Nights of Fire
Part Seven – The Wild Man of the North
Snows and winds lashed at them as they followed the yhara-te up mountain paths, the sky darkening with both heavy clouds and the ending day. Nhaqosa peered through the weather, trying to follow where they were headed. Snow capped crags rose up sheer around them, and precipitous slopes dropped away, fading into the clouds, and all about spread the endless vista of grey and white. It would not do to be lost up there, not with the weather turning for the worst. Nhaqosa knew all he could do was hope that soon they would find a place of shelter, for his companions were beginning to suffer, shivering as each fresh blast of wind buffeted them. He had been too eager in his desires and had not allowed sufficient time to properly prepare for the weather that they were new encountering, an error for which he chided himself.
It seemed as if the journey would never end, but finally, as all light began to fade and as they rounded a corner high up on a mountain path, Nhaqosa spotted on the mountain side ahead the faint, welcoming glow of a fire coming from within a cave. The sight spurred them on, hurrying towards it, eager for relief from the weather and for the warmth of the fire.
Stepping inside, Nhaqosa found the cave to be larger than he expected, yet it needed to be. A couple of dozen of the yhara-te were inside, some young, others old, judging by their greying muzzles. Thick hides and fleeces from mountain goats covered the bare stone floor, while towards the back of the cave had been piled large stacks of wood and crudely made clay pots and jugs. The walls of the cave were daubed with primitive ochre paintings, mostly of animals and the yhara-te hunting them.
The fire sat towards the fore of the cave, near to the entrance. Over it roasted a large lizard, the like of the one they had seen in the forest. An elderly man sat at the fire, clad all in heavy hides and furs, his long hair and thick beard silvery grey. As they entered, he turned to study them with an inscrutable, weathered gaze.
The yhara-te who carried the injured child walked further into the cave and passed it off to a couple of others to tend to. The other of the pair that they had rescued stopped at the fire, hooting to the man, all the while gesturing from himself to Nhaqosa and his companions. The old man nodded as he listed.
Finally, the hooting done, the old man spoke to Nhaqosa. “It has been some while since strangers have come into the mountains, and fewer still of those who would aid my friends.”
“We were merely repaying a courtesy show to us,” Nhaqosa told him.
“That is more than most would do. They see my friends as little more than beasts, animals to be hunted for hides and trophies. Come in, please, and sit. We will eat and talk.” He rose from the fire and walked across to the cave entrance where he twitched a heavy hide across it, closing out the night and the cold.
The group arranged themselves around the fire, drawing in the heat from it, trying to drive the chill from their bodies that had seeped into their bones. Around them the yhara-te gathered, sniffing around them and offering soft hoots, though they remained skittish, backing away should any of the group turn towards them.
“I am Marran,” the man introduced himself as.
“Marran?” Alianore asked. “As in the Wild Man of the North?”
“So they call me,” Marran replied, a faint smile on his lips.
“You know him?” Niati asked, holding out her hands to the fire to warm them.
“He was a legend even when I was young. They say that once you were a great knight but that you left the lands of the Empire to roam the far and frozen north.”
“It is much as they say,” Marran admitted.
“What brought you to such a remote place?” Nhaqosa asked him.
“I was searching for something. I never did find it, but instead I found another thing entirely; the yhara-te. They were not as I had been led to expect. One day I had an accident and they rescued me. As they nursed me back to health, I came to learn their language and in time the accepted me and I came to live among them. They may appear primitive to you, but do not let that fool you. They have their own culture and rituals, ones just as complex as any of ours.”
“We fought with some men attacking your friends,” Nhaqosa said. “Who were they?”
“They are people, much like me, who came to the north though long before I did. They came to study and to learn and to meditate, and for a long time that is what they did, keeping apart from all others. Something changed in the past not that long ago, the exact nature of which I can not say for I do not know. They secreted themselves in their tower, remaining unseen for many a year. When at last they emerged from their tower, they were changed, seeking to enslave through their powers. They tried it on my friends, but their minds were not as the minds of men and were difficult to ensnare. When it failed they sought instead to destroy the yhara-te, to wipe them out.” He shook his head as he turned the lizard roasting over the fire. “Many have been lost, whole family groups, but now it would seem that those dark days are behind us, thanks to your efforts. Oh, some are left, to be sure, but they have been terribly weakened. The question now is what brings you to my mountains?”
“It is much the same as with you. We came searching for something.”
“And what would that something be, if you do not mind me asking?”
Nhsaqosa responded with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “I do not mind as I do not exactly know what it is, nor even what it looks like, only that I will know it when I see it. It is drawing me home.”
A strange expression passed over Marran’s face, a faint smile both knowing and something else. Worry perhaps? Concern? Nhaqosa could not quite lay a finger on it. For as long as he had been around humans, there were still times that he could not quite read them.
“There is a place I know of,” Marran said softly, “Where the world is not quite complete. I found it high in the mountains when exploring. There, no doubt, you will find that which you seek. My friends will lead you there in the morning.”
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