The goat seemed unimpressed. Its yellow eyeball held him for a moment before returning to the tricky business of finding a path among the rocks. Braid watched as the goat sprang, and with a brief clatter of hooves, gained a higher ledge. It bent to nibble the lone tuft of scree-grass it had been hunting when Braid’s arrival disturbed it.
“Braid the Climber.” Braid spoke to the goat’s back now. He was glad not to be the subject of its scrutiny any more. He’d always felt there was something alien about square-pupils, as if goats didn’t truly belong among men, and dogs, and horses.
“… the Climber.” Blood welled up over his lips, and trickled down his neck, neither hot nor cold. He turned his head to see where he had fallen from. Bone grated on bone, but without pain. Two boulders cradled him. His fall had molded him to their shape, as if he’d been broken on a wheel.
He could see the point, some seventy feet up, an overhang slick with ice. The place where his skill had betrayed him in a careless moment.
Not a bad place to die. Held in the arms of the mountains.
Braid could see no sky, just the thrust of the mountainside rearing up and becoming lost in cloud.
And somewhere hidden high above, a lonely peak.
He remembered his first peak. The time when he first came to the Shrouded Mountains. He saw himself as he’d been then, young, letting his anger burn so fierce that it could almost mask his loss.
Snow began to fall from the cloud-base, tiny flakes so perfect Braid imagined they might chime as they struck the rocks. The snow brought visions, scenes of lost days that stole his sight, and led him back along the years.
* * *
“I do not accept it!” Braid dashed the blood-cup from the shaman’s hands. For a moment the splash of crimson on the dirt floor kept his gaze.
“You have a daughter.” If the old man took offence, his voice held none of it.
“I had a wife and a son.” Braid’s hands twisted, one against the other. Braid’s skin tingled, on his back, his forearms. It crawled, as though he were too small a vessel for his outrage.
“There are no answers to your questions.” The walls of the tent shook as the wind picked up outside. The shaman bent to retrieve his seeing cup.
The wind came again, and prayer-flags on the guy-ropes cracked and beat. Braid need only to close his eyes and he would see Kai, racing to fly his kite with the other boys. Kai had always loved the season of winds.
“You need sleep,” the shaman said. “Then you need to go home.”
“No.” Braid saw too much when he slept. “I will know why they died. I will know where to seek revenge. And I will know how to undo what has been done.”
“There are no—”
“There are answers.” Braid caught the shaman by the neck as he straightened. “You speak to gods and spirits, but they don’t tell you all they know.” Anger tightened his grip and he heard the wheeze in the old man’s throat. Braid drew the shaman to him, eye to eye. He tilted his head, seeking his answers in the other’s face. “Who can tell me?”
A cramping pain entered Braid’s hand, spreading from the fingertips, lancing up past each knuckle. Against his will, his grip opened wide.
The shaman stepped back and rubbed his neck. “There is an oracle atop the highest peak in the Shrouded Mountains. It is said sometimes even the gods seek council there. The oracle asks no price, refuses no answers save those about itself.”
Braid felt the shame rising in him, and beat it down with more anger.
“If you’re lying, I will return.” He turned and fled into the night, running to escape the thing his grief had made of him.
* * *
Braid watched the goat until its hunt took it from sight behind a shoulder of shattered rock. He lay back and studied the whiteness of the cloud. Sometimes he saw Kai’s face written in swirls of mist, sometimes Anna’s, wearing the smile from the day they wed.
He spat a clot of blood, coughed, and tried to move his arms. The right arm lifted a few inches, and fell back.
“What are you hiding, I wonder?” he asked the cloud. Another cough, no blood this time. “I’m the climber, I have to know.”
A smile found its way to his lips. He recalled the moment when he first understood the joke the shaman played on him.
* * *
“I’m looking for the oracle.” Braid directed his words at a swarthy man, wrapped with enough goatskin to clothe a herd. Of the dozen men to have emerged from the village, this one at least held a glimmer of intelligence beneath his solid brow.
“Oracle?” The man shaped his lips around the word as if it were unfamiliar.
“Yes.” Braid glanced back to the doorways where the womenfolk looked out. He wondered what kind of life these people could scratch from the rocks, nestled so high, in the very throat of the gorge. He wondered what lay in the darkness of their homes, half cave, half cottage, hewn into the cliffs.
“Oracle?” the man said.
Braid had learned patience on his journey to the Shrouded Mountains. When he first saw them, across the broadness of the Axan Velt, he started to run. By the time his strength failed him, the mountains looked neither closer nor more distant. For three weeks his march ate the distance, and each morning the mountains looked the same, rising from the plains without the preamble of foothills, peaks lost in a perpetual mist that never once parted.
“Yes,” Braid said. “In the mountains.”
“I don’t know any oracle.” The man stank as bad as if all the goats whose skins he wore still lived within his house. “All you’ll find above the snow line are cloud giants. Lots of cloud giants.”
“It’s on the tallest peak,” Braid said. “Just tell me how to get there and I’ll be on my way.” He reached into the pouch at his hip. “I have silver for provisions.”
The village men exchanged glances. The swarthy man stepped through them and stood beside Braid, pointing up toward the mountains, a serried array like teeth on a hound’s jaw, reaching into the mists.
“How could a man know which is tallest?” he asked.
* * *
A laugh ripped from Braid. He felt his first stab of pain at that, the first since he’d fallen. The first in a long time. He rolled from between the rocks, gripping the mountainside to steady himself. The ledges held precious little room for goat hooves, let alone a man. Was he still a man? Braid watched the pale flesh of his legs knit slowly, sealing the wounds he had taken. He watched his broken limbs straighten.
With the setting of the sun, the mists rolled down, a chill blanket unfolding across razored slopes, and Braid drew strength from them. He fed the cold fire at his core, and once more began to climb. Pale fingers hooked into cracks, naked toes seeking purchase on stone, eyes looking upward. Always up.
Braid climbed without thinking, from memory, without tiring, seeing only the blind whiteness of the mist. He carried no hope now. He had no recollection of spending the last of it, but hope had left him, only habit in its place.
“I had hope once.” Braid spoke to the stone, an inch from his lips.
He kept moving. Always up.
And with eyes that saw nothing but enfolding cloud, he watched his first ascent so many years before.
* * *
“Will this never end?”
Braid clung to the mountainside, shivering in the fleeces he’d bought in the nameless gorge village. He’d lost all feeling in his toes long ago. For all he knew, they’d turned black and were rolling at the ends of his boots like so many marbles. His fingers hardly obeyed him, numb within supple goatskin gloves. His sword, passed from father to son for seven generations, lay a thousand feet below him, too heavy to bear. The knife at his hip was all that stood between him and whatever horrors the Shrouded Mountains might hide, its edge already dull from the work of climbing.
The wind howled and almost took Braid from the ledge. For a moment, in the voice of the gale, he heard Anna call. He closed his eyes against the sting of ice crystals, and saw her, a horror of weeping sores, dying on their bed.
Braid found new strength, and climbed beyond it. The mountain tore at him, each stumble offering his flesh to teeth of ice and rock. He climbed in cloud so thick he could see no farther than his hand. And still he climbed, until it seemed that climbing was all of him. Memory shrank, the wind became a whisper, even Anna and Kai dwindled to a distant flame. Hand, foot, heave, push. Up.
He saw the peak only when he ran out of anything to climb. For the longest time he clung to the stone, too stupid with exhaustion to understand what he saw.
“Not … this one then.”
He began his descent, resolved to climb the next mountain, certain he wouldn’t leave this one alive.
Braid almost missed the cave mouth. Not because it was small, it stood taller and wider than cathedral doors, but because the cloud concealed it. He staggered in, and the wind died to a moan, making slow swirls in the fog.
“Hello?” The mists ate his words.
He followed the walls, hands on the stone.
He moved on. And found himself almost in the arms of the giant. It sat on the rock, knees drawn close to its face, looming as high again as Braid. Naked, whiter than alabaster, lean but promising strength. Braid raised his eyes toward the giant’s face, his breath held tight.
The eyes that met his gaze were the blue of a summer sky, without pupil or iris.
Braid had no energy left for fear. “And will I find a giant on every other peak in this gods-forsaken place?”
“There are other mountains?” The cloud giant raised its brows.
Braid slumped against the cave wall. A sob convulsed him before he strangled it. The irony seemed too bitter, to climb for wisdom and find a fool.
His weakness pulled him to the floor. Hunger twisted in his stomach, sharp and hot. “What do you eat here?” There were no bones on what little of the ground he could see.
The giant spread its hands, each ivory finger as long as Braid’s forearm. In a complex motion the giant wove the cloud like a widow pulling thread from a wool-ball. He pursed his lips and drew the cloud stuff in.
“Mountains come, mountains go. The skies are eternal.” His voice was the wind over stone. “Go home now, son of man.”
* * *
Braid’s first descent had been harder than the climb, and a month was scarcely enough to restore his strength. The second climb came harder than the first descent. And the peak held no oracle.
Braid found a cave not far from the summit. He crawled in, fingers bitten black by the frost. He lay as dead, hidden from the wind, lost in cloud. In a dream of warmth, Anna came to him, as she was before the plague’s kiss.
“Come to me,” she said. Arms wide. The heat of her drew him.
“I can bring you back.” He turned from her, stumbling in imagined grass. The day grew dark, icy, the ground hard, and he woke, lips against the cave floor.
He heaved himself, like a broken thing, a dog with its spine shattered beneath a cartwheel. A white hand took him from the ground. Cold strength ran from the fingers that wrapped him, and Braid lifted his head.
“You’re not the oracle.”
The giant set him on a shelf of polished stone, beside a hollowed basin where the mist distilled into a pool.
“You spoke to another. Anna,” the giant said. “She is not here.”
“I lost her.” Braid clutched himself, shivering. “I’ll bring her back though. Whatever the price.”
“Clouds come, clouds go, never the same one twice.” The giant shrugged. “Only the sky is forever.” He took Braid’s arm and pushed the hand wrist-deep into the pool. Braid had no strength to resist. The water felt freezing. It took his breath. His ruined fingers had been numb to ice and snow, yet now he shouted at the chill of the pool. He jerked to free his hand, and the giant let him. His flesh looked pale, laced with dark veins, the blackness of frostbite washed away. He moved the fingers, set them to his face and felt the stubble there.
He thrust his other hand into the pool, and drew it clear, pale but whole.
“It’s the blood of the sky,” the giant said.
Braid set his two hands into the water, gritting his teeth against the shock of cold. He lifted them, cupped and brimming.
“It is not for men to drink,” the giant said. The blue of his eyes was the sky Braid saw when Anna came to his dream.
Braid raised his hands to his mouth.
“It is not for men.” The giant watched him, as if powerless to interfere.
Braid drank deep.
He left the cave filled with a cold fire, an ancient strength locked within his bones. The wind felt like a caress, the rocks warm beneath his fingers.
Before Braid reached the valley his speed twice caught him on an edge of stone, tearing open his jerkin on the arm and side. The flesh below looked as pale as a fish belly, and the cuts closed before his eyes.
* * *
Braid climbed at a steady pace. Free of the past for a moment. For the longest time his climbing had kept him in the now, his memories walled away, behind exhaustion, behind purpose, behind the certainty of death should he slip. Though the past might swell around him like a rising tide, he would climb beyond it.
But the years seemed to carry him back rather than forward. His hands had learned the mountains. His ghosts kept pace at his shoulder, and the wind whispered truths he didn’t want to hear.
The injuries from his fall were memories now, a slight soreness in the back, an ache in the neck. He’d thought the drop would kill him.
Maybe I can’t die.
Braid could sense the peak now. Over the years he’d grown to know them. To a degree. He still rang with the shock of reaching for that handhold and finding only ice. It had felt like a betrayal, a hurt to be remembered long after the pain of the fall.
If you’ve seen one mountain you haven’t seen them all, not even one mist-shrouded mountain.
The same didn’t hold true for the cloud giants. Braid had met . . . he didn’t know how many . . . hundreds? He’d spent weeks in the company of giants, months maybe, and never once learned to tell one from another. Even their names sounded the same, just wind speaking to rock.
The giants liked to dwell nowhere but in caves below the very top of the mountain. Braid had wondered if they hewed them into the rock themselves—a giant told him that the wind had carved the chambers for him.
The gale blew harder, laced with ice. Braid picked up his speed. He knew one thing about the giants: it was best not to visit them in a storm.
Braid felt at his hip for the knife he once carried. He regretted its loss, but he could have lost more than a trusty blade. He recalled the weather had been similar then, snow and a skittish wind. He’d looked for the oracle, in habit rather than hope, and called in at the local giant’s cave. Braid visited each mountain’s giant. Not for wisdom—they were simple creatures—but for company. He spent little time in the mountain villages now. The men there seemed afraid of him, and he never saw the same face from one visit to the next. They called him ‘the old man of the mountain’ when they didn’t think he heard them. Braid found that strange, for his reflection looked no older to him, only tired and drawn. And pale of course, white as fog and snow.
A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance, and Braid thought of his knife again. He’d been with a giant when he lost it. Listening to talk of mysteries revealed in the mist. A sudden squall had hit the mountainside, with the force of a battering ram. Lightning had lit the cloud, and his quiet host had struck out with no warning, as if the giant and the storm were one. The blow threw Braid against the wall, his knife had flown loose, and he’d scrambled clear, daring the descent in the jaws of the gale rather than spend another moment with the raging giant.
Braid reached for the knife again. His fingers closed on empty space. Another betrayal, as keen as the missing handhold. He climbed harder, faster, outpacing memory, escaping recollections of older, deeper losses.
Braid ran out of mountain to climb. He shook away thoughts of giants and storms, and scanned the bleak rock. He lowered his head.
There’s no oracle, no hope, nothing but the wind. Go home old man of the mountain.
* * *
Braid found his way to the giant’s cave, blind in the shroud of the mountains. He’d developed a feeling for finding cloud giants too it seemed. The giant sat close by the far wall of its cavern, as unsurprised to see him as the very first one he’d met.
“I’ll never find her, will I?” Braid slumped down before the giant’s feet.
“Only the sky is forever,” the giant said. Giants said a lot of this kind of thing in Braid’s experience.
“I’m changed. I’m not me anymore.” Braid held a white hand before his face and turned it slowly. “If I brought them back, I wouldn’t be Kai’s father any more. Anna’s husband.”
“Clouds come, clouds go. You can’t remake them.”
Braid got to his feet, a memory of his old anger echoing through him. He stepped forward until he stood directly before the seated giant.
“Where is the oracle? I’ve climbed too long, too hard. I need to know.” The giant held him with summer eyes.
“I’ve nothing left, nothing but this hunt.” Braid spread his hands and looked down at himself. Rags bound him, a bare-foot beggar in the mountains. “I’ve nothing.”
The giant held out a white fist. One by one its fingers unclasped, and on its palm lay a knife.
“You have something,” it said.
Braid stared, not understanding what he saw. He reached out and took the knife.
“Who . . . how did you get it?” Braid felt the outlines of the answer already.
“You brought it here,” the giant said.
“I . . . I can’t have climbed the same mountain twice. I can’t”
“The wind has no memory,” the giant said.
“I’ve never climbed this mountain.”
“You’ve never climbed anything else.”
Braid felt his certainty slip away. He forced himself to meet the giant’s gaze. “Which is the tallest mountain?”
“They’re all the same height.”
“You’re the oracle,” Braid said.
“The oracle doesn’t answer questions about itself.”
“But you’d answer any other question I have?”
“Yes,’ said the giant in a voice of wind over stone.
Braid felt his lips move, writhing, trying to frame the words. He thought of his boy, dust now, flying over distant plains, borne on kite-winds. He thought of Anna, softness and strength, passed into eternity, and of Serah, cast in her mother’s form, lost to him behind the wasted years.
Braid returned his knife to its scabbard. “You’ve already told me what I need to know, haven’t you?”
And Braid the Climber left the mountains.