By Rene Steen

Reigning in his pony the young man stopped at the foot of the mountain that towered over him, its top scratching the very sky. High above the world its bleak white cap tore at the scudding storm-clouds streaming past its peak like a dark grey tide.

To the people who lived within sight of this mammoth feature it was known as 'Guardian of Earth Mother' ('Talgrada' in the local tongue) and it was indeed formidable enough to protect that august person.

Drawing his cloak tighter about his shoulders Dorthan shivered slightly in the late afternoon breeze as he turned his dark brown eyes to gaze at the mountain's foot only a few scores of paces away. A light rain had begun to fall bringing with it the coldness of the upper reaches and, occasionally, some extra cold sleet would sting his face like gravel thrown by a petulant child. The pony snorted and stamped its foot impatiently, its eyes rolling around as it averted its gaze from the giant structure before it. Dorthan patted the beast roughly upon its neck while tugging with the other hand upon the reigns, pulling the pony's head around so that the animal could look upon the rolling plains over which they had ridden for many days.

"This is it!" He thought, excitement swelling his chest. "This must indeed be the top of the world!"

Many a wearying league had he ridden upon his pony in search of the seer's prophecy, searching for the top of the world where he would find the undying man.

After many days of climbing, braving the precipitous mountain and its killer elements, Dorthan reached a small plateau. Beyond its edge a drop, measured in leagues (if one cared to look), fell away to a misty, tessellated landscape somewhere beyond the mind's edge below.

Dorthan heard a sound behind him. A tortured sob and weeping that wrenched at his soul. Slowly he turned. There, sitting on a boulder gloved in ice, sat a man. He was old...So old that he seemed kin to the mountain itself, and the man was naked. As naked as a newborn child. Hair, so white it appeared as spun silver, tumbled in the wind, whipping out in disarray around his face and shoulders. Dorthan approached the ancient mage with halting steps, his eyes never leaving the hunched form that heaved with deep sobs. Upon gaining ground to within a few steps, the young man cocked his head and studied the melancholy figure, fascinated by the tears that fell, turning into ice in mid-air and tinkling like jewels when they hit the stony ground. The man's body was pale. So pale it was transparent and Dorthan could see bones below the translucent flesh. Bones that themselves faded to a phantom wisp like the last gasp of smoke from a dying fire. He stared for several minutes, listening to the deep, heartbreaking sobs and watching the shuddering heave of the old, skinny shoulders.

"Ahem!" He coughed politely, bringing his gloved fist to his mouth. His breath steamed out obscuring his vision for a second. When the small fog cleared, the old man was looking at him. Those eyes! As transparent as that body was, as pale as bones and flesh can be and yet be seen, the old man's eyes were not so! They were red. A red of hurt. A red of sorrow colouring them with a thousand years of weeping. A red so raw, so blood-like, so filled with anguish and despair that just looking at them made Dorthan's own eyes brim with tears. His inner being felt as if it would rend and tears began to cascade down his cheeks.

"You are the undying man." he whispered as his right knuckle dashed the moisture from his eyes. Moisture that was already crackling with an icy skin. "You are the one who cannot die!"

The old man nodded and sniffed back another sob.

"I am he who is so cursed." he replied in a voice thick with tears. "You seek the soul of your beloved and wish me to show you the way to the valley of souls."

Dorthan gaped. "But I have not said of this!" he blurted. "How could you know?"

The old man rubbed vigorously at his eyes and stifled another sob before turning those melancholy and tortured orbs upon the young man. They reddened further. A deeper cerise, and new tears dribbled from them creating fresh frost diamonds that dashed themselves to pieces upon the rocks at the man's feet.

"I was twice cursed, young man. I live with my curses now."

"Which curses, old man? You have eternal life. What more could you wish for?"

"Death!" replied the sage vehemently. "Oh would I be able to embrace the eternal sleep." he turned his head and sobbed long and loud, burying his face into the crook of his arm. When the new fit of bawling had subsided a little and the man was once more looking at him with those unsettling red orbs, Dorthan steeled himself to continue his conversation.

"What are you saying!" he gasped. "You have eternal life, and that is a curse?" The old man settled into a new, more comfortable position upon his rock and spread his arms, letting the flurry and swirl of wind-driven snow caress him and hug him like a pure white mantle.

"Once I was a prince. A heir to a throne." the old man said. He smiled a sad and bitter smile and his eyes lost some of their redness, fading to a hot pink as happier memories cloaked his sadness for a brief few moments. "Yes! I would be a king." he breathed. Slowly his hand rose to his head and gently he patted his hair as if searching for a crown.

"A king! I would have been... I was my father's heir."

"What became of you that this did not come to pass?" asked the young man. He was glad of the thick furs wrapped tightly around his body, armour against a cruel and biting wind. A story was forthcoming and he would be standing in this frozen wilderness a while.

"Greed." the old man sighed, his eyes darkening again and a tear glistening in each. "Greed and envy undid me." He turned slightly and stared his sadness at the attentive youth while tugging vainly at a straggled beard with one hand.

"You see, my father was only fifteen summers older than I and with a constitution that guaranteed him at least a century of life. I wanted to be king. Desperately!" Snow swirled and danced before his face and the wind seemed to hold its breath awhile. "Yes, it seemed I would not have the throne I so desperately needed until I, myself, would be an old man. I could not wait that long and yet I was not able to lift a hand against my father." The old man closed his eyes and bowed his head. "So I made a wish." he whispered.

The eyes snapped open, wet and sad, red and sore. "I wished that I would live a hundred years longer than he. I pledged my soul upon this wish." The old man stood up and turned towards Dorthan. "I pledged my soul and cursed the seven heavens, then called upon the Tormentor. Oh, would that my tongue had fallen out!"

He slumped back onto his rock, falling into a sitting position with such force that Dorthan was sure he would have damaged his hips or buttocks.

"He heard that pledge." said the old man through hands pressed to his face. "He heard and he came."

The old man ground his knuckles hard into his eyeballs, so hard that Dorthan thought they would pop.

"He came and answered me. He said, 'I can do better than that. I will give you eternal life.'"

The wind howled as if in pain and white snow whirled and dashed as the blizzard strengthened, but even these raw elements could not drown the old man's tale.

"I thought to be cleverer than the Tormentor and reminded him that I was bargaining my soul. I would accept his gift of eternal life, but I also wanted to know everything that was happening in my kingdom. Every thought, every action and every deed that my subjects were indulging in." Dorthan shivered within his wraps of cloth and fur wondering how the naked old man must feel with the frosty breath of the blizzard battering his thin, faded body.

The sage continued his tale, his eyes swimming with moisture, tears welling up and turning into blisters of ice before hardening into tiny crystals, falling musically to the ground below.

"I can do better than that, replied the tormentor. I will give you total knowledge of everything that goes on in this world and up to the gates of the next."

Wearily he passed his hand before his eyes and continued. "He then gave me those terrible gifts." he finished.

Dorthan stood silently for a while listening to the screeching wind and letting the snow lash at his face. "What happened to your kingdom? Why are you here near the roof of the world?" he asked gently.

"Can you imagine the agony, the sorrow, the torment of knowing all? the old man replied. "I can feel each time someone is born and each time someone dies. Every hurt and injury that is suffered. Every sickness and disease in the whole world. I can feel all their thoughts, their pain... It almost drove me mad!"

The old man hugged himself hard and dropped his head to look at the frozen tears by his feet. "I came up here because it is so far from all people and I think that their thoughts and pain is received a little fainter by me up here."

"That is the saddest story I have ever heard." said the youth. "I see why you sorrow so deeply."

"No. That is not the end of it!" the old man was shaking his head, his mouth twisted in a tortured smile. "You see... The tormentor had tricked me much more than that. It was not known by me at that time, but my soul was already his. It would have been his from the moment I died, and a lifetime is but a few moments to him."

"It was no bargain." muttered the sage. "You see, I had one thing that he could not have. Then or after I died."

Dorthan shuffled his feet, which were getting very cold upon that frozen ground even with his thick woollen socks and stout leather boots.

"What could you have that he wanted so much?" he asked.

"My body. He would never have had my body. But I gave it to him and he has subjected me to everlasting torture. Oh how I am damned. Oh how I despair!" and the old man fell into another bout of sobbing and moaning that lasted a lengthy time.

"Can the spell not be broken?" asked Dorthan.

The old man nodded through his tears. "It can be broken... If I could get my soul back." He looked again at the youth and clenched his right fist. "Should I get my soul back, then I could die and the spell would be broken."

The wind had died a little and the flurry of snow was abating when the young man spoke again.

"Old man." he said, "I, too, have a sorrow."

The old man looked at the youth through wet eyes. Dorthan continued.

"My betrothed lies dead in her chamber this past month. She was killed by sorcery, but because it was sorcery, she is not yet truly dead."

"Of course!" the sage exclaimed. "She lies under a death spell and you seek to break that spell."

"Yes," nodded the youth. "I must go to the Valley of Souls and lead her soul back before the sixth moon sets. If I do not do this, then she will be truly dead forever."

"You have come to ask me where the portals to the Valley of Souls lie."

The old man gravely shook his head, his red raw eyes fixed on the youth's face. "You cannot enter those portals, you know. Not while you live."

"I must, or die trying." replied the youth vehemently. "I offer a pledge. Tell me how to reach the portals and I promise that I will bring your soul back along with hers, or I will die in the attempt."

"My soul?" the old one whispered. His eyes cleared and widened as he gazed again at the youth standing, hands on his hips, nearby. "You would risk so much to bring a fool his salvation?"

"Such is my pledge." the youth replied.

There was a silence between them as the old mage studied the youth for a while. His eyes began to fade from deep red to a lighter pink and a smile that was not tortured appeared on his face.

"I do believe that you have the pluck." This time he was shaking his head with wonder. He pointed at a small cave nearby. "For your task and your promise I will give you a gift." With that, he stood up and walked to the small cave entering briefly, then returning immediately with a crystal flask and a sharp dagger. Sitting down once again upon his rock he pressed the point of the dagger into his own throat and, with a flick of his wrist, severed the jugular vein, bringing the flask up to catch the sudden gush of life-blood from the fatal wound.

Dorthan winced at the action and began to step forward to aid the old man, but as he began to move he saw that the wound was closing and that the blood had slowed to a trickle. The crystal decanter was two thirds full of red life-blood that frothed and swirled as it cooled within the vessel. After corking the flask the old man handed it to Dorthan, who took it in both hands so as not to drop it.

"When you reach the portals you must await the rising of the moon, then drink this in one swallow." he instructed. "This potion will give you immortality, but only until the first ray of the dawn sun strikes the land, so be speedy within death's domain."

Dorthan looked at the liquid that had now stilled, then placed it deep in his back-pack, protected by thick clothing so that it would not break.

"Go to the Angry Mountain and follow the River of Fire." said the sage. "When you reach the mountain's throat you must drink my potion, then descend into the fire until you reach the mountain's heart. There you will find the portal."

Bowing slightly, Dorthan spoke. "If you do not see me before the sixth moon wanes then you will know that I have failed and am dead. Otherwise, Old Man, I shall return to fulfil my pledge."

With that he spun on his heel and began the slow, dangerous journey down the mountain with the old man's farewell ringing in his ears.


Copyright 1997 by R.J. STEEN

About the Author in his own words: "I am 44 years old, male and live in Port Lincoln, South Australia where I work as a police sergeant. Writing has been a hobby of mine for about ten years, although I have written stories earlier than that. To date I have not sold to a publisher. I am married with two children, a boy 22 yrs and a girl 19 yrs."

You can e-mail Rene at:

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