Chapter I: Dusk
“There lived an eagle on the mountain top,
To its arrogance, there seemed to be no stop,
To reach the morning sun, it flew up too high,
The sun burned off its wings, and it fell from the sky.
It fell into the deepest well that no man could have dug
And that is why, my friend, you should not be so smug….”
A small, winged creature sang with a high pitch, with skin almost as pale as the mountaintops towering over her. White threads of hair reached the length of her dress sewn from crimson petals of mountain lilies. She rested her slender legs on a white sheepskin cloak, with a few old bloodstains from many years ago. The cloak moved as the giant wearing it over his coat took a stride ten times the size of the creature on its shoulder.
Truth be told, it was no giant, but rather a human standing six feet tall in a hat woven from the wool of a brown sheep. The rest of the yarn was used on his coat. He was holding a plain scythe, which gave him a scarecrow-like appearance. His auburn hair, sticking out of his hat, resembled barn hay after several flocks of sheep had used it. He seemed deaf to the song of his companion. Instead, he gazed at the narrow winding path leading to the misty at the top of the low mountain.
They were surrounded by other, much taller peaks, looking like fingers of some deceased, once-powerful deities that had become a part of the earth. At least, that’s what the strange fellow believed.
This unlikely pair was followed by another couple of creatures, only slightly less unlikely. Two small sheep: one snow-white, the other coal-black. Wherever the strider stepped, the flock followed.
His companion finished her song, and her amethyst eyes joined his brown in studying the path.
“A village is up ahead. Why else would a path lead to the top of a mountain?” She stared at him with her curious e.
There was no response from her companion, who was already moving on the path up the mountain.
She clenched her fists at his adamant silence. As if she wasn’t even there! Glancing at the setting sun, she tried again, “Let’s hope whatever awaits us up there have warm tea, a fireplace, and a friendly old woman, like in the village below.” She turned her head to the strider’s slightly elongated face, covered with a scruffy, uneven red beard. Again, no answer; silence beside the sigh of an unknown nature.
A sudden urge to move closer to his ear and whisper obscenities that only her kind managed to invent hit her, but she held it back and swung her legs around over the edge of his shoulder instead.
The strider felt her obnoxious noise turn to movement on his cloak immediately. He rather wished to journey in silence, but the nervousness of the creature radiated onto his shoulder. The sheep started to bleat because this path was devoid of the rich plant life that they enjoyed during the initial climb. Nevertheless, they followed their owner, who glanced back at them to make sure they did not stray away.
“I hope we are fortunate as you say, fairy,” he murmured if only to calm her. His voice came deep and robust, though a breeze could have covered it up. Still, the fairy heard him clearly, and her tiny mouth twisted into a victorious, mischievous smile.
Gotcha! she thought, though she still had an issue with his word choice. “I have a name, you know. How would you like it if everyone called you ‘shepherd?’”
“They already do, Amethyst Eyes,” The shepherd shot narrowed eyes at a rock as they passed by. It was a large grey rock, with a green tint to it, almost matching the grass it was lying on.
The fairy grimaced, “Didn’t I tell you to call me Amy? Other fairies called me by my full name; I despise it. Don’t you, Runestone Meekson?” She could not keep a straight face, huffing, and puffing as she finished the name.
The shepherd’s eyebrows, two caterpillars, twitched.
“I’ll call you Amy, as long as you call me Rune,” he sighed. The fairy didn’t respond, and he wondered if she was even listening now. He turned his head to look at her on his shoulder, but she was staring at something far more critical.
Letting out a breath through his nose, he followed her gaze to a nearby fence made out of river stones. Following the fence, a few feet away, was a small wooden gate that led to a yard. Within the yard, built of the same mud and greyish stones as the fence around it, sat a two-story house, its balcony clumsily crafted out of wood. One window of this shabby rectangle was facing the yard, the other facing the entrance. Smoke puffed out the stone chimney that stuck out of the triangular roof. A haze—fog enveloped the whole village until the sunset was barely visible. It began to drizzle.
“At last,” Amy sighed with relief at the house, the warm smoke from the chimney. “It was getting cold.”
She jumped off the shepherd’s cloak and her butterfly wings suddenly transformed into a red shawl tied around her back as she grew in size, becoming only a head shorter than Rune.
“Do I look human enough to you, shepherd?” She squinted her eyes at him while moving her bare feet on the muddy soil, still wet from the constant mountain rain.
Rune gave her a blank stare, took off his hat, put it over her white hair to cover her tiny, pointy ears—revealing his messy hair—and directed his attention to the house. “Hello? Anyone home?” he called from the gate, raising his voice just enough to attract the owner and not cause the whole village to run out of their dwellings.
A middle-aged man, short and bald, with expressive blue eyes, sprung out of the house onto the balcony. “Who’s asking?” He eyed the two travelers.
Amy responded with a slight smile to the man, while Rune remained expressionless.
Curses, Rune, you are going to get us shunned. Try to be cordial at least, she worried, glancing at her companion. “We.. we are travelers from a village forty mountains away. I am Amy, and this is Rune. Would you be so kind as to accept us as guests?” Amy suddenly uttered as Rune sighed in relief; he hated formalities—especially when asking to become a guest.
The man’s eyes moved to examine them. Holding his trim red beard, he looked at the pair and the two sheep behind, his face remaining strangely still. Then, as Rune was about to take a step back, the edges of the man’s mouth contorted into a broad smile and eyes that sparkled.
“Of course, of course, guests are always welcome in my home!” The man announced as he descended the clumsily crafted wooden stairs to open the gates for the pair. As he opened the gate, he eyed over Rune once more. “What kind of shepherd has two sheep? You must have fallen on hard times, son….” He spoke quietly but firmly.
All the while, Rune simply stared back at him. I can show you a hard time, old man, he thought to himself, feeling the cold touch of Amy’s tiny hand. Then, finally, the fairy’s smile dissipated; she looked down at the mud.
“It is most unfortunate. Most of our flock got eaten by wolves…” she explained, cracking her fingers.
Only the sound of drizzle, slowly turning into rain, could be heard for the next second or two.
“I understand, my guests. I have fallen on hard times myself. Let’s not stand here, though! Get inside! Have some tea!” he offered, taking a step towards the house. “The sheep can stay in the basement tonight, but tomorrow we can move them to the barn.”
The small stone pathway that led to the house from the yard was covered in nettles. Amy bit her lower lip and soldiered on through their stings. After half a minute of silence, they finally reached the stairs.
“Watch your step. My father built them many years ago. He was not exactly the best builder, but he sure could weave a rug.” The man announced as he ascended the stairs.
Amy was slowly but surely making her way up the steps.
Rune’s voice came in a murmur behind her, “Pick up your pace.”
“Hold your horses.” Amy felt one stair after another before taking each sure step, eventually reaching the balcony. Rune was there with them shortly after, and they went inside the man’s house. Small oil lamps dimly lighted it. The smell of burning wood enveloped the meager room as a small brick furnace, resembling some four-legged creature sticking its chimney neck out the stone ceiling, burned in the upper right corner of the room. A metal teapot was steaming on it.
A foot to the left from the furnace were two large, white sheepskins stacked over each other. Several gray clay cups were lying around them, some still retaining the bits of tea leaves.
The floor was covered with a rug, certainly weaved with skill. A red background with green vines on its edges winding into strange paisley patterns, shapeshifting into flowers followed by another layer of vines in the middle of the rug, there was a depiction of a warrior on horseback in gray chain armor swinging his scimitar at a creature: a man covered in strange fur with horns of a goat, staring at the warrior with its small, but fierce eyes.
Amy stared at the masterwork, struck with a strange sense of very faint familiarity with it. . Rune and the man were already sitting down near the furnace.
“Ah, the rug is of interest to you, my dear? It is my most prized possession after all. I have yet to know of the story behind the warrior and the creature, unfortunately. My father never spoke to my brothers and me about it, no matter how many times we asked him to.” The man told Amy, her eyes still locked with the old cloth. “Don’t you just stand there; come here and join us.”
Amy nodded and sat beside Rune.
The man clapped and rubbed his hands together, his eyes sparkling.“Guests, you’ve come bringing joy! I am Summerdusk Millrockson. You can just call me Dusk. I’ve lived in this house, in this village all my life, nearly forty years time, and you are the third guests ever to stop by, so this means my luck has finally turned for the better.” he spouted, his voice sounded as an echo from a cavern.
While giving his speech, he poured tea into two clay cups and gave it to his visitors. Rune nodded, taking the cup, and felt Amy’s elbow hitting his arm, but he stayed in his place without uttering a word. Small talk bored him, though the man intrigued him. If he had fallen on hard times, what kept him this jovial?
Amy gleefully took the cup, “Thank you very much for your hospitality, Dusk.”
“Don’t mention it, my dear. Autumns are harsh around these mountains.” Dusk gave her a cheerful grin.
The fairy took a sip from her cup, the warmth filling her body, cold from the foggy mountain air. She fancied the idea of staying in this house for good at that moment.
“What is this village called?” Rune quietly asked.
The man widened his eyes. “Ah, he finally speaks! I started to believe you were a mute!” Dusk laughed, laying down on his sheepskins. “This is the village of Foggy Peak. Around three thousand crowding a fairly small mountain, not enough land to go around, but we manage.”
“I hope the village elder is kind. Governing a village that big can prove to be a challenge.” Amy noticed, putting her cup down. Dusk, much to the fairy’s joy, filled it with tea to the brim.
“The elder is not the kindest of men, and he lacks the character to lead this village. He only acts when it benefits his pocket. We lost a man to the river not long ago because the elder refused to listen to him. A man named Dim, an odd fellow claimed that there was a water spirit calling for him in the river at the bottom of the mountain. Nothing unusual, as he talked nonsense in the past. He saw him wandering the main street and speaking to himself about the said water spirit. The man felt something was strange about Dim, more than usual, but did nothing to keep him from trouble. Unfortunately, the next day Dim had disappeared, and the neighbors had no clue where he had gone. A few days later, he was found in the river, trapped between rocks. That was the end of poor Dim. Folk say that they see his ghost from time to time,” told Dusk with an occasional sigh, his voice getting calmer and slower with every word.
“That is most unfortunate! Didn’t the village elder call a gathering after this event?” Amy asked, her voice cracking a little.
“There was a small funeral, but no gatherings were called. Gatherings in this village are not adhered to as they should be. Who knows what happened to poor Dim. Maybe his neighbors desired his plot of land for themselves and finally found a way to get rid of the fellow convincingly. I have my own sorrow that requires a gathering, but, alas, the elder is unwilling to call it.”
“What is your sorrow?” The shepherd broke his silence once more, his gaze locked on the man. The man can tell a fine tale. I’ll give that to him, Rune barely smirked, thinking to himself. Amy turned to her companion, tilting her head.
Suddenly Dusk jumped from his seat, puffed his chest. “You see, my dear guests. I am a farmer some days, and some days, I am a hunter, stocking up for the long winter. There hasn’t been a year when I would go hungry to grow my harvest and hunt all my game before the wretched snow comes. I often ride my trusty steed, Hazel, to nearby mountains to hunt. The past few days have been hard. I come into the barn every morning and find my Hazel sweating and burning with thirst. I can’t ride her anywhere. I tried to stay awake in the barn at night, but the harvest takes its toll, and I always end up falling asleep, waking to find Hazel unable to take a single step. If this goes on, this winter might be the harshest I have ever lived, and Hazel might not make it through. I asked for the aid of everyone in the village, but my plea fell on deaf ears. Everyone thought I was almost as odd as Dim,” he lamented, shaking his clenched fist, tapping his foot on the rug. The brief calm that this man found himself in was gone.
Amy approached him and grabbed his big, calloused hand. “We...we will help you in whatever way we can. It’s the least we can do,” she murmured, occasionally glancing at Rune.
The shepherd took a breath as if to object but instead gave a slight nod to the fairy, ceding to her will.
Dusk smiled back at Amy, sitting back down on the sheepskin. “I would be forever in your debt, my guests,” he murmured, lying down.
Strange man, a thought ran and disappeared in Rune’s head.