.”
“What do you mean?” Tolan asked, unsure if the old man was being serious, or humble, or maybe just a little crazy. “The craftsmanship is amazing!”
The old man shook his head. “It is only a hunk of metal sitting on a shelf. What use does it have when it only gathers dust? No, it is not beautiful, not yet. It will never be beautiful until it is lifted off the shelf by one willing to wield it. That is when we will see whether it was crafted well or not. That is when we will know if it is beautiful.”
This was too much for Tolan. He had not come here to discuss a sword. “I need to find the honorable man upon the mountain,” he told the old man. “I need his help!”
But the old man only looked at him, a small smile upon his lips as the light from the torch danced in his eyes. “There is no one else here.”
“What? But I thought you knew where the honorable man upon the mountain was?”
The old man turned his eyes back to the sword. “Everything is allowed to be bent. Everything except this. And there is enough of it within that sword to keep things stable for a small distance around whoever wields it. “
The old man coughed. “You said that shades had kidnapped many women from your village?”
“Any of your kin?”
“Any who you would wish to be your kin?”
Tolan paused, a little embarrassed. “Maybe someday.”
The old man nodded towards the sword again. “As I said, the world will not bend when that sword is near. That means that you could get in and fight the shades, and by the time they knew they needed to bend the world in order to defeat you, they would no longer be able to bend it any more.”
Tolan stepped back. “Me? No, I cannot fight them. I am only a boy!”
The old man moved towards him. “Then it is time for you to be a man,” he said, his foot trailing behind as he limped forward. “Why does a man do a needed task? Does he do it because he expects a reward? Does he do it because he has been told to do it? No. He does it because it needs to be done. He does it because he wants to do it. He does it because he is a man—and a man is a man because he wants to do what needs to be done.”
Tolan turned away from the old man. All of his hope had been wasted. There is no one here to help me, he thought in dismay. It was all just stories, and what good are stories? The old man is no help. He would be useless in a fight against shades. Oh, he might be able to craft marvelous weapons, but he is in no shape to wield them. And if there is no honorable man upon the mountain, then who could save my sisters, who could save Achara? Tolan felt alone. There was no one to help him.
“I can’t fight them by myself,” Tolan said.
“A man who wields a sword like that will never be alone upon this mountain—never. Remember that nature is wiser than man. Men are easily misled, but nature is ever diligent, ever ready to provide the consequence that must inevitably follow.”
Tolan turned back to look at the sword where it sat dully upon its shelf. He thought of his sisters. They need someone to help them, and if not me, then who? He stared at the sword, and his father’s words returned to him: a man always does his duty.
The cave was silent. The old man stood beside Tolan, his eyes filled with the hope that someone would finally make his work worthwhile. Tolan stared at the firmness of the world around the metal. A beautiful weapon, yet a useless one if no one was willing to wield it. And without it, all would be lost.
Tolan walked to the sword, grabbed its hilt, and lifted it from its shelf. It was heavier than he expected.
The old man clapped his hands, bouncing up and down in excitement.
Then, not wanting to let his fear stop him, Tolan walked towards the entrance of the cave, but he turned back after a few steps and looked at the old man, who was smiling after him. “What will you do now?”
The old man laughed. “I know where to find more. I have many plans.”
* * *
Tolan found a small path that led around the cliff, and he hiked back down towards the shades’ camp. He walked more slowly now as the impossibility of what he was about to do bore down upon him. There are twelve of them, he said to himself. Twelve of them against me. How can I fight twelve by myself?
But they are weak, he reminded himself, and their blades are short. With surprise on my side, could I do it? At least they cannot use magic, he told himself. As long as the old man wasn’t lying... or crazy.
He doubted it was possible for him to defeat all twelve shades, and he felt sure he was going to die. But how can I do nothing? He asked himself. How can I just sit and complain, not lifting a finger to try and help? No, I have to try. My sisters need me, Achara needs him. It is something that needs to be done. It is a duty that needs to be done. And I am the only one who is willing to do it.
Clouds drifted past the moon and shadows lined the trail, trees and bushes and rock formations looking strange and forbidding in the darkness as he trudged down the mountain. Then Tolan realized: some of the shadows were following him.
He froze and stared into the darkness along the side of the trail. Nothing moved. Leaning forward, he peered into the shadows but saw only vague dark shapes. He took a step down the trail. The shadows moved along beside him. Another step down the trail. The shadows moved with him again.
Tolan raised his sword and pointed it at the shadows. There was no movement for a moment, but then the shadows flowed forward and Tolan saw a group of short, hairy, man-like creatures, their brown eyes unreadable. The diggers had found him.
Panic filled Tolan. Do they think I killed the others? Did they see me by the bodies? Or did they track me by smell? Did they track me all the way from the carnage up to here?
He looked from digger to digger, noticing their thick, strong arms and claw-like hands, hands hard enough to carve through stone if the stories were true. His grip tightened on the hilt of his sword. He did not want to fight these creatures.
“I have no quarrel with you,” he told the diggers softly, close enough to the shades’ camp that he feared drawing their attention and losing the advantage of surprise. “I have done you no harm.”
But the diggers only stared at him blankly, no change of expression, no movement at all. They can’t talk, you fool, he reminded himself.
“Shoo!” he told them.
They didn’t move.
“Get out of here! I have no time for this!”
Still, they didn’t move.
Frustrated and nervous, Tolan started to back slowly down the trail. The diggers followed behind, their eyes locked on him. They didn’t seem agitated, at least not to Tolan, but there was an air about them, a feeling of impending violence, not a violence that might come but a violence that must come, a consequence that needed to be delivered. Tolan started walking faster, still facing backward, taking large step after large step down the mountain. But then he tripped and fell, dropping his sword as he tumbled a few feet down the trail.
He squirmed to his knees and grabbed the sword, swinging it wildly at the approaching diggers, but they stood feet away, not having advanced against him, and his sword swung uselessly to his left.
And all the diggers followed, gathering on his left.
Tolan froze, his sword still pointing in that direction. Then he moved it to the right.
The diggers crossed the trail and stood upon his right.
And Tolan remembered the words the old man had told him: “A man who wields a sword like that will never be alone upon this mountain.” Is this what he meant? But how could he have known? Tolan pointed to his left again, causing all the diggers to move back to that side of the trail. He eyed them for a moment. Still no agitation or anger, no emotions from them at all, none except... expectation?
He turned and faced downhill again, keeping his sword pointed towards the diggers to hold them on that side. The diggers matched step with him as he walked down the trail, their eyes continually focused on the sword. And suddenly Tolan knew how he could kill the shades. He could not fight twelve by himself, but now he wouldn’t have to. And with surprise on his side, Tolan was starting to believe he might actually be able to do the duty that needed to be done.
* * *
Tolan and the diggers huddled in the trees outside the camp, surveying the scene. Hot ashes from the fire pit cast a red glow on the tent, and the moon showed Tolan the sleeping bodies of the shades clustered in a circle around the camp. There was a shade standing guard as well, the black-robed shape almost directly in front of him. Tolan could not see around the back of the tent. There might be another shade on guard there also. But the rest were lying upon the ground. Tolan could not help wondering where the tall shade was. He hoped to not see him. Even with a sword in his hand, Tolan didn’t know if he would be brave enough to face the shade again.
Tolan could hear whispers from the tent, women’s voices. Mothers offering comfort, he assumed, although he was unable to make out any of the words. His sisters were in there. Were those words of comfort being spoken for their sake?
He looked at the shade standing in front of him. Then he looked at those on the ground around him, trying to memorize where they lay. The strike would have to be fast, very fast, if it was going to be successful. The diggers squatted on the ground and stared at him. Would they actually fight? he wondered. But even a diversion would help. And if they actually attacked, if they actually killed some of the shades, then he thought he might be able to do this.
Tolan crouched low and stared at the shade in front of him. He brought his blade forward, low to the ground and ready to be raised when he pounced. The sword felt heavy in his hand. He had never killed a man before. The shade stood before him, looking to the side, unaware that his life would shortly end. Tolan felt the weight of the sword. He felt the cold earth beneath his other hand. The shades had killed his father. The shades had killed his mother. The shades had killed his brother. The shades enslaved women—they viewed them all as nothing more than cattle. But they will not make slaves of my sisters, Tolan promised himself. No, I am not going to let that happen.
The sword felt heavy in his hand. He pointed it to the right and the diggers started moving in that direction. Good, he thought. Now let’s see if they know what to do. But he had his part to perform as well. Bringing his sword forward again, he took a deep breath and then leapt to his feet and rushed to the shade, driving his sword into the shade’s stomach before the shade even knew to draw his own blade.
The trees to his right were full of stomping and he heard a shade cry out in pain, but he was already moving to his left, finding the first shade as it lay upon the ground and driving his sword into the shade’s chest. The blade caught inside the man. Tolan yanked it free and turned to the next, but the shade had already moved. Tolan spun, looking for the shade, when a hand grasped his leg and knocked him off his feet, and the shade was suddenly on top of him, driving a twisted blade towards Tolan’s face with both hands. Tolan threw his free hand into the air and caught the shade’s hands, holding them both in his own and keeping the knife away from him. The shade cursed and pushed with all his strength, but the shade was weak and Tolan held him back easily. He angled his sword with his other hand and drove it straight into the struggling shade’s stomach. Then he pushed the shade to the side and rose to his knees, looking for the rest. Another shade came at him, twisted blade already drawn and ready to strike. Tolan raised his sword and knocked the shade’s knife to the side and then slashed the shade across his chest. But the shade’s momentum carried him forward and he knocked Tolan to the ground, Tolan’s sword stuck underneath the shade’s body. Tolan pushed the dead shade off of him, but another shade was already attacking, and Tolan’s sword was not yet free. The shade lunged for Tolan, its blade poised for a strike.
But there was a loud crack and the shade dropped to the ground. And behind the fallen shade Tolan saw a young woman, a piece of firewood in her hands, Achara, face pale, black hair pulled back in a bun. She stared down at him in worry.
“Get the others!” Tolan yelled. Then he stood, walked to the fallen shade, who was still moving, and drove his sword into the shade’s chest. Tolan looked up, expecting to see more shades advancing against him, but there were none left. Then he heard the commotion coming from the other side of the camp: shades yelling and cursing, the low guttural call of the diggers.
The women had all gathered in front of the tent, led by Achara and her mother.
“Come on!” Tolan called to them. “We have to go!”
They started towards him, relief upon their faces, but they stopped partway and screamed in terror as the tall shade stepped out from behind the tent and advanced towards Tolan.
“You brought dwarfkin?” the shade yelled. “You brought filthy dwarfkin?”
He raised his hand and pointed a wooden fingernail at Tolan, and the whole world was only that small piece of wood, that wooden fingernail rammed into the shade’s finger, and the world was on fire or soon would be, and Tolan’s knees trembled, and Tolan wanted to drop the sword, the heavy, heavy sword, and Tolan wanted to run, to not face this man—a man who could twist the world as he wished. Tolan wanted to not be torn apart, to not burn; but his sisters were there, and Tolan would not let them be slaves, nor Achara, nor the other women, and there was no one else to save them, and there was duty, something that needed to be done, and standing there, facing the shade, Tolan wanted to do it.
He raised his sword against the shade, ignoring the voice inside him that screamed for him to flee. I hope you are right about this sword, old man, Tolan thought, still staring at the wooden fingernail the shade was pointing at him.
“Foolish cattle!” the shade yelled. “You cannot defeat us. You cannot win because you refuse to take what is free for you to take! You have killed yourself, foolish cattle, and you have killed your women as well. They will be no good to us after I have finished with you and your puny dwarfkin.”
And the tall shade advanced, his finger raised towards Tolan. He uttered a phrase in a low harsh language.
Hearing the words, the women threw themselves on the ground, the younger ones crying. Achara and her mother huddled protectively over the others, placing themselves between them and the shade. Tolan waited for flames to burst forth from the shade’s wooden fingernail and consume him or for air to whip towards him and rip him apart.
But nothing happened.
The tall shade froze, and his face filled with confusion. He looked at his wooden fingernail in wonder, but then his glare deepened and he raised his other fingers, pointing his whole hand at Tolan, five wooden fingernails waiting to direct the shade’s bidding. The tall shade yelled his command in a loud voice.
Still, nothing happened.
Tolan looked at the sword. The old man had been right. Then he turned back to the shade, who was staring at the sword with wide eyes.
“What are you wielding, little cattle?” the shade asked, a quiver in his voice.
Tolan smiled and stepped towards the shade. “Something that you cannot bend!” He lifted his sword to strike. The tall shade raised his hands in defense but Tolan struck with all his might, separating the shade’s head from his shoulder. The head dropped to the ground and rolled away, but the body stood for a moment longer before falling to its knees and then toppling slowly forward to the ground.
Tolan looked at the blade again, now covered in blood. Yes, it is a beautiful sword, he said to himself. He wiped the blood off on the cloak of the dead shade. A beautiful sword indeed.
The camp was silent, no more shades yelling or diggers grunting. The women had all risen to their feet. Some seemed too shocked to walk, but Achara’s mother directed others to help them, and they moved towards Tolan, who looked around the camp, searching for any sign of danger. He saw nothing. Even the shades’ bodies had vanished.
Surprised by this, Tolan turned back to look at the body of the tall shade, and he saw it being dragged away by the feet, the faint shadows of diggers visible as the shade’s body was swallowed by the darkness.
“Bury it deep,” Tolan said quietly, nodding at the brown eyes that blinked in response. Then the diggers were gone, carrying away the taint of the shades.
The women gathered around Tolan, beginning to realize that the danger had passed. Tolan’s sisters broke from the crowd and hugged him, both of them crying. Other women were thanking him and asking him if he was all right and marveling at the sword he had fought with.
“We must return to our homes,” Tolan told them, and his words reminded the women of the grief they would find there. The women wept, clutching each other for comfort, Tolan’s sisters shook against him as they thought of their dead parents and brother. Tenderly, Tolan removed their arms from him and turned them towards the trail, leading all the women away from the shades’ camp.
“Wait,” Achara said. Tears for her father ran down her cheeks but anger filled her eyes. She hurried back to the fire pit and pulled out a partially burned stick. She blew upon its red ashes until it glowed. Then she walked to the tent and pressed the burning wood against the fabric, setting it afire. She waited until the flames leapt up the tent’s wall, and then she rejoined the group, taking a place close to Tolan. She did not smile at him. It was not a time for smiles. But he saw something in her eyes as she looked at him that had not been there before.
The tent burned bright behind as they walked towards their homes, every heart filled with a swirling mixture of grief and relief. But, the sword still heavy in his hand, Tolan stopped and looked back one final time, searching with his eyes for the old man’s cave, high up on the mountain. And he thought he saw a faint red light, red like a forge; and drifting down the mountain, came the hammering of metal.
Part of "The Ridge of Earth Collection".
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