The Patience of Srómadilláp

Simon Whitechapel

Flies without wing, roars without mouth,
    Many yet one, water yet drouth;
Hears without ear, hunts without eye,
    Patient yet cruel, fallen yet sky.
        -- “The Riddle of the White Dragon”.

High above the land of Mríndlacg loomed the mountain Srómadilláp, biting at the blue palate of heaven like a great fang in a misshapen jaw. The meaning of its name was lost in the shadows of antiquity, but most etymologies were as ominous as they were obscure, for the mountain was held to be the abode of ice- and storm-demons ever hostile and malicious to man. In summer its screes and rock were patrolled by creeping mists and fogs that seemed to obey no earthly pattern of weather; and in winter, ever and anon, came the rumble of avalanche and ice-fall across the plain, like the sardonic laughter of the mountain itself, secure in its secluded might.

No houses or temples of Mríndlacg were reared within touch of Srómadilláp’s shadow by morn or even, and none save the hardiest dared to trespass on its slopes. Of these the hunter Mviols-Yekkán was easily the most daring, beginning his expeditions earlier in spring and suspending them later in autumn than any others of his calling. By his twenty-seventh year, a climacteric in the lives of all owning his natal star, he might have been rich had he saved but a third of the silver he had earnt for furs, horns, and gems from the mountain; but he spent as freely as he earned, and was as reckless and eager in the gaming-dens and lupanars of Tyar and Kemtek as on the slopes and cliffs of Srómadilláp.

And that year there was a new restlessness in his blood, and in spring he set forth for Srómadilláp a full fortnight before even his premature wont, to push up its slopes higher than ever before and return with furs previously unknown to the traders of Mríndlacg: the pale and rosetted fells of a never-reported mountain cat, and the ice-white hibernal coats of the Srómadillápian fox, slain before only in its rufous coat of spring and summer. With the congratulations of the wealthiest trader still humming in his ears, and the trader’s silver fat in his belt-purse, Mviols-Yekkán left the fur-mart of Tyar and sought his room at a new-opened inn, where he intended to bathe and siesta before making purchase of the current finery for his tour that night of Tyar’s wide-famed pleasure quarter.

But sight of Srómadilláp through his window, as he went to seal it against the noise of street-traffic, drove nocturnal ambitions on a sudden from his mind. There the mountain brooded in a gap between Tyar’s temples and obelisks, the declining sun catching the thaw-streams on its western slopes, that they glittered like veins of living silver, and a curiously shapen cloud was clinging to the cusp of its untrod summit. And then, as Mviols-Yekkán watched, the rays of the sun caught the summit-cloud, turning its whiteness to gold, as though Srómadilláp were crowned by the gods. Suddenly the young hunter’s lungs seemed to fill with air crisper and thinner than any he had tasted before, and the boards of the inn beneath his feet were uneven stone, not well-laid wood.

He shook his head, clearing his mind of the unwonted fancy that had seized it, and now Srómadilláp was clothed with evening shadow and the cloud was drifting from its summit on the wind. Yet for a moment he had not been in Tyar but many leagues away, high atop that cloud-crowned summit, conquerer of Srómadilláp, master of Mríndlacg and of his own brute passions and wastrel ways. He tore his silver-fat purse from his belt and flung it down into the darkening street, where it would lie unnoticed in a gutter till gong-defied midnight came and the stumbling foot of a greyhaired drunkard.

By then Mviols-Yekkán was hours on his way, returning at call of Srómadilláp to claim his prize. Old tales thrummed in his head, and his mind returned ever and again to a widely mocked and now almost forgotten etymology of Srómadilláp, which said the name signified Kingmaker, in that he who first attained its virgin summit would reign over Mríndlacg unassailed and unthwarted for long and unageing years. Was that the message of the sun-alchemied cloud-crown? Was he, Mviols-Yekkán, the destined king, or was the mountain merely offering him final maturity in which to choose a wife and breed finally a legitimate heir for his line, among the half-dozen bastards he already acknowledged?

Maybe one, maybe t’other, maybe an unguessed third. By morning he was on Srómadilláp’s first slopes; by midday high among the rush and chuckle of the thaw-streams whose glitter he had watched from afar; and by nightfall straining his eyes into the shadows that slid and deepened on the face of the first great cliff, spying out a route that he might waste no time on waking the following day. He slept wedged between two rocks, wrapped in the cloak he had snatched from his pallet as he left his inn-room, and whatever dreams visited him in Srómadilláp’s night were gone on his waking. All that second morning he climbed, hands twitching occasionally for arrow and bow-string as he glimpsed the beasts of Srómadilláp passing about their business, but his bow was abandoned far away in Tyar, and the voice of Mviols-Yekkán the hunter was faint and fading in his head.

By second midday he was higher on the mountain than he had ever been before, and fight against premature celebration though he would, his mind was already passing ahead to the days after his success. How would he persuade others that he had achieved what he had, that first among the uncounted thousands of Mríndlacg’s past and present he had set foot to the summit of Srómadilláp? But now the climb was becoming harder, calling forth all his skill and courage, and the question was driven from his mind. The sun was behind him, its rays faintly warming the wind-chilled rock of the chimney in which he climbed and drying the smears of blood from his bruised and abraded fingers. He would be forced to overnight on the summit, to descend on the morning of the third day, belly growling with the scantiness of the nourishment he had offered it on the climb.

It was late evening when he attained the summit, almost too dazed with exhaustion and the thinness of the air to know what he had done or to remark that air’s evil odor and strange balminess. The land of Mríndlacg that stretched out before him, east and west, north and south, was sinking fast into shadow, as though it fled his proprietorial gaze. He laid himself to rest and sank almost instantly into oblivion beneath the sky, from which he had at last drawn the fang of Srómadilláp. It was the eaten moon and only starlight fell through wraiths of cloud to trace the contours of his sleeping face, wherein his jutting, dominant nose and prominent brows echoed the cruel stone of the mountain beneath him. When he awoke in the morning, seeming to feel that stone shiver beneath him as sleep left him, the question of proof he had asked was answered, for he saw on standing what he had missed in evening shadow: the great cleft a few paces from him and the gems studding its rim of a size and variety he had never seen before, some species of ruby or sangineous adamant that glittered and flashed in the light of the rising sun.

It proved possible to prise the gems loose with his knife from their stony matrix, which was weathered and crumbling, and he filled his pockets, recognizing the odor that hung about him as sulfur, and realizing that the mountain had some kinship with the boiling pools and geysers found here and there on the plain of Mríndlacg. From the great cleft – a chip of matrix dropped therein vanished into silence – molten stone had plainly once poured, and might, for he felt a rising heat on his face, do so again, building the summit yet higher and issuing a fresh challenge for conquest. The thought diminished nowise his joy of present mastery over Srómadilláp, and he set off down the mountain knowing that now he would be believed when he claimed its first ascent, and guessing that he carried a year’s wages for his purposed mercenaries in but a single of the gems. The descent, he soon found, was easier than the ascent, as though Srómadilláp, with wounded pride or reluctant homage, was anxious to hasten its conqueror from its slopes, and indeed open a royal highway for his feet: easy gullies and paths that he had not spied from below were plainly visible from above amid the ice-spires and snow-fields, and he began to hope that he would be off the mountain by midday.

He began to look around him, hoping to catch sight of some small beast to slay with a stone and eat raw, for his belly was complaining as loudly as he had foreseen, fuelled with but a few handfuls of snatched mountain-herbs and a clutch of early eggs on the ascent. So it was by his vigilance, as he descended the easiest yet of the gullies Srómadilláp seemed almost to be carving out for him, that his eye fell upon a scattering of the same gems he carried in his own pockets, aglitter amid the now-thawing ice in which they had apparently passed the winter.

His disappointment was acute at the sight, for if the gems were not unique to the summit, his proof of success might be disputed by some later discovery of the gems on a lower section of Srómadilláp still. And yet the gems were lying fully loose here, he found, not embedded in or fallen from a matrix as they were on the summit now far above and behind him. He glanced back up the gully, noting that it seemed deeper and narrower from below, with scorings and striæ in its walls and floor that he had not noticed as he passed them. Leaving the gems lie, he walked on, only to see with tightened throat that more were scattered to left and right ahead of him, so new-emerged from winter ice that a day or even an hour before they might have been invisible.

These too seemed to be loose, but he paused only a moment to confirm this of one scattered handful, now anxious to descend as quickly as he might and escape a brooding quiet that had begun to deepen around him. But even as he straightened from his inspection the bulk of the mountain shuddered beneath his feet; and a moment later a rumble of Srómadilláp’s laughter rolled over him, bruising his silence-sharpened ears. After a single gaping glance behind him he fled for blood and breath from the avalanche of spring-loosened ice and snow that was pouring into the mouth of the gully. He flung aside his cloak and all the contents of his pockets as he fled, as though to buy himself a hairsbreadth more speed in which to win his life, but he knew now, as the storm-breath of the swift-gaining avalanche blasted at his shoulders and its laughter shuddered ever louder in his skull and chest, that other men before him had run the same doomed race in the same gully, having gathered gems on the summit exactly as he had done and flung them away just as futilely.

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