Fiction


Nonfic


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ELKWOOD by ZACH LEVERTON

Chapter 6 - PART SIX

We had been walking for days. We left the lake and headed north through thin crowds of young trees, stepping on supple young plants, defying the winter. They sprouted over thin snowfall, which turned a kind of grey as the hungry, cold earth beneath our feet sucked at it. The night sky had become bleak and overcast. The darkness was tangible, but I knew better than to light a torch, even here.

When we slept, it was briefly and in no comfort. When I slept, I did not dream, and I was glad of it. When I lay in the snow to rest, my body seemed to collapse until it found the soil underneath. Under the snow were the rocks, under the rocks was the earth, and under the earth were the mountains that howled and billowed and sent fourth their litany to haunt and bite and scratch and eat. From the black rock in the distance we heard the growls of the unspeakable horrors in our path.

Dorothy stayed alert while I slept, and I would insist to her that she slept when I awoke, cocking my gun and sitting beside her until she relaxed. In this we found the understanding of a night watch, and in this I would sit and listen to the mist, and contemplate what the maniac had said.

It ainít the dogs that keep Elkwood up, itís whatís in the dogs.

Thatís the secret.


I thought about why I had left him alive. I wondered what had possessed the dragon and the trolls to let him live in the first place. I thought about how long he must have been there. I fixated on how he cocked the gunís bolt open to release the shell, then reached for another bullet and placed it in the open chamber over the ready bullet in the clip, which would lift into firing position when the hatch was closed so long as it was unobstructed. I tried to remember how long ago it must have been since rifles were ever used in such a way. I thought of his face, gnarled and hateful, wild-eyed and silver-haired, but young Ė perhaps no older than me.

In the far-off night, some mountain wolf howled to a moon he surely couldnít see. Any other time, any other place, in any other circumstances, I would have fired a shot into the air to shoo him off. I didnít. I had too few bullets, and I was too tired and too scared of something coming after whatever made the loud bang my gun would send echoing through the mountains.

I sat and listened to the long dirge of the lupine howl echo across the dry air.

At first light I leaped to my feet and patted Dorothy on the rump. Her eyes flitted open and she grumbled, getting up and yawning, then dropping her bottom jaw and letting her tongue dangle and twitch, small puffs of steamy breath billowing like a smoke signal from her face in the dark blue morning air.

We had eaten well since we left the lakeshore. Dorothy delighted in catching the little white hares that would spring from their burrows and dance along the snow in wild dashes to whatever hiding spot they could find. My wounds healed fast. My wrists closed up, my belly bloated. I had decided perhaps on the third day, heading northbound, that we were in fact making for the caves of the nearest mountainís side. I had twenty bullets left and if I couldnít find my pack, surely one of the hermits or witches would have found it, hidden under some animalís skin, wrenched off with bare clenched fist.

The trees thinned in number, dispersing on a gentle slope. I looked up through the bare, skeletal canopy. Through the thin mist I could just make out the jagged wall of the mountainside. Make-shift paths were carved into the rock, winding here and there, marked by tall piles of stone. The tree line stopped abruptly and so did we. Dorothy perked her ears and stepped forward, dipping her nose in twitching repetition, investigating the air. We approached the edge of the forest, bordered off by the edge of the snow, revealing crumbly black gravel, the rocks increasing in size until they gathered at the base of an almost sheer vertical sheet of obsidian.

I thought for a moment, and then sat down, crossing my legs and placing my rifle on my lap. Dorothy turned and tilted her head at me, then walked forward and sat beside me, both of us facing the mountain. I had almost forgotten about the rules of these populated mountains. The hermits make their dwellings from the rock, and into the rock they etch the rules. A kill must be made, a patient kill at the edge of the snowline. Men dropped dead as if from nothing when they crossed the tree line without observing these old rituals. My father would tell me the stories of his friends tipping over dead on expeditions to the mountains, and how he could hear the terrible laughter of the hermits far into the mountains.

I thought of the hermit in my dreams.

The Elkís herald.

We waited there, the both of us. I pulled my sword from my hip and lifted it over my head, staring down at the ground. Dorothy read me and got up, trotting off towards the trees.
As the minutes passed into hours, I listened to the trees, hearing their secrets whispered by the wind from branch to thin, frozen branch. Unseen birds sung arrhythmic tunes to no one in particular, deep in the mists. I heard the wind moan in my ear and kick up little clouds of quickly dispersing snow as it slid off the edge of the mountain. I heard a rapping, somewhere in the mountain, some sentient thing working away at whatever horrible thing could be made in a place like this. I listened, and I waited. I waited for the only thing in this place I could not now hear, as it stalked between trees and slithered through the mists like a serpent through grass Ė my white dog.

My Dorothy.

***


We came to this place looking for secrets. We called it Urrut, which in the old tongue meant Old Place. It bordered a small kingdom of no significance, other than that it was near these mountains. The borderland was vast; long plains of grass and great rock shelves, impossible to climb. Cranes and bridges had to be built so that men could cross. When the expenses for it were accrued, many asked ďWhy bother? What possible reason could there be for men to bring their wives and children to Hell?Ē

That is what they thought of this place. They thought that when the worst of them died, as punishment they would be condemned to live here, to be tortured and killed again and again, forever. When a bad person died in the little kingdom on the borderland, they would burn the body and throw the ash high into the air so that it would be carried to Urrut and the offender would be damned forever.

The men who came here were not led. They had no corporate entity to fund them, no brave man of military veneration to lead them into the unknown. They were not grand adventurers seeking glory or scientists seeking to push back the darkness and superstition that surrounded this place. They were greedy men with nothing left, vagabonds and failed entrepreneurs who had no other place to go but to Hell. They were selfish men, too. They brought women and children with them, daughters and sons, mothers and wives. They did not want to explore, they did not want to conquer, they wanted to pillage. They wanted to command.

It was the autumn when they set out. Atop the great barrier shelf they built an ascending bridge and rushed their families and belongings up a ramp and into the forest in dead of night. Trees crowded over the shelf and bent forward over the edge. Their roots dug into every crack in the rock, some as thick as men, cracking the shelf. The bridge may be there today, but in all likelihood it was destroyed immediately after it was found the next morning.

Days went by. They traveled through thick amber forests by day, clutching their rifles as their children clutched their bellies. No food had come their way, and they were deeply afraid none would come at all. They rationed their reserves, slaughtered the sheep they had brought with them, eaten root and leaf and soft tree bark in desperate hope that it wasnít poison. Sometimes it was, and a child would die. A pregnant woman miscarried, and died from the shock.

They pressed on. There was no consideration of turning back to the civilized world, not for any of them. If they were not running from that life, then they knew they would be condemned for coming here. They did not come here for glory Ė the men who did that were either shunned upon their inglorious return with empty hands and tales of ogres, or never came back at all. They had come here for secrets. They knew that this place was peopled. They knew of the hermits who spoke to trees and commanded beasts, they knew of witches who picked mushrooms and flowers in secret gardens and deep caves, who made remedies for age and diseases men didnít know they had.

On the fifth day they had made it to a clearing at dusk, and set up tents. They knew enough not to light a fire, but the sky was so clear and the moon so bright they didnít need one. As they settled in silently, the trees around them began to crack in symphony. Great earth-shattering explosions of wood closed in on them, and one of the tents was crushed by a tree flung into the air by an ogre, one of six who found the camp and destroyed it. The survivors ran into the woods in every direction, and in the morning found each other and pressed on, not bothering to check the site to find survivors or mourn, sure that any supplies they had left behind Ė which was almost all of them - had been eaten or destroyed.

***


I listened. My eyes were shut and my breathing shallow. My arm had gone from pained to numb over the course of hours. My legs were in deep sleep, and when I tried to twitch my toes nothing came of it. I listened still to the birds and the trees and the sad, sad wind.

I tightened my eyes and the grip on my sword and listened closely. Off to my right I could hear it, a kind of rhythm in the ground, an approaching gallop, light and fleet of foot. I calmed myself and breathed outward.

I opened my eyes.

The afternoon air seemed to glow. The sunlight that penetrated the thin overcast danced in the mist and gave everything an aura. I was covered in a thin crystalline layer of snow and dew. I sparkled in places where the dayís light hit me. My sword had tiny droplets of water all along the blade. It glimmered as if newly forged. Ahead of me, standing atop a great rock was a figure, cloaked in rags. I couldnít make out their face in the light, but on their back was my bulging pack, slung over a slender shoulder. I stared at the still figure for as long as I could bear, then blinked. When I looked again, a bird was upon that rock. It chirped its nonsense song, and flew away into the mist.

The rhythmic galloping came barrelling across where I was sitting, and I brought down my sword swiftly, still watching the rock.

Under my sword was a white hair, and when I turned to my right I saw Dorothy panting. She approached and sniffed the dead thing, but didnít try to eat it. She knew that this was a sacrifice - that we were here for a reason. When she looked at me, she seemed to know what I had seen, for she huffed and stepped toward the mountain across the snow barrier. I hobbled to my feet using the butt of my gun as a counter balance, and shook off the shimmering layer of moisture that had gathered on me. I wiped the blood and water from my blade on my dirty, blood-dyed jacket sleeve, and slipped the sword into its hoop.

We went on, into the white, into the dark.


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