After many submissions and equally as many rejections, I’ve decided to publish this story here. Enjoy!
“His stories died when he did, and are burned to ash. No story can survive the owner’s ending,” his mother said.
Monkton watched the stars above as smoke from the dead fire drifted around the clearing in the forest. “My father’s stories are lost now?”
His mother nodded. “Those stories are gone, never existed. What is not cannot have been. Now he dims in my mind and I forget things of him.”
“Can a story be changed?”
“No, a story can only be lost.”
She scowled. “You ask too many questions. It is because that is the way. You live your story and it plays as it will, and when you end your stories end.” She rose on old bones and walked towards the remnants of the pit where the ashes smoldered. “Live a good story, but no one will remember it after you’ve gone.”
He sat and watched the rising of the Citadel, the star flickering yellow and green, outpacing all others, swelling against the night sky as the moon does until it he could see the crags and outcroppings of the rock, upon which it was said rested a castle. It floated above, passing over his head like a ship swathed in clouds, the fasthold of the others, flying beyond the breath of the world and the blood of its rivers, the bones of the earth.
“The mountain of the above,” he murmured to the dark as he watched with craning neck. It passed beyond the tips of the trees, shrinking and dimming as it circled above the world, and the mountains swallowed it as it fell westward. He stared at its passing for many long breaths until the chill drove him into the warmth of the cave to rest upon the comfort of his rock and take what sleep would come.
He set out early with a sack of foods on his shoulder and his best club in hand. As he walked down the mountains through the Mistwode, he twisted the gnarled weapon in his fingers, wood smoothed and polished by generations of ancestors. Fathers and their fathers, whose stories were gone, forgotten, passed into dim shade and the scattering of cold ashes.
He met Ankmar at the water crossing, and the younger fell in stride with Monkton. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I am going to the plains.” He said no more, striding on, hoping to reach the broad lands before darkness fell.
Ankmar followed for a time. “Why do you go there? Is there to be war?”
“No, there is no fight. I go to change my story so it will not be lost.”
“A story cannot be changed.”
“So my mother said, and so it may be, but I will try.”
Ankmar was silent for a long time, until the sun had risen high above. He scratched his head when they stopped for a bite of food under the shade of a werewood tree, and looked at Monkton, his heavy brow furrowing with thought. “Then I will go with you and change my story as well.”
“What if mother is right and a story cannot be changed?”
“Then we will learn this together. Or we will die and our stories with us.” He took a leg of lamb when it was offered, gnawing on it until the meat was gone and the bone cracked under his teeth.
They walked until dark came and the slope flattened, the valley spreading between two jutting spurs of the mountains. They were silent, but the little creatures heard them and hid as the two friends passed through the trees of the Mistwode and beyond the outstretched arms of the mountains, and came to the empty plain that stretched endlessly before them as the stars glimmered dully above and the Citadel passed above their heads.
They camped by the forest’s end and ate from the sack of Monkton, resting their backs against the trunks of trees as they stared with glittering eyes at the waving fields of grass.
“It is strange to see so much emptiness,” said Ankmar.
“My father once spoke of the plains. I no longer remember what he said, though.”
Ankmar nodded. “That is the way of stories once their tellers have passed on. They fade from us.”
“We must change our story.”
“We will try. Do you remember any of what he spoke of?”
Monkton shook his head. “I only remember what I learned when he brought me here when I was only as tall as his hip. He called me little one, and showed me the way of things.”
“He showed you battle?”
“Yes, he showed me what happens when anger rises, and when we strike. He showed me the fierce heart and the rending blades, and the warm blood to drink when your enemy is dead. I remember these things.”
“Then you remember his story.”
“It is my story.”
Ankmar thought for a while. “Perhaps all stories are one story.”
Monkton turned to look at him as the mountain of the above rose in the distance once more. “Perhaps.”
They slept in the shadow of the forest, their breaths long and deep, not fearing the creatures that prowled in the dark. Monkton clutched his club, and late in the night when the moon had sunk far below the edge of the world and a wolf slunk into their camp and sniffed the two friends as they lay on a carpet of dead leaves, he struck in his sleep. A crunch and yip of pain silenced the animals in the trees for long moments after, but Monkton and Ankmar snored as though nothing had broken their repose.
Morn pinked the eastern sky when they stood and walked again, out into the open grasslands. Monkton led, always ahead of his younger companion, and neither spoke. The sun beat down warm upon their shoulders, and Monkton cast a gaze at it with furrowed brow and an angry scowl.
It was well past the mid of day when they passed the first of the wains, broken and grown over with grass. Rusting weapons littered the landscape along with bleached bones. Ankmar stopped and lifted a skull, his fingers curling through the eye socket.
“Do you think they died a good death?”
“Is any death good?” Monkton replied, his eyes looking ahead.
“It is a good death if it tells a good story.”
“Then how can any death be good if the story dies with the teller?”
Ankmar had no answer, but he kept the skull, slipping it into the bag that bounced at his hip as they walked. “Where are we going now that we’ve reached the plains?”
Monkton nodded towards the horizon. “Far ahead I see figures moving.”
“Will we kill them?”
Monkton placed a hand upon Akmar’s chest and stared at him. “No, not unless we must. We change our story.”
They walked as the sun dipped lower and lower, and as evening approached the figures grew until both friends could see a group of little men in front of them with ponies and wagons, cutting across the grass upon a dusty path that wound over and around the hillocks and depressions that sprinkled the plains. Sooner still they heard shouts, and a group mounted and wheeled towards them, clods of dirt and grass kicked up from the shoed hooves of their mounts.
Monkton and Ankmar waited as the little men approached. They rode around the two until they were ringed, and both stood unflinching under the angry gaze of the men, whose heads still did not rise up as tall even upon the backs of their beasts.
They spoke, but neither Monkton nor Ankmar could understand them. Monkton dropped his club and held his hands up and waited. One slipped from the back of his sweating pony, stroking the creature’s nose to soothe the beast as it shied away from the figures in the middle of the circle. He held the reigns and spoke again in another language. Then another. Finally he spoke in their tongue, his words and accent broken but understandable.
“Be gone, monsters.”
“What are monsters?”
“You are monsters,” the little man said. “You two have come from the far peaks past the Mistwode, and are not welcome in our lands.”
Monkton scratched his head. “No, I do not think that is our story. We would have been told by our elders, by mothers and fathers. We are only the people, not monsters, and we seek to change our story.”
“Be gone I say, there is only death here.’
Monkton glanced around. In the dying light of day he saw the bright star rising, the Citadel lifting over the horizon, and he pointed. “There. We wish to go there.”
The man followed his finger and seemed to understand him. He stared at the rising mountain as it floated up, growing ever larger in their eyes. All of them stood for many long breaths as the last light faded and still it lifted higher above, blotting out the stars that were appearing in its path, releasing them again behind it to continue their twinkling glow.
“Not possible,” the man said as he looked up. “There is no way to reach the beyond of the earth’s breath, where the magi live.”
“We must.” He strained to make them understand. “My father fought you in the great battle. You have the steel which bellows smoke and fire. It will get us there. Take us to your homes.”
He did not understand, for he did not speak their language well enough. Where there was a plea for aide, the little man heard the call to battle. He screamed something in his own language and drew his sword, and all the little men charged the two friends, and the anger rose in Monkton and Ankmar and they lifted their weapons, howling for blood.
Metal flashed and clubs fell. A pony went down, its head crushed beneath one terrible blow of Monkton’s club, his rider pinned. Akmar swept around in a circle, knocking men from the backs of their steeds, which fled from the two with whinnies of fear. There were cries and screams, and the groans of the wounded as blood ran thick upon the ground. What began swiftly ended as abruptly.
Monkton stood gasping, a dozen small wounds leaking his blood, but none that would end his story. He wiped his brow and looked down on the dead beneath him, and when he saw the rider pinned under his horse, he swung his club up and down again, crushing his head into the ground, cutting off his scream of terror.
Ankmar lay with his back against another dead pony, holding his stomach. He lifted his hand and Monkton saw a gush of blood that poured from a gaping wound. His breath came in wheezes, and his yellow eyes looked up at Monkton.
“My story has ended. I will not change it.”
Monkton squatted beside him and brushed his hair from his brow. “It was a good story, Ankmar. I am glad to have shared in it.”
“I would have wanted…” he began, but said no more.
Monkton gathered the dead and piled them together beneath Ankmar, then covered all with grasses. He placed rocks on the pile to keep the grasses from blowing away. “I will return you to ash when I have found a new story, Ankmar,” he said. Then he stood and turned and followed the direction the wagons had gone.
He spied them before long, a flickering fire in the distance guiding him towards the circle of their camp. They were mostly women and children, a few old men who could no longer fight and would go to the beyond in a handful of turnings. He watched them from outside the ring of light, the stars and the Citadel circling above their heads. He thought about killing them all, avenging Ankmar with their blood, the glory of the battle he would fight. He sat in the tall grasses, his fingers stroking the soft stalks until the little men and women lay down for their sleep, and then he rose and moved away, following the path, faint in the starlight, from whence they had come.
When he slept, he saw Ankmar again, standing tall, his stomach cut open and an empty hollow in his abdomen. “Your mother says that our stories are only now and will die with us. There is no past.”
“Mother is home asleep, Ankmar.”
“She has passed on, and they lit the fires this evening for her body. There was nothing more for her when your father died, what he had had ended and gone, and you left her alone.”
“Then I am the only story left of my family.”
Ankmar nodded and they walked together for a time, their feet leaving the ground and rising higher and higher into the black sky. There were no stars but the flickering lights of the Citadel, and it came closer, bigger than ever he could remember as he walked towards it, swelling like the pregnant moon in autumn. The mountain of the above was covered in torches and glowing globes of light that illuminated it, and he could see figures walking the parapets of the castle that clung to its flanks.
Still it was above him and above him and the breath of the world grew thin as it did on the high peaks, and thinner still, and he gasped for air, sparks flashing before his eyes as he reached out to touch the mountain, which passed over him, still far above in the pitch black night, the figures pointing and laughing though he could not hear their voices. He fell then, a blazing star that tumbled back to earth in fire and ruin, and when he struck the bones of the world it split open and swallowed him, a great hungry beast that ended his story.
He woke in the deep dark long before dawn and ate from his sack, only a little food remaining. Then he walked again for many hours, until he spied a figure lying in the tall grasses beside the path. It was a man, old and bent, in a robe of white streaked with dirt, starring up at the blue and pink and yellow sky above as mother sun crept closer to its rising.
“It is a poor thing to end this way,” he said as Monkton stood over him, as though he had known him his whole life. He spoke Monkton’s language well and clearly, his cloudy eyes scanning the skies above.
“Why do you lie there?” Monkton asked.
“To see it one more time as it passes overhead before I die.”
The old man’s gaze looked upon Monkton’s face and he smiled. “I see it’s in your mind, the mountain of the above. Is it your story?”
“I wish to change my story.”
“Do you? And how would you change your story?”
“I will visit the men in the castle above the clouds and they will tell me how I can change it, and how it will be remembered when I have gone beyond.”
“They are wise men, these men who pass above the breath of the world?”
“They must be, if they can raise a mountain and cast it into the space beyond the bones of the earth.”
He snorted and Monkton sat beside him. “The men above are old men like me, men who have turned inward and think they are above all things. They have separated themselves from the living earth and its beauty. Oh, they are certainly clever; the existence of the Citadel reveals this. But wise? Wisdom is not being clever, my friend.”
Monkton thought for a time, playing with a rock in the dirt. They watched as the Citadel rose in the morning sky, outpacing the sun as it drifted far above the clouds. When it passed to the west, he tossed the rock aside.
“How do I get there?”
“I can take you, if you are brave enough. It is not an easy journey.”
“No journey worth a story would be easy.”
The old man stood and waited for Monkton to join him. “They will fear you.”
“All men do.”
“I do not.”
“Then you are a fool, for I would kill you if I did not wish to change what I am.”
“That is one possible story. I will show you the door to the end of your journey. It is up to you if that will be the end of your story or if you will change it.”
He walked and Monkton followed, leaving the dirt track and heading further into the endless plains. The sun rose overhead and it grew warm, and Monkton walked bent, wishing he could shield himself from the prying eyes of the bright goddess.
“A journey is a thankless task,” the old man said. “Let us have a story to pass our time.”
“A story? What story would you tell?”
“No, you should tell a story, as payment for guiding you. I will listen and, in the ending, tell you if your story was a good one.”
Monkton remained silent for a time. Far ahead in the hazy distance a sliver pointed up, though he could not tell if it were a tall rock or a castle or one sliver of the bones of the earth pointing to the sky.
“Come, tell me your story. Start when you were little,” the old man said.
“My name is Monkton. I was born in the mountains, the son of Kresh, wolf killer, and Makda, a herder’s daughter.” He told the old man the story of his childhood, of learning how to make a club, how to skin a deer or wild boar. Of playing rough games with the other children, and of the death of little Shekme, who fell from a cliff and smashed against the rocks far below. Shekme had been his friend before Ankmar, and remained in his heart.
He spoke of his father taking him to the battle plains to fight the army of the little men with their spears and swords, and how they gave thanks to the sister moon when the battle was won, feasting that night on fresh meat and hard baked bread from the wagons of the men. He talked of fishing, of learning how to stand in the middle of the water crossing and wait until the scaly creatures became used to him, and snatch them from their homes to toss upon the banks of the river. He remembered the nights spent staring up at the stars as they glittered like a million jewels in the sky, and the Citadel burning the brightest of all as it raced its way above the breath of the world. He told of his father’s death and his return to ashes, taking his stories with him, and of Ankmar and the story they shared. Of all these things and more Monkton spoke, and as they walked the man held a strange object in his left hand, and moved a twig in his right that left black marks upon its many thin leaves.
In the distance the object grew, and it was indeed a jutting rock that thrust up towards the sky, finger pointing to the citadel that passed above them.
“That was a good story,” the old man said as they reached a flat area that encircled the rock, brown dirt with weedy grass that clumped in places. “It was worth the price of the guide, and we have reached the door to the mountain of the above.”
“This is the door?”
“It will take you there. If you are ready, Monkton.”
“I am ready,” he said, and tried not to let his heart thrum so quickly in his chest.
The old man touched the stone and a doorway opened, beyond which was a cave, lit by glowing plants on the wall. He walked inside and beckoned Monkton to follow and he did, bending low to pass through the threshold. There was a crystal in the center of the room that rose from the floor and the man placed his hands on it.
“You may sit if you like,” he said, and Monkton realized the doorway was gone now, and all the world was now this one room, smaller than his home. He sat with his back to one wall and watched as the crystal began to glow with a blue light.
“I will change my story,” he said softly as the light grew, and the earth shook beneath him. The old man sat down beside him, and placed his frail white hand upon the huge gnarled knuckles of Monkton as the room shuddered, a rumble sounding through the air. He could smell burning brimstone.
There was movement then, and though Monkton was afraid, he remained still. He felt a sensation as though he were rising above the battle plains and into the sky of the earth, rising higher and higher until they must be beyond the breath of the world, into the clear dark emptiness that held the stars beyond.
The old man’s eyes were closed. “Are you afraid,” asked Monkton, watching him.
“No, my friend, I am not afraid. I am old, and the magic hurts me now, so near to my ending. We will be there soon, though.”
As though hearing him, the room shuddered and rattled again and there came a thump and a quiet. For a moment it was still, and Monkton saw the opening had returned.
The old man stood and stepped through the doorway. Beyond, Monkton could see a darkness, the stars twinkling though it was not far past the mid of day. And now he could see the world beneath him, far below, the green of the forest and the battle plain turning under his feet, below the edge of the rock, the precipice of the Citadel. Behind them was a cave with a door like the one that rested in the middle of the plains.
“Have I changed my story? Will it be remembered?”
He nodded. “I have written it down, Monkton. Your people do not know writing or how to keep their history, but your story will not be forgotten, for as long as the words are passed on from father to son to grandson. The tale of an ogre who went to the mountain of the above to change his story.”
“Good. What will the magi do now?”
“They will kill you, for they see only the monster, not the story.”
Monkton looked at the castle upon the rock, at the men who were gathering on the walls with spears and bows and swords. “You will keep the words? Remember my story?”
The old man nodded. “I will place it in the library of the Citadel to be kept and copied and repeated for as long as this place exists. Then I will return to my ending, to feel the warm sun upon my face and the grass beneath my body when I pass. What will you do now, Monkton?”
Monkton smiled and patted his shoulder. “What I must do, what Ankmar showed me. Thank you,” he said, and stepped from the side of the man and sprang off the rock and began his fall back to the breath of the world and the bones of the earth, burning bright as a star across the late day sky.
“I would have wanted…” he began as he returned to ash.