It had begun to snow again. At first there were only a few small flakes dancing on the gentle breeze, but it quickly developed into a swirling flurry that began to cover his tracks behind. Ahead, the path of the hind he had been trailing carried on upwards; a trench dug deep into the snow by her passage. The hunting had been poor this last winter, and he had strayed further from hearth and trekked for longer than made him comfortable. But to return empty handed would only invite the scorn of the others, and thus he had climbed higher and higher into the mountains in search of game. Crossing the path of the deer had seemed like a boon from the spirits, but if there was a storm brewing it might prove a gift of a rather different kind.
This high into the foothills the canopies of even the tallest trees were far below and, as he paused to look around, his view was obscured by little but the falling flakes. In the direction of the sunrise the air was crystal clear from the cold, and he could see the great river snaking its way into the distance; cutting a lazy course amongst the valleys of his home. On the opposite horizon, however, a bank of dark grey cloud was fast approaching, sheets of snow descending from beneath to block out all sight of what lay beyond. He stared intently at the blizzard for several moments, judging its speed of approach, and his heart sank; for it would be upon him long before he could find shelter.
Turning, he began to quicken his pace; eager to find somewhere less exposed to face the storm. The hind's tracks still led on in front of him, but in his mind the hunt had already been abandoned. She too must have smelt the storm's approach and sought shelter. He would follow where she led, enemies becoming allies in the face of the mountain's fury.
This high up the snow was deep, rising in places above his knees, and his flight was slow. The flakes fell ever faster, slowly obscuring his vision until he could barely see further than the tracks in front of him. Ahead, he could just make out the entrance to a gulley, an inviting darkness in this sea of white. He surged forwards, a last sprint to safety and a chance of rest.
Then, the full force of the storm hit.
A moment before he had stood upon the side of the mountain, but now every trace of his surroundings was replaced by swirling curtains of white; the lack of landmarks confusing his balance and causing him to sway on his feet. A bitter wind began to scream into his ears, and to burn the exposed skin of his face. The cold was almost overpowering, sapping his life warmth to leave limbs heavy and thoughts sluggish. He pushed desperately onwards, but seemed to be anchored to the spot. All sense of place had been lost, replaced only with the whirling walls of his cage.
For days - or heartbeats - he struggled against the blizzard, but exhaustion and the cold slowly conspired to bring him low. As footsteps slowed, senses also dulled, the white fading to grey and the wind no longer screeching as harshly.
Then, numb fingers brushed up against rock and he collapsed against a wall of the gulley. With his back to the mountain side he found himself partially shielded from the storm's fury, but the icy wind still bit deep into flesh. Crawling on his hands and knees, he tried to work his way further into the gulley and away from the worst of the wind.
Eventually, he came to a bend and wedged himself as deep as he could manage against the rock. A few scant hand's breadths from his face the storm continued to howl its fury, but his chances of finding better shelter were slim, and he let exhaustion come up to claim him. The cold and the noise were too present to allow any real sleep, but he dozed fitfully, curled up tight against the tempest.
After a time he started to become aware that the rock at his back was not as cold as he was expecting. The dead bones of the mountain seeming to possess the faint glow of life. Turning, he started to feel around with his hands and, instead of the rough surface of slate, he felt the grain of worked wood beneath his fingertips. Further to the right he encountered a smooth rock as cold as ice, but with the texture of twisted cords.
Realisation slowly dawned. This turn in the gulley was not a natural part of the mountain, but something fashioned by the hand of man. The living would never make their homes in such an inhospitable place, but the dead were known to favour isolation for the sites of their abodes.
Exposed as he now was, the storm was a very real danger, but it seemed the sacred ancestors had again chosen to smile upon him; providing shelter in his time of need.
Rising fully to his feet, he grasped the handle of the door and pulled with all his remaining strength. For a short while the ice of ages resisted his attempts to free its charge, but eventually the door swung open on creaking hinges to reveal a passageway deep into the mountainside. Staggering within, he wrestled with the wind to close the door behind him, and collapsed to the floor the moment he was free of its clutches.
The dark of sleep only slowly gave way to the dusk of twilight, and for a time he lay shivering upon the stone; unable to remember where he was or how he had come to be there. As his spirit slowly returned to its fleshly abode, he began to recall the flight from the storm and his search for shelter. Sitting up, he found himself within a few strides of the doorway, the passage disappearing into the dark behind him. Outside, the gale still raged. While inside it was warm and dry, but his throat was parched and limbs weak from lack of sustenance. He could not brave the storm's affections once again in his present state, but a restless energy made conserving his remaining strength impossible.
Something on the edge of awareness was telling him to stand up and explore his surrounds. Something that spoke of the slight strangeness of this place; for, if it was a house of the dead, why was the door made of wood and not of stone? And why, when he turned his head away, did he think he could sense the faintest movement of air from the end of the passage?
Before he was fully sensible of his own actions, he was back on his feet and making his way down the passage. The faint illumination from the door grew ever weaker as he travelled deeper, until the dark was so complete that he had to grope his way along the walls. Underneath the mountain there were no stars to illuminate the black, and he stumbled on like a blind mole beneath the earth. There were no sounds or smells in this tomb, and the only indicator of time's passing was the changing texture of the slabs beneath his fingertips.
His mind wandered, and he could not tell how far he had travelled when he became conscious that the gloom was slowly lifting. It was still darker than a moonless night, but if he stared hard enough he could once again make out his hand in front of his face. His pace quickened, and soon a faint glow became visible from around a bend in the passage ahead.
Turning the corner, he found himself standing in the entrance to a long hall carved from the rock. Stone tables lined the centre of the room and burning brands cast a guttering light from the walls. Drinking horns and the bones of animals were scattered carelessly about the chamber, as if a feast had been concluded here shortly before his arrival.
The sight of the leavings recalled his desperate hunger, but a brief search revealed that the remains had been picked-clean. Though he could see no trace of the revellers, it was now clear they could only be denizens of the land of the living, and thus not subject to the same laws of hospitality as the sacred ancestors. To continue his search might well bring him face to face with his hosts, and who knew how they might take his uninvited intrusion? To leave, however, he would once more have to face the blizzard, with little hope of a meal until he returned to his own people.
Inevitably, hunger and fatigue triumphed over caution. He started further into the hall, but the gentle tinkling of running water brought him up short again. There, half-hidden in the shadows of the corner, he saw a tiny stream flowing from what appeared to be a petrified tree trunk. Approaching, he saw a hollow in the top that caught the water in a tiny pool. For a moment his thirst conquered him, and he began to cup handfuls of liquid into his parched mouth.
The water felt colder than ice and tasted as fresh as if it had just fallen from the skies. As more of it passed his lips the fatigue began to fade from his limbs, and he felt it snaking down inside him to quieten the hunger in his stomach. His body began to act of its own volition, greedily swallowing down mouthfuls. More and more he drank, the water filling him until it felt as though he would burst with the energy coursing through his veins.
Straightening up from the pool he looked around, an unnatural sharpness to his perceptions. He seemed to see better into the shadows than he had before, and on the edge of awareness he could almost hear the air itself breathe. His limbs felt strong, and the blizzard no longer seemed so threatening. Nevertheless, a voice that was not entirely his own seemed to gently whisper in his ears. He had drunk his fill, yes, but what other wonders might he find here beneath the mountain?
With a resolution that was not entirely his own, he headed out of the hall and into another corridor beyond.
For what seemed an age he wandered beneath the earth. The strange, subterranean world a vast maze of chambers and passageways burrowing deep into the mountainside. The further he explored, the more alien it seemed to become. For, though in construction it was similar to the houses of the dead, the passageways were smooth and unmarked by the niches whereupon the ancestors would sleep. There was little to distinguish each chamber from the next, but many clearly bore the signs of recent habitation; though nowhere had he seen any trace of these dwellers below.
The corridor he currently traversed seemed longer than the others which had come before, and he began to notice a slight upwards tilt to the floor; as though it climbed steadily towards the mountain’s peak. At the end loomed a doorway, seemingly made small by distance, but rising to more than twice his own height by the time he had reached it.
The door itself seemed cast of a single, huge block of bronze. Its size breathtaking to he, whose people counted a few small hand-axes amongst their most prized possessions. He stared up at it in agape wonderment, believing, for an instant, that all the metal in the world might have gone into its casting.
With trepidation he reached out his hand to push it open; disbelief at its existence warring with anticipation of the treasures that might be found within. He pushed, and the door swung inwards. He had expected the weight of a mammoth, but his efforts met hardly any resistance at all.
The room beyond was revealed to be a vast hall that sprawled out into the far distance. Mighty stone trees reached skywards in a long processional; seemingly unaware of the layers of rock between them and the heavens. Each pillar bore a torch on its side and their light cast a spider's web of shadows across the floor. His gaze followed the avenue and - coming to rest upon the dias at its end - he gasped in shock: for there was another in this chamber besides himself. A shrivelled and bearded corpse ensconced upon a throne of granite.
His sharply in-drawn breath echoed loudly in the silence of the tomb. This was a place of burial after all, but one that seemed to house but a single occupant. Panicking, he began to back out; thoughts full of the displeasure of such a mighty ancestor at being so disturbed. His limbs felt leaden from fear, but as soon as he began to move the voice at the back of his mind once more began to whisper to him, to comfort him. His host was powerful, yes, but would it not be wrong to leave before greeting them? For had he not sheltered in their house, and drunk of their water?
The voice's words began to calm him and he halted in his retreat. Several deep breaths recalled a little of his composure, and he started back down the avenue towards the dias. His fingers found the flint hanging at his belt and passed it from hand to hand as he walked. It would make a fitting gift for the ancestor; a gift of fire in exchange for the warmth and water that he had received.
Reaching the throne, he reverently laid the flint at its feet, while its occupant seemed to stare down at him through lidded eyes. Though obviously a full-grown man, they were little taller than a child and their grey beard coiled down to drape itself atop their feet. The corpse's skin was as brittle as tanned leather, but despite its obvious age it seemed rather to be asleep, than to be dead.
For a time hunter and ancestor faced one another thus, but the focus-less gaze made him uneasy, and he hurriedly intoned his thanks to the spirits. Turning, he made to leave, but before he could set one foot upon the steps a voice like the wind whispering over mountain rocks came from behind.
"Who are you that disturbs my rest?"
Whirling back around he saw the ancestor staring at him through now open eyes. Shock at its apparent life bound his tongue, and he stood mute and unable to answer.
"I ask again. Who are you that trespass here?"
"I..I am Keanu. A hunter who sought refuge in your house."
"A human? I welcome you to my hall, Keanu, for it has been many long years since I spoke with another of the living."
At this last utterance a spasm of coughing wracked the grey-beard's frame, and it was several agonising moments before it once again fixed him with its stare.
"You see how my people grow frail, human? We were once masters of this land, but then the ice came and we began to wane. Now we are but a shadowy remnant, growing old beneath the mountains."
"I am s..." he made to reply, but was immediately cut off.
"I see from your eyes that you have drunk of my water, and I begrudge it to you not. In exchange for my hospitality, would you do me a small kindness in turn?"
He began to reply, but once more the ancestor interrupted.
"I am old, and my limbs weak. To the west, on the slopes of this mountain's sister peak, grows an apple tree. Once in a lifetime it bears fruit, and the flesh of that fruit will ease my discomforts."
"You wish me to bring one of the apples to you?"
At this the grey-beard smiled down at him, "You are young and strong, and will travel swiftly where I would falter. If you would do this for me I would be eternally grateful."
He quickly nodded his assent, eager to leave this place and to please the mighty being before him. In the back of his mind the voice muttered words of encouragement, speaking of the bonds of hospitality and the duty that the young owed to the old.
At his agreement the ancestor's smile grew even wider, "Thank you. Behind me is a long passage that leads to the other peak. Its entrance opens not far from the tree's orchard. The journey should take barely a day for one as long-limbed as yourself."
Finishing, the ancestor's eyes began to droop, and it was soon as motionless as it had first appeared. Seeing that further conversation would be impossible, he moved behind the throne and discovered the door. For a moment he considered turning back and retreating while his host was asleep, but the thought of the spirit's wrath convinced him to continue. Beside the door was another of the fountains that he had found in the feasting hall, and he drank his fill before venturing once more into the dark.
For his first few steps he had to again grope his way forwards. Then a pair of torches burst suddenly into brilliance beside him, their light blinding in the black. Looking around, he could see no sign of the hands that had lit them, and a shiver ran down his back; for it seemed that the spirits were indeed watching him. Further on, just as he was about to step out of the ring of firelight, a new set flared into life beside him; again without any sign of having been lit by a living creature.
That walk underneath the mountain was long, as the grey-beard had said it would be, and the only sign of time's passing was the lighting of torches by ghostly hands.
Eventually, he began to make out daylight ahead. Redoubling his pace, he was soon standing in the entrance-way to the tunnel, his eyes burning as they adjusted to the sun after so long beneath the ground. Outside the storm had passed, and virgin snow gleamed in the light of the day. Looking around, he saw that he was far higher up the slopes than when the blizzard had found him, and in the direction of the sunset towered the other peak from whence he had come.
Up the slope there were trees, their roots buried deep beneath the snow, and he started to climb towards them. The snow was far thicker than it had been when he was last above the surface, and his pace was painfully snow. A few small steps and he was already beginning to tire; the orchard distant in spite of its proximity.
As he laboured upwards he became aware of a chattering from around him, the noise like no other that he had heard before. He stopped, trying to identify the animal that would call thus and, almost immediately, several creatures burst up from the snow around him. They were formed like tiny men, but with brown leathery skin and huge ears. Each one of them clutched some sort of weapon, and they set on him as soon they had shaken the snow from their hides.
The suddenness of their assault caught him by surprise, and he stood with mouth agape as they charged towards him. Having set out to hunt he was little prepared for war, but shocked reflexes remembered his spear and brought it up in front of him. It was not a moment too soon, for they were already upon him.
One ducked under his arms to slice a flint knife down his calf. Searing pain filled him, and for an instant he froze. Another tried to attack while he was thus distracted, but was not quick enough and he caught it a ringing blow to the skull with the butt of his spear. There was movement in the corner of his eye and he whirled round to block a hand-axe aimed at his midriff; a rapid reverse of the spear and he had impaled it, black blood staining the white snow.
A weight hit him from behind, and he was forced to his knees as one of the things wrapped its arms around his neck. His vision swam as he tried to gulp down air, but the creature's limbs felt as hard as tree trunks. The others quickly closed and began to jabber at him, kicking at his chest and raking their claws against his skin. He felt the strength flowing from his as a river, the darkness beginning to creep in from the corners of his vision. Panicking, he flailed his arms around, but managing little more than bruising one of his assailants.
Then his fingers closed around the leg of the thing choking him and, with a last desperate heave, he tore the beast loose and sent it crashing into one of its fellows. He surged to his feet with a roar, and his assailants fled in panic before him. Once up, he almost came crashing down again as his head reeled with the return of air and blood.
He felt weak. Every cut on his skin burned, and his bruised throat made swallowing painful. The slopes now seemed dangerously exposed, and the dark, once threatening, a safe refuge. However, this landscape was alien, and he knew not what beasts might den in its hidden places.
He considered turning back, but the grey-beard's hall was now more than a day away, and he was still empty-handed. Then he glanced up-slope, at the tree that he sought, and on its boughs hung two blood red apples.
The fruit seemed to call to him, and the whispering in his head echoed its voice. The grey-beard had mentioned only a single apple; a balm to help ease the hurts of old age. Surely he would not be begrudged its twin to help heal the wounds of battle?
He struggled towards the tree, the whispering in his head now a soft caress in his ears. His hand reached up to pick the first apple. His teeth bit deep into crisp flesh. Juice like nectar flowed down his throat and soothed the hurts of his wounding.
He was weary. The pain flowed away as he ate, but his strength went with it. Eyelids began to droop, but he could not sleep here; there was a sussuration at the edges of his hearing, and he feared that the things which had attacked him were returning to repay the death of their comrades.
He turned in fright, and began to stumble down from the orchard, back towards the tunnel. Each step seemed to further drain his strength, blur his vision. For a moment he thought he saw a doorway in the hillside, a duplicate of the one he had first entered in flight of the blizzard. It was far too high for the tunnel he had followed here, but seemed too substantial to be a fragment of his wounded imagination.
He crawled towards it, and again his groping hands felt wood and metal beneath their fingertips. The passage beyond was dark and unlit, but he stumbled along it like a newborn : blind and directionless.
Eventually he came out into a great hall, similar to that of the grey-beard. At its end was also a throne and dias, though the occupant was nothing but a skeleton sprawled beneath.
Reaching the edge, he pulled himself up the steps on aching limbs, and collapsed onto the throne. He tried to resist the lure of sleep, fearing that even here his pursuers might find him, but the voice whispered words of comfort into his ear. Here he was safe. Here he could rest and heal.
For a moment more he fought, but his strength was spent and the voice's utterances where soft like a mother's lullaby. His head drooped, his chin coming to rest on his chest. In the instant before he gave in to sleep he noticed that his beard had grown and, while once the gold of the sun, it was now the light grey of ash.