Through tears and bare tree branches The Mountain filled his vision, its snowy cap almost radiant in the light of the full moon. The Mountain had no name that Felix knew, but he thought of it as a stern grandfather; ancient, severe and unforgiving.
The boy wrapped his wool cloak tight against the winter chill and did his best not to think of Her, though, try as he might, he’d thought of little else during the journey to this secluded place.
A sharp whistle drew Felix from his dark contemplations.
Father needed him.
He stood and padded his way to the edge of the woods, his sheepskin boots leaving small prints in the light dusting of snow.
His father stood in a grassy clearing between the edge of the woods and The Mountain– eyes scanning the rock face.
“I’m here Papa.”
Felix hastily wiped the tears away before his father turned around.
Gaius was not a tall man, or particularly broad, but sinews of muscle clung to his bones like the rigging of a ship. Seeing his son, the man’s eyes softened, but when he spoke, his voice sounded coarse. “One of the lambs has gone missing. Markus has already headed up the mountain. I will search the forest. I need you to watch the flock.”
A crash came from the mountain as Markus slid down the loose rocks near its base.
“I found her papa!”
The lanky youth stumbled a few paces to stand beside them, breathing heavily.
“Quiet boy, do you want to bring the whole mountain down on our heads? If you’ve found her, where is she?”
“She’s hiding back in a crevice. I think something spooked her, she won’t come out and I couldn’t squeeze in to get her. Felix will have to do it.”
Felix looked uncertainly at the mountainside then at his father whose brow knit together in thought for a moment.
“Tell me where it is,” he finally said.
This time Markus’ brow furrowed.
“It’s straight up past that bolder about 200 paces, but it’s small and if she fell asleep, I’m not sure that you’ll be able to find her. Let me take Felix up there. I know I can find it again.”
Gaius shook his head.
“If the lamb is scared, there may be a bear or wolves. I need you to say down here and look after the rest of the flock.”
Markus looked dejected but knew better than to argue when his father made a decision.
“Come Felix,” the man said and turned toward the mountain.
Felix looked pleadingly to his older brother. He did not want to climb The Mountain. Certainly not if there were bears. Markus gave him an encouraging smile and ruffled his hair.
“You’ll be safe with Papa.”
Felix swallowed hard and started up The Mountain. Rocks slid under his feet, making upward movement difficult, but Gaius climbed behind him, pushing him forward whenever he began to slip back down the slope.
They didn’t speak. There had been little to say of late. Felix suspected his father’s grief equaled his own, but there was work to be done.
A man has no time to cry, the boy thought.
The father and son climbed past the boulder Markus described and the loose rocks gave way to smooth shale, made all the more slick by snow and ice.
“I’m afraid papa,” Felix said, scrambling upwards on hands and knees.
“I won’t let you fall son. Listen! I can hear her crying for her mother. We are nearly there.”
Felix lay quiet for a moment, heard a bleating, “Baaaa.”
“You see, son!”
Felix looked back and his father grinned reassuringly. The boy could not remember the last time he had smiled.
That wasn’t true.
He could remember, but he refused to dwell on that day.
Hands freezing, the boy steeled himself and shuffled forward, ever upward. The lamb’s bleating grew louder as they climbed. The man and boy began whistling and calling coaxingly to the animal in an effort to draw it out, but it only bleated louder.
Finally, they came to a tight crevice in the mountainside. If not for the lamb’s cries echoing from within, Felix would have missed it completely.
While moonlight reflecting off the snow cast a ghostly glow across the mountain face, no light penetrated into the crevice.
Gaius cooed and clucked and spoke soft words into the breach. The lamb quieted but did not emerge.
“I can get her Papa,” Felix said.
“Are you sure boy? It’s a tight fit.”
He nodded and removed his wool cloak, baring his arms to the biting cold. The crevice was jagged and narrow, but Felix was a thin lad. Turning sideways he squirmed into the darkness, an arm outstretched, feeling for the bleating animal. His cheek scrapped against a sharp stone and he winced but continued shuffling deeper into the mountain.
The way grew tighter, Felix thought his tunic might be ruined, but after three more shuffling steps his fingers brushed against curly soft wool. The lamb bleated in relief, recognizing the boy’s scent and touch.
“Come on girl,” the boy said. “Time to get back to your momma.”
Although partially pacified, the animal refused to follow the boy’s command.
Felix exhaled, releasing all the air in his lungs, making himself as thin as possible and stretched towards the lamb, grasping a handful of soft fur and skin.
The lamb bleated in pain and surprise, but Felix gave it no heed, dragging the terrified thing back, towards the entrance, out of the mountain. The walls, too tight even to turn his head, the boy wriggled his way backwards, once again scraping his cheek and torso.
Finally, he fell back into the moonlight, with the lamb, bloody and terrified landing on top of him. The snow under his back was soaking through his tunic and made him shiver but Felix didn’t care.
He had done it.
“Felix!” Gaius cried and knelt to inspect the boy. “You are bleeding. Are you hurt badly, son?”
“I don’t think so, Papa,” Felix said, then looked down at his body, realized he was covered in blood and began to cry.
After a more thorough inspection Gaius showed the boy most of the blood, belonged to the lamb, though Felix had sustained deep scrapes on his left cheek, chest and right knee. He didn’t ever remember scraping his knee. His tunic and breeches were torn in several places, but all of his injuries appeared to be superficial. The lamb however, bled from deep puncture wounds in its left hind leg.
“Look Felix, it is mostly lamb blood,” Gaius said. “You will be alright.
Felix stopped crying, embarrassed. His father helped him to his feet and handed him his warm woolen cloak.
“Looks like a wolf-bite,” Gaius said, inspecting the sheep’s wounds. “Still, she should be fine in a few weeks. We should get back to your brother and the flock before the wolves return. They can surely hear her crying.”
The man slung the lamb over his shoulder and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“I’m proud of you son.” he said and started back down the mountain.
As the father and son shuffled along the lamb finally ceased its bleating and began to snore gently. They rested when they reached the bolder, chests heaving in the thin air.
“Papa, I hear music.” Felix said, head cocked to the side.
Gaius cocked his head in imitation of his son and after a moment nodded.
“I need you to take the lamb and return to your brother,” he said finally. “I will find whoever this musician is.”
Panic filled the boy’s eyes and he shivered wrapping his cloak tighter around him.
“But what if the wolves find us papa?”
The man looked sorrowfully down at the boy, “Son, by now you know men are more dangerous by far than any beast, but if you are truly afraid you can come with me. Besides your ears are better than mine. Which direction is the music coming from?”
The boy’s face lit up then furrowed in concentration.
“That way!” he said pointing to their left and slightly further up the mountain and started off at a trot. While Gaius would have preferred stealth, avoiding loose rocks was impossible and they created tiny rockslides with each step. Still it would be better to confront their new neighbor then sit and wonder if the musician was dangerous.
They stumbled along, the music growing louder, the moon rising higher, the air growing even cooler. Felix longed for a warm fire and sleep, but the haunting melody drew him on. Neither father nor son wondered how the music traveled such a distance, they simply continued entranced by the song.
After what felt like an eternity the pair stumbled around a bend and Felix saw light flickering in the distance and in time they came upon a cave, its entrance wide enough for 3 men, light dancing within. The music, ghostly and alluring, beckoned them inside.
“You should stay out here, Felix,” Gaius did not look at the boy, his gaze fastened on the entrance.
“I’m coming with you, Papa,” said Felix equally bewitched by the light and sound echoing from within.
The man nodded, and without another word the pair stepped into the cave.
Heat flooded into Felix; the sudden change made his veins feel on fire but after the steadily falling temperature outside he welcomed the burn. How many nights had they spent in the open air? 10? 12? Ever since…
Felix brushed the thought aside and took in the cave interior. The walls were dry, the floor smooth, the place had a lived-in feel, but the fire, which burned in a rock-lined pit in the floor did not account for the swirling light that played upon the walls.
“Long has it been since I received visitors.”
Felix gave a start, a man stood near the rear of the cavern, griping a lute in long gaunt fingers. Only then did the boy realize the music had stopped.
Gaius placed himself between the tall figure and the boy.
“It’s been days since we’ve seen another soul as well. We heard your music and thought it more polite to meet our neighbor than avoid you,” he said. His hand rested casually on his belt, within easy reach of his sling, a stone already resting in its soft leather pouch.
“I have wine, if you would drink with me, and fire to chase away winter’s bite,” the gaunt man gestured to the fire pit. “I left the world of men for this place for solitude many years ago, but I’ve found myself lonely in recent days. Please, join me.”
Gaius hesitated for a moment. Felix wondered if his father felt the same as him. The Man gave every courtesy, there was even an air of formality about him. Nothing about his manner or appearance gave any indication that he meant them harm, but still, something in the boy’s very core said this was a dangerous person.
But will he hurt us?
“It would be an honor to share wine with you sir,” Gaius said finally. “Though just water for the boy, if you have it.”
“Then please take your ease.”
The Man took a step back and to the left into an opening in the wall of the cave Felix had not noticed. The boy and his father sat next to the fire, Gaius laying the sleeping lamb between them. The animal’s wounds had stopped bleeding and it snored peacefully, snuggling into the side of Felix’s leg.
The boy stroked the soft wool of its head and took a closer look at his surroundings. With the exception of the fire he could see no evidence that a person lived in the cave. Multicolored light played across the walls, though Felix could not find its source.
A moment later The Man appeared, a goat-hide wineskin in one hand and a clay jar in the other. He sat on the ground next to the fire, one long leg crossed beneath the other, back straight as an arrow. He passed the wineskin to father and the jar to son.
“Drink and be welcome,” he said.
Felix took a swig from the jar. Water, cool and earthy, filled his mouth. Until that moment he had not realized how thirsty he was. Gaius squeezed the skin sending a stream of bright purple liquid into his mouth before handing it back to his host.
“Thank you,” he said. “May I ask what brought you to this secluded place?”
The Man took a drag from the skin before answering, his voice grated like rocks falling down the mountainside, his words came slowly as if he had not spoken in years.
“I felt my… responsibilities would be better served away from the… passions of others.”
“What responsib…” Felix started, but his father cut him off.
“We have also come to this mountain weary of the world, fleeing the… passions of other men, but if you desire solitude, there are many other valleys we can move on to.”
The Man passed his wineskin back to Gaius then sat back with an unreadable expression; his eyes seemed to bore into the man’s soul.
“I have been here alone for quite a long time,” he said finally. “I would hear your story. If you are willing to tell it.”
Gaius shifted uncomfortably and took another pull at the wineskin. Felix felt hollow. They had not spoken of it, they had not spoken of Her, and he did not want to. He reached out and grasped his father’s arm tightly, “Papa…” he said, but trailed off, his child’s mind searching for words to describe feelings he could not understand.
Gaius looked down at him sorrowfully, tears in his eyes and kissed the boy’s hair.
“It will be well son,” he said and turned back to their host whose expression remained unreadable, after a moment his eyes dropped to the fire and he spoke.
“Ten days ago, my wife was killed,” his voice sounded flat, emotionless, guarded. “Her name was Chiara. The… men who took her… they demanded a portion of our flock. They were not from Rome. They were not from the governor… They were our neighbors, men I’d laughed and shared a cup of wine with… I told them my flock was my own. They said they needed my sheep in exchange for protection.”
Gaius’ voice cracked and he laughed bitterly, “Protection? I’d never needed it before. The governor’s men kept the peace, we hadn’t seen a bandit raid since I was a boy. Why would we need protection?”
Felix gripped a handful of wool, knuckles tight. Why talk about it? It was done! She wasn’t coming back! He wanted to run, wanted to be anywhere else, but his legs felt frozen. He began to weep softly.
His father reached out and stroked his hair but continued to stare unblinking into the fire.
“Of course, what they meant was protection from them,” Gaius continued. “I told them I’d send for the governor’s men, but they just laughed and said I was welcome to try.
“Sure enough, the captain of the guard said he didn’t have time to look after our little farm… I don’t know if they paid him. Maybe… I just don’t know. But even so I couldn’t believe my own neighbors would actually hurt my family. They were back the next morning. I met them outside with my older son, Markus. Chiara took Felix into the house and barred the door.
“I told them to leave, they’d take nothing from us. That’s when they pulled out their swords.”
Gaius barely spoke in the days since. Why did he have to speak so much now? Felix wondered.
“I don’t even know where they got them, we’ve been farmers for generations, my grandfather fought as a conscript in the last rebellion, but…”
Gaius faltered for a moment but took a deep breath and continued,
“They killed sheep first, just to prove they meant business. Just two. We still could have given them what they wanted and made it through the winter but…” He looked up from the fire for the first time and met The Man’s icy gaze with a small proud smile eyes ablaze behind tears. “She always had a temper.”
Felix buried his head in his lap and let out a sob. Gaius looked down at the boy.
“I loved her too, son,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t protect her better.”
The Man leaned forward; the fire casting shadows among the crags of his gaunt face.
“These men, they killed your wife.” He said, it was not a question.
“This is a sad thing.”
The Man rose, tall and gaunt. He seemed to tower over the boy and his father.
“What would you do to these men?”
Gaius turned his gaze back to the fire.
“There is nothing I can do,” he said flatly. “There are dozens of them. That’s why we came here. Perhaps we will die in the winter cold, but it would be better than dying at the hands of men I once called friends. There is no one I can trust, no one to help me”
The Man loomed over father and son, to Felix it seemed he stood nearly to the ceiling.
Gaius looked up at the man confused.
“I will help you avenge your wife. I will help you protect your family.”
“Why would you help us?” Gaius was on his feet eyes flashing with equal parts hope and suspicion. “We are nothing to you.”
The man shifted his gaze from the man to his son and back.
“Long ago I was charged with a task,” he said. “I believed that task required that I leave the world of men behind, so I came to this place. Others have come near, but none have ever crossed the threshold into my home. That you and your son found me must be an omen. I think it is time I returned to the world of men.”
Fear gripped Felix’s heart, he felt small, and not only because of The Man’s size. He spoke with the weight of ages. As if he were different from normal people, apart. Felix had seen soldiers and priests and once even the governor himself, they were different than normal people, but still people. Felix did not know if The Man could be called people.
“But you are just one man,” despite the uncertainty of his words, hope tinged Gaius’ voice. “How could you help us?”
The Man lifted his hands and the light that played across the walls swirled madly, pink and gold. Green and orange. Colors Felix didn’t recognize swirled in shapes he could barely comprehend.
“I am the keeper of infinity,” The Man said. “The steward of worlds beyond imagining. No one can look upon my charge and live. Lower your eyes if you value your life.”
The colors grew brighter and Felix covered his eyes with his hands, the display too beautiful and terrifying to comprehend. He felt his father’s arms wrap around him protectively. Light played across the inside of the boy’s eyelids. He felt afraid.
“Enough, please!” Gaius shouted.
The light dimmed.
Felix opened his eyes to see The Man had not moved. Light still played across the walls, but it was dimmer, gentler, like water reflected on a bathhouse wall.
“Will you accept my help?”
Gaius released his son and stood.
“I do not know what you are,” he said. “But I am not naïve enough to think your help will come without a price. What do you want from us?”
The man stepped forward, through the fire and picked up the lamb.
“Blood of your flock, blood of your family.”
“That is a steep price,” Gaius once again stepped between The Man and his son. “Revenge is not worth the life of my sons.”
“I require only a taste, from you, and from each of your line for as long as you require my service,” The man said. “From your flock I will take one lamb a year. Are these terms acceptable to you?”
Gaius looked down at his son’s bloody tear streaked face for a time, then shook his head.
“I will not see my family harmed further. Not even for the destruction of my enemies.”
“I understand,” The Man said. “You are a good man, Gaius.”
Felix did not think his father had told The Man their names.
“Wait,” he said, and stood.
“Son…” Gaius started.
“No Papa,” Felix said, his voice shook but his eyes were dry. “I want to do this. I want to go home. I want the people who killed momma to not be able to hurt anyone ever again.”
The boy ignored his father and turned to The Man.
“Take what you need from me.”
The Man looked at the boy, then turned to Gaius, who after a long moment nodded.
“Your knife, Gaius.”
The Father drew it from his belt sheath and presented it hilt first to The Man.
“Hold out your hands.”
The Father and son did so. The Man drew the knife across each of their palms, drawing deep red blood.
“Hold them over the fire.”
They did. Blood sizzled as it dripped from their hands, sending sparks up towards them.
The light that played across the walls of the cavern intensified and The Man closed his eyes in what looked like rapture for long moments.
Finally, he said, “Enough.”
The father and son withdrew their hands from above the flames. Felix felt somehow diminished, as if he’d lost something more than blood. Everything felt more distant, even his grief.
They slaughtered the lamb and the Man wrote words Felix could not read in its blood upon its skin. The Man told them to leave the cave while he prepared himself for the journey.
They waited in silence for a long time. The moon fell behind the mountain and their only light came from the stars and the strange glow from inside the cave.
Finally, there was a flash, then darkness from within the cave and The Man stood in the entrance holding nothing but a lute case.
“It is time to take your revenge,” he said and began walking down the mountain.
The Father and son followed him back to their flock and to Markus, who made his sacrifice to the strange, powerful being readily. They returned to their village and the man destroyed their enemies, and later the enemies of Felix and Markus’ children, and their children’s as well, until their family were one of the most wealthy and powerful in all of Italy. And with each generation, the blood sacrificed on every male child’s 9th birthday, in honor of Félix, the first sacrifice, took something more of their souls.
Thanks for reading The Mountain! If you liked it there’s a sequel called The Man With The Case you can read it here and check out the rest of mindful of madness for all my weird stories. Don’t forget to like and subscribe!