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Mountains  by Citrine

Once upon a time-for the happiest stories always start with these words-long, long ago, in a place of tall reeds and flowering iris, one of the Fisher-folk walked down a muddy path toward the river. He was much smaller than a man, scarcely bigger than a child, but he was sturdy and strong with long hands and feet, and his eyes were dark and sharp. He was barefoot, dressed in a long garment of coarse cloth belted with a cord, with a hat of woven grass on his head. He had a long willow pole over his shoulder. As he walked along he sang a little tune of his own making, a sort of hymn of delight for the bright sun and fine weather:

Spring is here!
Sing merrily, little birds!
The river runs, the fishes jump!
Sing merrily, little birds!
The doe leaps up, the buck breaks wind-

Here he paused and broke wind himself, quite loudly, then bent over laughing. He slapped his knee and shook his head, proud of his own wit, then continued on his way. He started to sing again. He could already see his little coracle of reeds and skins drawn up on the bank, but the one who was supposed to be waiting there for him was nowhere in sight. He went on a little slower, scratching his head in puzzlement. In a clump of reeds, though he did not know it, a figure much like himself was watching his approach with pale, eager eyes. This creature had been squatting there for quite some time, waiting for his moment to pounce. Just as the first being reached the boat, the hider leaped from concealment with a loud scream: “HOY!”

With an angry shout, the fellow in the grass hat threw himself on his attacker. They both fell backwards into the reeds and muck, rolling about, punching and slapping, but it was not a vicious fight, or a long one. Before too long they sat back and grinned at each other. “Ye daft booger,” Nahald said fondly, giving his friend’s head one last swat.

“Today’s my birthday,” Trahald said. “Where’s my present, eh?”

“In my arse,” Nahald said. These small folk, though they were not Men, still kept many customs of Men, including the giving of birthday presents. “Where d’ye think? Back at th’Burrow, ye great idjit.”

This was true. During the winter, some Dwarves had camped in the grove not far from the Burrow. They didn’t stay long. They were ragged, poor and hungry, refugees from some unknown calamity. They had little to trade, but Nahald had managed to swap a big fish for a fine knife and some bits of shiny metal. He planned to use the metal bits for fishhooks, but the knife and its leather sheath he had hidden away, saving it for his cousin Trahald’s birthday in the spring. Now Nahald smirked and squinted up at the sky. He knew Trahald would be eaten up with unbearable curiosity-and he planned to prolong the torment as long as he could. “Fishes won’t be a-catchin’ themselves. Best get at it.”

He got up and shook the river silt out of his hat and clapped it on his head. Trahald helped him push the little reed boat out into the water and Nahald climbed in. He didn’t go far out into the current. They could both swim like otters, but the Great River was wide, swift, and deep, and this early in the spring still bone-chilling cold from snowmelt. He kept his boat in the reeds closer to shore, within shouting distance.

Trahald nosed about in the reeds and on the banks, grumbling under his breath. Cruel Nahald! Curse him and his fishing! Why couldn’t he have the present right now, and fish later? Trahald sighed and began to look for a nice nest of duck, goose, or even swan eggs. His long fingers were nimble and quick and he was stealthy; often he could steal the eggs from under the very eyes of the wild birds. “Eggses for Granny,” he said out loud to himself. Granny was the oldest, wisest, and greatest person Trahald knew, the leader and matriarch of the clan that lived in the Burrow, and she loved eggs. Perhaps he would bring her some, and then they would sit on the riverbank together. But he wouldn’t bring her all the eggses, no, Granny said never to take all the eggses from a nest, and she said not to wring the necks of all the little birds, either. Too much of that and the parent birds would go away and never come back, and then there would be no more eggses ever. She had told him this, but sometimes Trahald was so hungry that he forgot-or pretended to forget. There was a seed of unpleasantness in this little creature of the river, a cunning and guile not usually present in his simple, good-hearted kind. He took offense easily and was prone to sulk. He delighted in playing pranks on his slower-witted kin, and he was not above childish retaliation when he felt he had been slighted. Except for Nahald and Granny, Trahald was not well loved.

“Hi! Trahald!” Nahald called from the boat. Trahald looked up from where he had been squatting in the shallows catching minnows. He put the last one into his mouth and crunched it up. Juicy and sweet fishes were, even the very littlest ones, even raw. “Guess my riddle and I’ll leave off fishing.”

Trahald was very good at riddles, both at making them and guessing the answers, but Nahald was not so skilled, so this was a surprising turn. “Ah, and if I guesses right, I gets my present today? Tell me, then.”

Nahald laughed and said, “What lives in winter, dies in summer, and grows with roots up?”

“Chestnuts!” Trahald crowed. He had seen more than he wanted of the answer last winter, which had been bitter and long. “Icicles, love! Ask me again!”

“Yer too smart,” Nahald grumbled. “Here’s another: I went to the wood and gots it, then sat me down to look for it, and brought it home because I couldn’t find it.”

This was a harder one. Trahald puzzled over it while Nahald baited the hook. Trahald wiggled his long toes, just under the surface of the water, then lifted one foot and looked at the sole. His eyes brightened. There was an old scar there, no bigger around than the end of his finger, but oh, how it had hurt when the wound was new. “Hah! A thorn, it is!”

Nahald cast in his line and kept a straight face. He had looked forward to teasing Trahald about his present for days and days, but it looked like the fun was already over. He did have one more riddle, one he had heard from the Dwarves that winter. It seemed simple enough, and the answer was all around on the horizon if Trahald would look, but he usually kept his eyes on the ground, always digging and rooting about. That was how he had gotten his name-Trahald, which meant digger, a burrower in the earth. This last riddle might stump him, yes, it might. “What has roots nobody sees, up, up it goes, yet never does it grow?”

Trahald was quiet for a long time. He thought and thought. He wracked his brain for all the different names of plants that grew along the river. He thought of stars and clouds, but no, that wasn’t right. He was beginning to feel a little angry. He had never failed at this game before. Nahald sat in the boat and grinned from ear to ear, and Trahald wanted to strike him. “I gets three guesses!” Trahald cried.

“Very well,” Nahald said. “And if ye guesses wrong, and I gives ye the answer, I gets to keep yer present for myself.”

This seemed so horribly unfair that Trahald rose up in protest, but at that moment Nahald’s fishing pole was nearly jerked out of his hands. One of the enormous fish that lived in the Great River had taken the bait. Nahald struggled up from his knees for a little more leverage, but he had no chance to steady himself as the boat tipped and his own weight pulled him overboard. He was down for an alarming amount of time and came up spluttering, with a muddy face and weeds in his hair. Trahald had plunged in to help him but he was already paddling toward shore. He crawled up the muddy bank and sat there for a bit, choking and shivering and coughing up water, while his boat drifted into the reeds. Trahald sat next to him and pounded him vigorously on the back.

“Enough, enough!” Nahald gasped at last, pushing his hands away. “Must I be thumped t’death as well as drownded?”

Nahald had touched the river bottom. Even through the silty mirk of the river he had seen the flash of something bright, and he had grasped it before coming to the surface. Now Nahald blinked the water out of his eyes and opened his hand, brushing the mud away to see what he had found. He drew in his breath. A shining band of gold lay in his palm, round and perfect, like a bit of the sun fallen into his cupped hand. It winked and flashed in the sunlight, smooth and cool, but how quickly it warmed to his touch, as if it had a life and a pulse of its own.

Trahald leaned in for a look. His eyes were dazzled. Such a beautiful thing! He wondered how it would look in the firelight at night. How the other Fisher-folk would cluster around to see the lovely thing, but he would never let them touch it, oh no. It was too precious for them to touch with their greedy, dirty hands. Trahald reached for it, but Nahald closed his fingers around it and pulled away.

Trahald felt a flare of anger inside like a spark. “Give it to us, Nahald. It’s our birthday.”*

Nahald said, “I have already given ye a present, more than I could afford.”* This was not quite true. He had a gift for Trahald, but he had not yet placed it into his hands, so perhaps it didn’t count. The fish he had traded to the starving Dwarves had cost him nothing but a missed meal, and though he did not know it, he had gotten the far better part of the bargain, for the metal bits he intended for fishhooks were broken links from a shirt of mithril mail.

“But I wants it,” Trahald said, trying to sound reasonable. “Ye keeps the other present for yerself, eh, and I’ll have this.”

Nahald stood up. Trahald had a strange glint in his pale eyes, and he felt a little nervous. “No.”

Trahald held out his hand. “Give it to us, Nahald, love.” There was a warning tone in his voice now that promised retribution-perhaps a cuff or a kick later on, a sharp stone hidden in the bedding, or a thorny branch laid on a dark path to trip him-if he did not give in.

Nahald felt angry. Why should Trahald have it, just because he was the eldest and stronger? He had nearly drowned finding the thing, and lost a good fishing pole, too. Finders may keep and the losers may weep, as Granny often said. This ring might be a tricksy thing made by Elveses, praps even dangerous somehow. He would show it to Granny, she would know what to do, and until then it was his to hold by right. He turned without another word and started to scramble up the steep bank, his hands slipping in the wet clay. If only Nahald had turned then to see the pale light in his friend’s eyes turn to a murderous, hungry gleam, perhaps he would have struggled more to escape. Perhaps he would have screamed, for all the good it would have done him

Nahald reached for a clump of grass to pull himself up, but Trahald grasped the tail of his garment and pulled. Nahald was thrown down and landed on his back, and before he could draw breath Trahald was sitting a-straddle of his chest, prying at Nahald’s clenched fist. “Give it to ussss, give it, give it!”

But still Nahald held the ring tight and would not let it go. He did not fear Trahald, for all of his bullying and easy way with his fists. Trahald was his kin and his friend. He would never truly hurt him. “No!” He said breathlessly. “It’s mine! I found it and I’m keeping it!”

“Oh, are you indeed, Nahald, my love,” Trahald said, his long, clever hands reaching for Nahald’s throat. “We thinks not…” *

Once upon a time-for the saddest stories start with these words-long, long ago, a creature that used to be one of the Fisher-folk crouched next to a running stream. He was much smaller than a Man, and time and wickedness had shriveled him further into an unrecognizable shadow of who he used to be. He was barefoot and clothed in rags, and not even the sharpest eyes could have seen him, for he was wearing the ring. It had indeed turned out to be a tricksy thing, granting invisibility to the wearer and a wretchedly long life to the one who owned it. He wore it day after day, though the bright gold rubbed his flesh until he bled. The whispering voice of the thing was with him always, waking and sleeping, and fear of its loss never left him; but sometimes lately the ring looked to him like a searching, malicious eye in a circle of gold, and such a cold terror would seize him that he would raise his hand to cast it far away-but always at the last moment he would clutch it tight. It was his precious, his own, his birthday present, and he wanted it, he had killed to keep it-but he was afraid.

He squinted down at the rippling waters, though there was no reflection to be seen. The hot sun dapples glancing off the water pained his wet eyes. How he had grown to hate the Yellow Face of the sun over the long years: The Yellow Face in the daylight and the White Face of the moon at night were always looking, always watching! “Musstn’t look at us! Mussssn’t look at usss!” he cried suddenly, shaking his fist at the blameless blue sky. “It was ours and he fought us, he made us do it! Wicked, wicked Nahald!”

But Nahald was long gone, all these many years, with Granny and the Great Burrow, and all the rest of his kind, swept away by time. He had pushed the coracle deep into the reeds and filled it with stones until it sank, then hidden Nahald in a secret place under an ancient willow. Everyone knew of the great willow, but no one else knew of the secret den under its roots, dug out by some forgotten creature long ago. Often when it had been very hot, or there had been some chore they had wanted to avoid, Trahald and Nahald had crept into the cool darkness there and slept the day away. He was sleeping there still, or so he told himself in the darkest hours of the night, when memory returned to him in his dreams and guilt cut him like a blade.

“It has roots like handses to hold you down,” Gollum muttered. “Like handses to hold you while you sleep, safe and quiet.” He made a low, anxious gulping noise in the back of his throat as he lifted his head. Far away on the horizon tall shapes stood, row on row, the tallest peaks tipped with white.

“Mountains,” Gollum whispered.

Great and tall, the mountains were, always marching on the edge of all the old tales, and their roots must go down, down, into the timeless dark. This stream that he followed would lead him there. There he would be safe from the accusing eye of the Yellow Face, hidden from memory and remorse, and the Precious would be his forever. Who knew what secrets were hidden there under the mountains? Perhaps even the answer to Nahald’s riddle.

The End



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