Nights of Fire
Part Eight – Standing Stones
They spent that night in the cave with Marran and the yhara-te, sharing a meal of roasted lizard as they listen to Marran regal them with tales of his time spent living alongside the primitive creatures of the northern mountains. One by one they fell asleep on the fleeces provided, the cave staying warm even as the fire burnt low, heated by the warmth of many bodies.
Late into the night, a sudden, sharp cold wind woke Nhaqosa. In the dull glow of the embers he saw the hides that covered the cave entrance fall back into place as Marran stepped out into the night. Staying as quiet as he could, Nhaqosa rose from where he had been sleeping and followed after the old man.
As he emerged, the frigid night’s air struck him, though all hung clear and still. The clouds had rolled away and the sable expanse above was strewn with bright stars, while the wavering, brilliant display of the night lights again blazoned across the sky, veils and curtains shimmering and swaying as if caught by a wind that blew high above. Those lights illuminated the mountain peaks that towered into the sky all around, each heavy with snow. Marran stood just outside the entrance, hands clasped behind his back as he stared up at the display of lights.
“Each night they grow stronger,” he said by way of greeting. “Often we would see them, but not nights of fire like this, so regular and strong.”
“Does it mean anything?”
A low chuckle sounded from Marran. “Who can say? It could just be a natural phenomenon.”
“Or?” asked Nhaqosa, catching a hidden tone in the reply.
“Or it could be something else. There are many who would try and read signs into it. As for myself, I remain to be convinced. I never expected to see such beauty when I first came here,” he added wistfully, “And I will miss it.”
“You are leaving?”
“In a manner of speaking. I am old and tired and my time is almost up. I can feel it, in my bones. I have my friends, and wonders such as this to see, though, so I am content. You have far to go tomorrow. You should get your rest. I will stay here a while longer enjoying the sights.”
Nhaqosa nodded and returned to the cave, leaving the old man alone with his mountains and the lights.
When morning at last arrived and they departed, two of the yhara-te accompanied them. The pair led them deeper into the mountains, into a world of snow and ice. There were few clouds around for once, and the sun shone bright, reflecting almost painfully at times off the fallen snows. They trudged on during the day, following paths that would have remained hidden if not for the knowledge that the yhara-te possessed about them. Morning gave way to midday and midday turned into afternoon. Their legs and lungs burned from the exertion of the effort they were putting in. Of all the time they had spent on their journey, of all the dangers that they had faced, they found that the hardest part, far harder than Nhaqosa had expected. The air felt thin and left them short of breath, leaving Nhaqosa to doubt if he would ever recover his breath to the full.
Relief came to them when the yhara-te brought them to a plateau high in the mountains, late in the day. A place of barren rock and earth and drifts of snow, it was sheltered in the lee of one tall mountain, spurs bounding it on its sides. A chill wind swirled around it, flowing down off the mountain. The yhara-te came to a halt, resting on their knuckles and watching on impassively.
In the centre of the plateau they could see a number of carved standing stones, around which banks of snow had been blown. Looking over them, it was obvious to Nhaqosa that they had been carved by various hands and cultures over a long period of years. Some were crude, while others were of grand and intricate design, a great amount of care and detail put into them. While there were some of them where it was readily apparent as to what they were meant to resemble, being in the shape of birds and beasts, others were of abstract designs, bearing flowing knot work or complex patterns.
Together the stones form a ring in the middle of the plateau, almost a solid wall through which only narrow gaps remained. In the middle of the ring, the air had a hazy appearance, radiating a chill outwards, as if a ball of half frozen air hung there. The air shimmered and shifted and for brief moments it appeared as if strange shapes and colours flared through it.
The wolf’s head pendant around Nhaqosa’s neck pulsed strong, pulling at him towards the ring of stones and the disturbance within it.
“This is the place,” Nhaqosa announced, speaking with an absolute assurance.
“What do we do now?” Lakach asked, stroking at his moustache as he studied the standing stones.
“Walk on through I imagine. I can not say what exactly we will find on the other side, but it is where we must go.”
“That sounds a somewhat risky plan,” Abasan pointed out.
Lakach chuckled in response. “All we have done, all we have gone through has not been without risk.”
“I will go first,” a member of the group by the name of Katako volunteered.
Nhaqosa nodded, resting a large hand lightly on the man’s shoulder. “We will see you on the other side, my friend.”
Katako’s faint smile had an almost grim quality to it, that of one who was not certain of what he was stepping into. Taking a deep breath, he began to walk forward. Stepping through the ring of stones, he appeared to shimmer much like the air did, to pulse, and then he was gone.
“Our die is cast,” Lakach stated, following after Katako. “We can not turn back now.”
One by one the rest of the band stepped forward, into the shimmering expanse until only Nhaqosa and the yhara-te remained behind. He raised a hand in farewell to them, one of who responded with a low hoot.
He walked to the edge of the stone circle and then turned around, to gaze out over the mountains, a last look at the world he had for so long wandered. It had not been his home, and much suffering had befallen his stay there, and yet, at the last, there was a tinge of regret still. Many friends lay buried beneath its earth, and some still remained, fighting the darkness that encroached upon the world. He did not expect he would ever meet them again, nor ever know how they fared.
Just as he was about to step through, out on the distant southern horizon, beyond the craggy mountains, a flare of light caught his eye. It reminded him of the display of lights during the night, and yet it had come during the last of the daylight hours. A rolling cylinder of cloud that burned bright swept across the sky. Clouds do catch and reflect the light in odd ways, he mused.
Then he stepped forward into the chill shimmer and left that world behind.