A woman came up the trail, her footsteps tapping the stones that paved his head. She was one of that race who had come often to him, once. Quiet men, something like stone and something like the rain that ran upon it, had come and lived among his crags. He had liked their company. But none had come for a long time now.
The woman wore robes, loose and heavy. A great pack bent her under its weight so that her breath brushed the rocks. Two staffs dug into the soil as she climbed, steadying her along a trail that no one traveled. Sometimes she stumbled, but she didn’t pause. She stopped finally in a meadow now known only to him and the mountain goats. Uphill was the cave, not deep, with a spring in its side that filled a narrow pool and washed on down the hillside. Like chicks returned to live in eggs, men had stayed there once. He remembered.
“Mountain, I have come to beg a boon,” the woman said.
The sound of a voice startled him, a rare thing indeed. “I am not the mountain.” He hadn’t meant to speak.
She knelt suddenly, face to the ground, her rapid breaths condensing as dew on the grass. “Are you the spirit of the mountain, then?”
“I am not a spirit.”
She looked up and he felt her gaze flitting from peak to peak, finding no rest. “Then, O Gracious One Who Speaks, are you the one from whom my people once gained wisdom, whose blessings gave us peace?”
Had he once done such things? He reflected on the memories of long-past dealings with men. There was aching there, and bitterness almost forgotten. “I have no wisdom. I cannot give peace.”
But the woman had gone. He found her, asleep in the cave. It was night.
Yes, he remembered this from before. He might have called it impatience, that they could not wait while he gave their questions due weight. Only, their lives were so very brief. Impatience was a necessity, vital.
He waited while she slept and while she bathed in the icy waters of the pool and came out into the meadow. She knelt at its edge and began digging at tuberous roots with a stone.
“I’ve neither wisdom nor peace to give,” he said.
She didn’t put her face to the soil this time. “Among my people they tell stories of the Great One of the Mountain,” she said, each word spoken firmly and with care. “They say wise men came to you to learn your wisdom, that you—” A pause. “They say you speak truth.”
“They no longer wish to hear it,” he said. No, it was many years since anyone had wanted such things of him.
She placed her hands to each side of her, pressing them into the grass so that he felt their pressure. Did she know he felt her every step, the very weight of her body? “They also say that noblewomen sometimes brought their infants to you.”
“And why would they do that?”
“Because you have the power of the truth-making name.”
Yet he had not heard voices in so long. “You have no infant,” he said.
“You are no noblewoman.”
“I am not,” she said. “But still I come to beg of you the favor of a name. I know this is too great a thing to bestow on me, but I come with an offer. I would give you my lifetime’s service for a name for this child.”
“The lifetimes of your people are so very short.”
“Still, it is all I have.”
“You are no noblewoman,” he repeated, though he cared nothing for the inexplicable castes of man.
“But the child’s father was a great man, a warrior lost to the battlefield.”
“And its mother, the daughter of a peasant.”
“I was a serving woman in his house.”
He was wearied by her plea, by the hunger in her voice. “Then I name your child freely. He shall be Dishonorable Union.”
The air drifting past her cheeks warmed on her flush. “You mock me! I’ve enough truth in me to give him that name myself.”
“Go. I do not give names any longer.”
“Please, I do not ask for myself.”
“Only for your motherly pride.”
“No! His father was a mighty warrior, our last. He is dead now, and raiders have come to rob us and kill us. We are devastated, O Mountain. Our crops are trodden and our fields salted. Our livestock is dead or lost. I come to you, that my child may bring us hope.” Her voice had the weight of truth in it, and of other things. Grief. It poured down her face like snowmelt.
“Am I the All-Ruler? I cannot make truth. I can only tell it.”
“You desire some future? I cannot make it. I can do nothing for you, frail daughter of man.”
He turned his thoughts inward, away, before the woman’s grief should call out his own. That was forgotten, and he would not let her return it to him.
When he again looked in the valley with its hidden meadow, the woman was not there. Her weight, though it was so small compared to a mountain’s, had made itself felt with its stirrings and its breathings. Now it was gone, and he wished for it, uselessly.
But even as he wished, the woman crossed a stony shoulder and walked into the meadow leading a mountain goat, its halter tied from robe cloth torn in strips. The goat bleated, and a fainter, higher voice answered, and then a kid scrambled down the trail behind them.
“What do you do with my goats?”
The woman looked up towards the nearest peak. “I will milk this doe, and when her kid is larger grown I will eat it.”
“Are you not afraid to kill my goat?”
“I am your servant, and so I earn my keep. This is what I have chosen, since you did not answer me when I asked you what you would prefer.”
“I was... not present.” After a moment, “If you are my servant, how do you serve me?”
She did not bother looking up this time from her fire at the mouth of the cave. “In any way you wish.”
Amusement bubbled up, an unexpected spring. “And what could I possibly wish a woman of mankind to do for me?”
“I don’t know. The women of noble birth whose children you named—did they give you payment?”
“They did not.”
“What about the hermits that came to learn and to speak with you?”
“Their only gift to me was the pleasure of their voices.”
He caught her smile then. “Perhaps I may give you that, if you wish.”
“Of what would you have me speak?”
“Tell me... how are things now, among your people?”
He was listening very closely, watching the wind blow faint tendrils of her hair, catching the warmth of her breath. He would not have noticed her hesitation, otherwise. “The marauders came first from the north. They speak some other language, a speech that is laughing and screaming both. Or so it sounds to us. A few escaped from the northern villages to tell us of the coming.” Her voice broke.
Before she could go on, he said, “I did not mean to distress you. I meant, before the marauders, how did your people live? Are the farms many, or few? I heard there was a town that some thought would grow to become a city. Is it so?”
“Oh. Before.” Another pause, but a thoughtful one. Then she told of the manse where she was born, not so far from the once-city of Captua, now burnt into the plain. She told of her father the blacksmith, of her mother who died delivering a stillborn son. Her face softened then and smiles came sometimes, and he was glad, though he did not care to think about why.
“And then they came.”
He did not want to hear it again, but she did not stop this time. “I don’t know what they wanted from us. Just to defeat us, I suppose. I’ve seen it among our people, too—a weak man is cruel to his wife because he cannot stop those who are cruel to him, and so his wife is cruel to the cook’s boy, and the cook’s boy kicks the dog because there is no one else weaker than he.
“But one day, the dog will bite him.” Her tone was brittle as shale. “For are we not the people whose god has given us the mountain?”
“You ask unanswerable questions,” he said.
“I will serve you for a year,” she said.
“First you offered me a lifetime.”
“I offered it in desperation, and if you require me still to give you all my life’s span in return for a true name for my child, then I will give it. But a year of my service is a good gift for such a boon. At the end of the year, I will put my child before you, and you will give him a name of truth. And his life will fulfill that truth. He will be a hope and the beginning of freedom for our people.”
The mountain would not watch her without replying, for such was too close to deceit. But before he turned his thoughts away from the valley and the woman standing in it, he saw once more her face, her eyes that had glittered moments ago with threatening tears. He felt the shapes of her feet, pressing into the soil. Then he looked instead to desolate ridges of stone and silent peaks, but the image of her remained.
She was speaking. It was her voice, high and wholly foreign to the solitude of his mountain ranges, that had called his attention back from its contemplation of other times, of things better left unconsidered.
“And the headmaiden—she was a good headmaiden, you understand, and the house was always well-kept in her care, but our oversight was not always her greatest pleasure—she scolded young Melonny until the girl would not show us her face for the tears. And the headmaiden was repaid her harshness, for the girl was so afraid that when next she polished the spoons, she polished them so hard the master broke the neck of one and dropped the bowl of it in his soup. But the headmaiden never said a word to Melonny, only she left the polishing with me after that.”
“Are you well today?” said the mountain, when it seemed she had paused.
She twisted towards the sound, but when her eyes had searched the crags a moment she returned to her twisting of the goat-hair in her hands. “Yes, I am well. Thank you. And are you well, O mountain?”
For the barest glimmer of a moment, he considered. He had not intended to ask such a question; still less had he prepared an answer to it.
“The weather is fair today.”
“Yes.” She looked up to the sky. “I am glad, for the rain beating down these last days chilled me so.”
He had not noticed the rain, except perhaps in some passing thought at the pleasant trickles that splashed down the joinings of his hills.
“Whom were you speaking to?” he asked.
“To you, of course,” she said. “You said I might give you pleasure by speaking with you, and so I have. Though I would not guess that there is much pleasure to be found in the tales of household doings.”
“No one has told me tales of any kind for some time,” he said. “A great deal of time by your reckoning, I would imagine.”
“Yes, a very long time,” she said. “Why is that? Why has no one come to you for so long?”
He would have turned his thought away, but what he’d said was true: though he knew the voices of wind and wind-troubled trees and water splashing, the tales they told were not like hers. He did not care to turn away so soon.
“Wouldn’t you know better than I why they do not come?” he said.
“I am only a maidservant,” she said, and now she was cooking a rabbit over a fire. “Such matters are not much spoken of to me.”
“Yet you heard enough to come yourself.”
“Yes.” Now it was she who paused, though it was such a pause as when a deer paused just outside a meadow, listening for the predator. “There seemed hints of anger, in the little I heard of you.”
“Anger?” Is that what they would have felt? It had been the truth, however he had told it.
“Yes, as though you had wronged us somehow. But I do not know how it was, nor even how it is said to have been. Forgive me, O mountain, for these words.”
“It is not needed,” he said. Then, “Does it trouble you, that I might have wronged your people?”
For the first time in some while, she looked up from her fire to glance towards the peaks, from which it must seem to her that his voice came. “I am not afraid,” she said. “O mountain, you are the truth-teller, and it is for this I have come. And perhaps if my people perceived some wrong, they will see this act as a righting of it, whether or not there was truly any righting required.”
“You speak far too well for a housemaiden,” he said, but it was dark, and the tremor of his voice through the stone only stirred her slightly in her sleep.
Her cries brought his ear to her. It was night, and she lay as she always did, her robe softening the stone of her bed. But now she did not lay quietly, but with tremors, and once her flailing arm left blood trickling on a spar.
“Woman,” he said. He remembered something of this, of the thoughts that troubled men’s sleep. They needed only to awaken and feel the cool air of the night, and they were calmed.
But she did not calm. She continued to cry, though he spoke to her again, and then again. Groans replaced her cries, and her robe grew damp and heavy, seeping blood.
“Woman,” he said. “Woman!”
She did not answer, though slowly her sounds and movements grew feeble, and finally she was still. He could not wake her.
“I am not the mountain,” he said, though he had known its weight, its might, so long that sometimes he forgot. He remembered now, and he looked deep within the mountain, in a chamber dug long ago and long ago forgotten, where he lay. The beat of blood was so feeble, the breath in stone lungs so faint that another would have thought him dead—but he was not.
“Woman,” he said, but she did not answer, and her breath and blood were as slow as his, and slowing still.
The mountain peaks—did they still rise above? The earth’s long-traveled breath rushed about them. He paused to feel the stream of a falls as it crashed against the hillside. But he must not linger; her time was shorter than his.
With a sigh that would have signified trembling, had the mountain heart to tremble, he let go. He pushed against ceilings of granite and shale, and knew motion. He could not feel the frozen summit now. Downward he plunged, down to that chamber awaiting him, to the body lying within, manlike, rendered in stone.
And now—breath. Gasping, burning. Muscles limp, limbs numbed to even the feeble sensations of this lichen skin. He pushed himself down the dark pathways of muscle and bone, returning to them the strength they had yielded so long ago.
Darkness. Yes, but it should be dark. He sat, tried to stand, and stumbled.
She was waiting for him.
With another rush of breath, he put fragile, clumsy hands to the wall and staggered up the passage. He knew the way. Almost he laughed, for in all the world the thing he knew best was that mountain.
He washed her, held her by the fire when she shivered, fed her bits of the cured game stored among her things. He held her robes in the stream until the water ran colorless again instead of scarlet. She lay deathly quiet, never opening her eyes nor moving. Even her moans had fallen silent.
It was the second day since he had crawled to her side, and she had not grown better. He left her there, wrapped in her robe, and sat outside the cave. He looked up the crags that he knew so well, and beyond them to the sky and the half-moon hanging dirty-white in the afternoon.
“You gave me truth,” he said. “Now I may speak nothing else. You brought this woman here—do not deny it, for you order all things—and now she will depart from this mountain, from the world, without her child and without whatever truth I could have given her.
“Do not let her depart,” he said. “Do not take her.”
He waited. The stillness of the mountain’s depths settled in him, and with it came the weight that he had known as many years as he could remember, the burden of terrible certainty. His answer lay there, hidden from him only by his refusal to look. He had not looked in many, many years. But then, in all those years there had been no certainty he’d needed. Until now.
Now, he closed his eyes and opened them within to stare, unblinking. He did not turn away until he had seen all of her life that he wished to know.
When he looked without again it was dusk, and though the woman hadn’t moved he thought her breath was steadier. He peered out of the cave’s mouth to the deepening sky. “Thank you,” he said.
The next day, she awoke. Her eyes grew fearful as she saw him, but he shook his head and smiled a little, and said, “I am not the mountain.”
The confusion remained in her face, but she did not refuse the water he offered her, and afterwards she slept.
The next day she sat up to eat the bits of goat he brought her. “My child,” she said.
“Yes.” Her grip was tight around the bone, now shorn of meat. “All was in vain,” she said. “I need not have come. I need not have troubled... you.” The wondering returned to her eyes.
“Have you a name?” he said.
“I am called Caris.”
Caris, the golden star-petaled flower that grew scattered and abundant on his hillsides. “It is a pleasant name,” he said. “But it is not sufficient for you.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Once I was as the mountain, bestowing names of truth on children. Now I am only a man again, but still I may speak names of truth.”
“I have no child,” she said. Her hand strayed to her belly, as empty and lifeless as her eyes. “I had no husband, and then I had no lover, and now I have neither child nor home.”
The look in her face was of stone, as though all flesh had fallen away and only form remained. No springs welled from her eyes, for there was only drought there now. There seemed to be drought within him, as well. He reached a hand to her arm, warm and tanned, and she did not pull away, but neither did she look at him. She stared out the cave’s mouth, to the hills that shadowed the distance.
“The marauders,” he said, and paused. “They remain in your land.”
“Yes,” but there was no longer heat in her voice, as there had been once when she spoke of them.
“I would not have them remain,” he said.
“Nor I,” she said, “but if my breath ceases, it will harm them as much and as little as any other action of mine could do—and it shall harm me no more.”
“Do not!” he said. “Please. Please do not.”
“The mountain was not concerned with the trifling matters of men and women.”
“I was never the mountain. I only knew the mountain, for a time.”
“For an age,” she said. “There was a time when my people did not come to you—but never did I hear of a time when you were not here.”
“I am only a mortal creature. I have a lifetime, as you do.”
She did not reply, though for those few words the strain had been less. To keep it so, he said, “You wondered why no man has come to me for so long a while. It is because I knew the marauders before they came—not these, but earlier ones. Do you remember hearing of earlier bands, stealing your children for slaves and murdering your men?”
“That time is far distant,” she said.
“Not so distant for me. A man and a woman came to me—he was master of all your land, for leagues at any turn. I looked to his infant son, and I could but name the truth I saw—I named him Ruler in Desolation. His father was angry, but his mother believed, and she went with great sorrow. And later I heard it was true—the marauders came and stole and destroyed, and the child was suffered to live, but blinded. And so a blind man ruled a desolate people, as I had seen.
“I did not want to see,” he said. “The names I give do not make truth. They only reveal it. But there were few of your people left when those marauders fell, and no one wished to come because the truth I told held such suffering. Nor did I wish to tell it.”
Her laughter came low and sharp. “And now I bring sorrow to you again.”
She shivered, and he pressed her into the cave’s shelter and wrapped the second robe close. Soon she slept, and he sat at her side, watching to see that she breathed.
♦ ♦ ♦
Still he tended her, slaughtering a goat now and again, bringing fresh water with which to mix her grain. They did not speak of hard things again, and though the grief still lay heavy in her eyes, twice she laughed at some word of his. Her strength returned to her, night by night.
Finally, in the evening after she had gathered wood with him far across the mountainside, she looked into the fire and said, “If I return to my master’s house, I believe I may still be received there. They will not be glad of my absence, but our people are scattering now, and my hands may be useful still.”
“Yes,” he said. “There remains work for you.”
“Yes.” He rarely dared touch her unless it was needed, but now he laid a hand on hers. “I told you that Caris is no sufficient name for you. The second night—when I feared your death—I thought it could do no harm to see what truth remained of your life. At worst, it would only be brief, and cave-dark.
“But it was not.”
Again this frail woman huddled with other darkened faces, creeping among sleeping soldiers to spoil the ground with their blood, washing the wounds of lean-muscled women and of boys grown suddenly to men, weeping as the last stranger disappeared beneath a cascade of earth.
“I name you Promise of Deliverance,” he said, “for you shall return to your people, and your enemies shall be overthrown.”
“Do you mock?” she said. “I cannot believe it....”
“I would not mock you.”
For some time she stared out across the fire, to the distant plains beyond. “Then I must go,” she said. “You give us hope again. And yet—what of you? Will you come with us?”
His words were all cold stone. They could not tell how he hungered to go, how he would shield her from all the harm he was able and let her tears wet his shoulder when she could accept no other comfort. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I may not leave the mountain.”
She pressed a palm over his cool fingers. “I’ll come back. I’ll tell you everything.”
When she had wrapped her robes around her in sleep, he watched her still face and listened to her shallow breaths. Even when the fire’s embers darkened he could only feel the faint aura of her warmth, he did not stir, though from time to time he glanced out to the late summer stars glittering against the black.
Perhaps she would come again; he hoped she would. But he didn’t look beyond to find if she had spoken truth. The truth would find him, in time.