Death of the Ancients
“If I knew my own death,” Arrix said, “I could live forever by avoiding it.”
The old man sighed and shook his head. “Many people have thought the same over the years, but fate will always catch up with you.”
Arrix laughed and put his hand gently on the old man’s shoulder. He had travelled a long way to seek out the hermit who was said to have met with the Ancients and given a glimpse of his own death. Within the old man’s eyes he could see great sadness and regrets. But the old fool had not seen the potential such knowledge could offer. “Tell me how you will die?”
The old man took a seat by the fire and warmed his hands upon the dying embers. Studying his wrinkled hands, he turned them over. “When I sought out the Ancients I was a young man like you,” he began, looking up at Arrix. “I thought I would have the advantage over my enemies by knowing exactly how I would die.”
Leaning close, Arrix asked, “What did they tell you?”
The old man smiled. He was silent for a moment as he watched the flames dance. “I would die old, sat by the fire on a winter’s day when a young warrior comes to me to learn of the Ancients.” He looked up at the window and Arrix saw the snow had began to fall. The old man continued, “When the snow stops falling, I slump in my chair and close my eyes.”
Arrix knelt by the old man. “At least you knew you would live a long life.”
“Aye, but do you think it was a happy life?”
With a shrug, Arrix had to admit that such a fate would not be an honourable one. But he was young and ambitious. The things he would do if he knew the face of the man who would kill him or the day it would happen. To know a trap is to avoid a trap, his old teacher had taught him. “I cannot answer for the life you chose to lead, but I am different.”
The old man smiled and nodded. “Of course you are. Then if it is the Ancients you seek, go to the village at the foot of the Grey Mountains. You will find the steps that climb high into the mountains and into the mist. It is there you will find the Ancients.”
Arrix’s excitement grew and his heart thumped. “How can I repay you?”
The old man was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice trembled. “Stay with me until the snow stops falling. I would not wish to die alone.”
“I will stay to the end.”
The old man settled into his chair and began to tell of his life. His tale started long before Arrix was born and he spoke of wars that had been fought in the land long ago. Keeping quiet, Arrix listened with awe at his exploits and wished he could reach the same glory. The old man had commanded great armies and won many battles, but he always saw that vision of death, haunting him through his days. It had soured his life, rather than giving him the power that he had desired. With tears in his eyes, he implored Arrix to forget the quest.
“What if you die saving the person you love?” he asked. “Would you run from that?”
“I do not know,” Arrix whispered. Expectations told him he would die in battle. And it was this realisation that sent a shiver of fear through him. He had kept it hidden, but he was scared the fear would overwhelm him when it came to fight. “We go to war when the winter ends and I plan to live through it.”
The old man looked at the dying flames and started to laugh uncontrollably, wheezing and coughing.
“What is so funny?” Arrix asked, annoyed.
The old man slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. The snow had stopped with his heart. Arrix carried him to the woods behind the shack where he buried him in a shallow grave. The sun was falling low in the sky and the snow began to fall again, covering the grave in a soft blanket. Arrix went to the small shed that leaned against the shack and checked on his horse. He patted her mane and threw a heavy blanket over her as a chill wind blew in through the gaps in the wood. It would not be wise to head north to the mountains at this late hour, he decided, especially in winter. No, they would rest tonight and make an early start.
Making sure there was enough grain in the horse’s feedbag, he headed back to the hermits shack and threw some more wood on the fire. The snow fell heavily now and he relaxed in the chair. The fire roared and cast flame light around the room.
The open plains were a sheet of snow that stretched towards the distant Grey Mountains. Arrix rode his horse as fast as he could, but the faithful old mare was tired and the snow made progress difficult. For many miles he had travelled across the empty land and it felt as though the mountains remained forever out of reach. There had been many freezing camps upon the plains as Arrix shivered before the small fire that he had struggled to light. The wood he had brought was nearly gone.
“By the Gods I have never felt colder!” he spat as his horse ploughed on through the thick snow. The sky opened with a new snow storm that stung his eyes, but he pushed on towards the mountains. If he had judged correctly, they would be at the foot of the mountains by dawn if he continued riding through the freezing night. It would nearly kill his horse, and this saddened him for she had been his loyal companion for many years. He patted her mane and she tossed her head down and thundered on, carrying her master on what could be her last journey.
When the light faded from the sky, the snow stopped and the clouds blew from a full moon by a wind that chilled his bones. The land glowed white under the moon and the stars twinkled above the dark outlines of the Grey Mountains. The cold was intense and he snuggled down towards the horse’s neck and closed his eyes. His hands gripped the reins, but he could not feel them anymore. The night might be his last and he would never get to meet the Ancients. Perhaps he should have waited for the winter to pass, but it had already lasted for two years. There was no sign it would be ending soon. In that time, he thought, he could have met his end.
But he needed to be armed with the foreknowledge of his death before the coming war. Even as he rode this wretched plain, the Kylorn tribes grew close to their borders. Deep down he knew he was a coward, but it was only death he feared. As he drifted into a light sleep, he mused at how he would face the enemy fearlessly knowing how he would meet his death. A dream came to him of the day when he would charge against the enemy. Riding at the head of ten thousand horsemen, he would lead the charge to the waiting enemy.
And his loyal horse would take him there as certain as she would carry him safely to the mountains. And when a shaft of bright sunshine shone into his eyes, he lifted his head and saw they were in the shadow of the Grey Mountains and ahead of them between a narrow gap in the mountains was the village of Grey. His horse continued on slowly, head bowed. With effort, Arrix jumped down from the horse and his boots sank into the snow. He led the horse on, patting her gently.
Before the sun came overhead, he reached the stone walls of the village and passed through the open gates. Wooden huts with straw roofs huddled together in the shadows of the mountains and no one stirred. Heading on through to the village centre, he watched for signs of movements from the huts, but was disappointed to find the place deserted. The wind howled through the mountains that loomed as silent giants above him and he felt a sense of dread grow within. A path led on towards a set of stone steps at the back of the village. They were carved into the very mountains themselves and were so steep they disappeared into the mist above. A figure at the foot of the steps rose, startling Arrix.
“These steps lead to a cursed land,” the man said, leaning upon a heavy battleaxe. His face was young, yet chiselled and gaunt from the cold and hard living within this rocky region. But his frame was powerful and Arrix did not doubt his strength. “You would be wise to turn back now.”
Arrix stopped in front of him, deciding if he should fight. This was the first time he had met one of the mountain tribes and he did not desire a confrontation. “I travelled a long way to climb these steps, friend.” He looked to his horse, then back at the man. “My horse is exhausted and is in need of a stable.”
The man was silent for a moment and the wind whistled between them. Finally, he smiled. “I would say you look more exhausted. You rode across the plains in winter?”
Arrix relaxed. “Aye; I have never felt colder.”
The man laughed. “Then perhaps you would warm yourself and rest before climbing the steps, for I would not stop someone so determined. But there are horrors up there.” He looked behind him and up the steps, his smile fading.
Arrix shrugged. “Then I will take your offer for warmth and rest with thanks. Where are the other villagers?”
The man looked grim. “I am the last and guardian of the steps as my father before me. I am Yantif. Now come, warm yourself by my fire.” He led Arrix to a small hut where he lit a fire. “I will tend to your horse while you warm yourself.”
Arrix thanked him and huddled by the fire. Finally, the feeling began to return to his body. When Yantif returned he had a bowl of hot soup that he handed to Arrix who looked at it suspiciously. The smell of it made his stomach lurch, but he held back. “Would you have me come this far to poison me?”
Yantif took a seat next to him by the fire. “My job is to warn people from climbing the steps, not to kill them. “
Arrix considered this for a moment, and saw no malice within his eyes. Besides, he thought, he was starving. He drank from the bowl, savouring the taste. When he finished it, he smiled. “What horrors are up there?”
Yantif’s face was calm, revealing no emotion. “You already know what is up there; otherwise you would never have made this journey. Perhaps it is not a horror to you, but I would not wish to see it.”
Arrix sighed. “You are not the first person to say this.”
“Then perhaps you should listen.”
Arrix got to his feet. “I think I will make that climb now.”
After he had climbed a hundred steps, Arrix reached the cold mist that swirled around him, eating away at what little warmth he had left. The world was now totally white and the steps became steeper, a ladder of rock. The silence around him was eerie and for a moment doubt crept into his mind. What if he was doomed to die climbing this mountain? The rock was slippery and one wrong move would send him sailing backwards.
Taking a deep breath, Arrix continued the climb. The old man had made the same climb many years ago and he wondered how many others had come this far. Yantif would not speak of the Ancients. The land above was cursed, he had said. He had come too far to turn back.
His foot slipped on the rock and he swayed, gripping the steps above and digging his fingers into the cold rock. Some loose stones fell down over him and he listened to them thudding down the steps. When he regained his nerve, he pulled himself upwards and continued on. After a short while, the mist began to thin and he was above the cloud, looking down at the swirling mist at his feet. Looking up, he saw the steps continue on into the sky. The wind suddenly blew around him and he shivered, pulling himself close to the steps. Taking a deep breath of icy air, he continued.
He was unsure how long he had been climbing when the steps suddenly began to even out and he was able to walk upright on them. When he came to the top, he found himself looking down into a rocky valley that stretched out for miles, the jagged mountains protecting it from the rest of the world. He stepped down into it, mist swirling around his feet and walked through the strange world in the clouds. An eerie silence hung in the air and he pulled his cloak tight around him. It was strangely peaceful, and he looked around for the Ancients. A few trees grew up around him and ahead he heard the sound of a running stream. As he moved on, he saw a wooden bridge that climbed up out of the white mist. The sun shone brightly and as he crossed the bridge, it sparkled in the crystal clear water below.
Arrix paused at the top of the bridge and looked into the water. He saw his reflection stare back up at him and he scrutinised himself for a few moments. Back home his people prepared for war, and here he was on a foolish quest for immortality. The face of the man in the reflection became dark with guilt and he saw the old hermit for a moment. When he looked up, he saw a figure in a grey robe on the bank of the stream. It watched him for a moment before turning and heading away. Arrix hurried after it.
“Wait!” he called out.
The figure continued on and he followed. They came to a small village with huts built of stone. As he looked around, he saw more grey robed figures in the doorways of the huts, watching him in silence. As he continued on, they swooped around him in a circle and he came to a stop, looking around at the hooded figures. The silence stretched on and he tensed, wondering if he had come into a trap. How foolish, he realised, his hand slowly going to his sword. Finally, one of the figures stepped towards him and lowered the hood.
Arrix looked upon the face of a man. As he looked over him, he realised his eyes were closed. Looking closer, Arrix could make out tiny black threads stitched into the eyelids, forcing them shut. He backed away in shock. The eyeless man followed and appeared to study him. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse, dry and distant.
“Why do you come to our land?”
Arrix relaxed a little, though he kept his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “I seek the Ancients,” he said.
“We are those known by that name.” He stopped directly in front of Arrix and sniffed the air around him. The others remained silent and hooded. “We are also known as the Cursed.”
Arrix smiled nervously. “I do not think you cursed.”
The Ancient laughed with contempt. “We think of ourselves as cursed. Do you know what it is like to live in both the future and the present?”
Arrix shook his head.
“We keep our eyes closed to avoid seeing both, for to do so even accidently would drive a man insane. As I stand talking to you surrounded by the mountains, I am looking into the distant future.”
Arrix glanced around at the others who remained silent and motionless. He looked back at the Ancient. “Then you must have known I was coming here and what I want?”
The Ancient’s face remained emotionless. “Indeed, we did, long before you were born we knew.” He paused for a moment, breathing deeply with the wind that blew down from the mountains. “Would you really want to know of your own death? Think carefully, because once told it cannot be untold.”
Arrix felt his heart racing. “Yes, tell me!”
The Ancient sighed. “Such knowledge is dangerous. You believe you can avoid that fate, but it will find you. Do you spend a life running from something you have no chance of escaping? Those people of the village below the mountains were unable to cope with the knowledge of their death. They charged themselves with guarding our stairs so our curse can never be shared with mortals.”
Frustrated, Arrix snapped, “Just show me!”
The Ancient threw his hood over his head and reached out and took Arrix’s hands in his. The touch was cold and Arrix recoiled for a moment. The Ancient’s face was deep in concentration and the icy touch spread through his body, twisting around his heart. A distant humming began to hurt his ears and when the cold became unbearable, the Ancient let go.
“What did you see?” Arrix breathed.
The Ancient sighed. “I saw your death upon the back of a horse. The horse will throw you and upon a rock you will smash your skull.” He turned to go.
“Is that it?” Arrix asked. “I need to know more. I need to know how I can avoid this.”
The Ancient paused. “Stay away from horses.” He turned and strode away, the others falling back into their homes.
Anger filled Arrix. It felt as though he had been mocked and his hand gripped his sword. But as the mists swirled around him again, a strange sensation of calmness came to him. He closed his eyes and his head spun. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone, stood upon the bridge over the stream, looking down at his reflection. He gripped the edge of the bridge and found himself swaying. The wind grew stronger and he shivered. For a moment he was confused, unsure if he had dreamt the encounter with the Ancients. It had to be true, he thought and realised he was immortal until that fateful ride. The Ancient had told him that fate would catch up with him, but only if he allowed it. As he made his way over the bridge towards the steps down from the mountain, he vowed never to ride a horse again.
When he reached the bottom of the steps, Yantif was waiting for him. “Did you find what you wanted?”
Arrix nodded. “Will you take care of my horse? She served me well through these years.”
The Guardian shot him a puzzled look. “Will you not need her to take you back across the plains? The cold will kill you.”
Arrix shot him a half smile. “No, it is not the cold that will kill me.” He remembered the words of the Ancient. Returning home would mean riding into war upon horseback. Refusing this would bring great shame upon his family. But if he rode the horse, that could be his death. The dilemma played on his mind and looking across the featureless horizon he realised he would have a long time to think it over.
After a final meal with Yantif, he prepared himself to cross the plains. It was early afternoon and he wanted to get moving. The sooner he began the long journey, the sooner he could be home. Bidding Yantif and his horse farewell, he left the village of Grey for the last time.
As the winter drew to an end and the snow began to melt from the land, Arrix came to his village. They found him wandering in the hills, half starved and close to death. They had taken him to the village healer who spent the next few days tending him. He was unsure how long he stayed in her hut, for the herbs she had mixed left him light headed and the days blurred into one. When he had regained his strength, he made his way to the horse fields where the young warriors were preparing for war. He stopped at the edge of the field, leaning on the wooden fence that bordered it. The sun shone warmly on his face and the breeze had the sweet smell of spring that meant war was close.
Closing his eyes, he listened to the sound of galloping horses as they thundered around. The young warriors fought each other and he heard the musical sound of steel upon steel as they sparred. For a moment, he pictured himself riding and fighting and a sense of joy filled him, but as he opened his eyes he lost the feeling.
“Ah, now here is the greatest rider of the village!”
Arrix opened his eyes and looked upon his teacher, Gamian. His kind old face beamed at him as he strode across to Arrix, leaving his young pupils to spar together. Arrix grabbed his hand and shook it firmly, pleased at seeing his teacher once again. “I thought you would have retired by now,” he said with a smile.
Gamian laughed heartily. “I’ll keep going as long as I can hold a sword and ride a horse. We will ride to battle together.”
Arrix smiled, but inside he was tense. He looked away from Gamian’s gaze. “Aye, it will be a grand battle.” They walked across the field towards the young fighters who sweated under the noon day sun. They looked at him as they approached and Gamian warned them to keep fighting.
“We ride to war soon!” he shouted to them. “You will not have a chance to rest on the battlefield.” He crossed to the horses who were chewing grass. “Will you ride with me on such a fine day, friend?”
In that moment Arrix felt a sudden weakness. He stared at the horses and they grew to a towering height above him. Watching Gamian jump up onto a horse, he suddenly felt sick and took a step back. “Perhaps it is not a fine day for riding, teacher.”
Gamian laughed. “I am not your teacher, for I have taught you all I know. You appear different since returning. What troubles you?”
Arrix turned away from the horses and looked at the young men battling. “I do not wish to speak of it.”
“And where is that fine horse of yours?”
“She is retired in the Grey Mountains.”
Gamian jumped down from his horse. “By the Gods; that was a long way for you to come on foot.” He stepped in close, whispered to Arrix, “What were the mountains like?”
Arrix glanced nervously around. He had told him he wanted one last journey before war, just to stand at the foot of the mountains. “A cold wind blows from them and they reach higher than any hill I have ever seen. They are lonely places.” He looked over at the horses, unable to control a single tear that crept from his eye. He wiped it away before it could travel far. “But now I am a coward and fear to ride again.”
Gamian studied him with a concerned expression. “But you were born a horseman of the wild lands. We ride to war by the end of the month.”
“Not I, for I have no place in this tribe. I should be cast out.” He pushed by Gamian and strode across the field in a hurry to be alone.
“Then you should go and hide with the women and children!” Gamian cried after him. “There will be no honour for you.”
Arrix ignored him as he left the field, frustrated. If only he could show that he was not a coward! Let me walk into battle with nothing but a sword and they will see how an immortal fights, he thought. But their way was to ride into battle. As he came to the fence, a stone hit him hard on the back. He spun round and saw one of the young warriors laughing at him while Gamian turned his back. Angered, Arrix strode to the laughing man. He drew his sword and gritted his teeth.
“Does the coward want to fight?” the warrior asked, bringing up his own sword. They circled each other and Arrix looked for his opening. Now he had no fear and he knew there would be no death. He let loose with a few slices that clashed with his opponent’s sword. Pulling back, he took a breath, plunged into another attack and pushed forwards, aware that he was being clumsy in his attacks. Without a fear of death, he thought, there was no need for caution. That was when he felt the sword stab through his heart and he looked down at the glinting metal that had pushed halfway into his body. His opponent looked shocked.
“That should have been easy to block!” Gamian said, rushing over.
For a moment Arrix felt weak, but suddenly his strength returned. His eyes fixed on the sword, he began laughing. He gripped the sword and pulled it from his body until it was clear. There was a sudden tightness within his chest and he looked at the gaping hole as it began to close up until no mark remained.
The men looked at him with open mouths, but their eyes sung with fear. They uttered a curse under their breaths and backed away from him. Arrix smiled and took a step towards them, confused by the look of terror on his old teacher’s face. “I am immortal!” he shouted. “Do not fear me!”
The three of them sped away, stumbling as they jumped to their horses and galloped away. They glanced back as they disappeared over the hill. One of them shouted, “You are cursed!”
Arrix watched them until they vanished. Looking down at his chest, he saw he was healed. So, he thought, I truly am immortal until the day I ride. He laughed and headed back on foot to the village. But as he made his way down the muddy path, he remembered the look of horror upon his old teacher’s face.
The rest of the day went by as though he were in a dream. Despite the warm sun, his skin felt cold and inside he shivered as though he was upon the frozen plain again. As he had hoped, he no longer feared death because he could always be ahead of it. As he returned to his hut, he noticed the group of villagers who followed at a distance. Pausing at his door, he listened to their whispers. They spoke of evil monsters and curses, and when he looked upon them, each man fell silent and cast their eyes down.
“I am not cursed!” Arrix shouted at them. “I am gifted with knowledge to make me immortal.”
The crowd began to shout curses at him. A woman threw a stone that narrowly missed his head. Anger now coursed through his body and he trembled with rage. Why did they not understand? He took a step towards them and they fell back. Another stone flew at him, followed by another and they hit him hard, winding him. Holding his hand up against the onslaught, he backed away to his hut. Sharp pain exploded in his head as the stone smashed him between his eyes. Staggering backwards, his vision became dark.
When the world came back into focus, Arrix found his hands were tied behind his back. Looking down, he saw he was surrounded by a sea of grim faces. Within them he saw his old teacher who turned away as he made eye contact. When he looked down, he saw he was sat upon the back of a horse. With mounting terror he realised what was happening. As was tradition, they banished people by tying them upon a horse and making them ride from the village in disgrace. But now his mortality loomed and he looked around desperately. Someone slapped the back of the horse and it began galloping away, towards the hills to the north. Arrix struggled to remain in the saddle and a few times he rocked and nearly fell. Stones whistled passed his head and he kicked at the horse instinctively to run faster. The horse went into a full gallop and Arrix slipped again.
When they were clear from the village and the angry mob, Arrix bent forwards and nuzzled the mane of the horse. As they entered into the wilds, he smelled the horse and smiled, thinking of his old horse that he missed more than ever. He tried to pull at the ropes that bound his hands, but they were tight. As good a horsemen as he was, he knew it would not be long until the horse would finally throw him with his hands tied.
He rode on into the night and as the moon climbed high in the sky, he began to sink into a light doze, slipping from the saddle. At least, he thought, he would die where he belonged. A wolf howled nearby and the horse broke into a full gallop.