Five frozen corpses danced before Knox beckoning him with their frozen skeletal fingers black and shiny as obsidian. He shook against the cold blowing from their parted jaws, a swirl of light-blue frost biting at his flesh with the intensity of their bare teeth, snapping with a monotonous clack-clack-clack.
“You right there lad?”
Knox slipped from his reverie and gave a curt nod to Sean Frazer who was watching him intensely with his large arms crossed over his barrel chest. Knox hadn’t paid mind to how tall and large of a man the inn keeper was but now it seemed to him that he towered above him much like the mountain loomed over the valley.
“There’s something about the mountain,” the older man said quietly. “Sometimes it goes wild and no one can say why. No ropes can save you. You might as well hang yarself with them. But you know best, so you say. Me, I say don’t go. Unless of course yar wanting to die?”
Knox paused briefly hand returning on the handle, ready to push it down or push back in. He could see his wrist trembling, unsure and insecure; he cursed under his breath. Then he decided.
The bell on top of the door rang twice.
Outside the warmth of the small hotel Knox took a deep breath to taste the air. Despite the chill of the month it was a calm morning with the briefest of winds swiping at the dry bushes speckling here and there the barren land. It felt nice and refreshing on his face and cleared his mind off the death warnings of the inn keeper. Knox set off determined to see his mission done.
He followed what the guidance said to be the simplest path to the peak of An Teallach. The mountain stood in the distance, an almost invisible print against the sky, a giant in the shadow of the morning. Knox stopped to steal a glance at the might and absolute solitude he was about to disturb with his presence.
From his perspective the mountain gave neither welcomes nor goodbyes. It simply waited for him in its silent patience and unchanging colors. Knox wondered whether mountains slept – he wanted to catch it still asleep and thread carefully as to not wake and animate it with his presence. Even from this far away he feared its wrath. Knox reasoned he would beg if need be, for the mountain and its guardian to spare him.
The terrain changed underneath his feet almost unnoticeably. Soon enough he was slogging up Sail Liath and its boulder field, which then leveled into a wide grassy ridge. According to his small guidance book, to the northern summit Bidein a’ Ghlas Thuill were 6 km, and from there southwest 1 km to the second summit Sgurr Fiona. Knox thought he would be lucky to reach his destination before sunset. The climb was far from a walk; a slip and Knox knew it’ll be all over.
With the first wind gusts the weather changed drastically – it brushed him harsh and the spreading fog stuck to his face like a spiderweb. The path ahead seemed like a thread indeed belonging to a spider. And Knox was walking towards the sleeping form in its middle. Just like that his reassurance disappeared. Knox kept looking up, expecting to see bones and ghosts, but he only saw a murky canvas that barely changed.
As soon as he took a turn, further up into height and mist, a ghostly green glow appeared before his eyes. Instinctively, Knox knew to follow it because it was going to guide him to his judge and jury. The mountain had woken to his clumsy footsteps and was soon to measure him – death or a second chance awaited him wherever the glow would take him. He hoped it would forgive him. Knox turned to look back and found the uprising slow sun had become a pale imitation of itself.
The fog was an ungodly curse which had closed the path back and was closing in around him grasping him in a moist embrace, urging him to move onwards. Ahead the ghostly glow skipped, coming nearer as if to make sure Knox would follow, then rushing further, blinking in the distance. Knox felt almost dizzy watching it beam here then there, changing position too fast for the eye to register. He followed it, becoming oblivious of his surroundings and instead fixated solemnly on the light inside the thickening miasma.
A horrid presence came to Knox as he followed the path. It was an eternity throb resonating in the gaps between the piled rocks; the cracks filled with ghost voices calling old names, odd names, ancient names. Knox stopped dead in his tracks his head snapping left and right at the circling whispers. Scared by his rushing heartbeat he half wanted to back away and run down the slope. The wind came and made the murmurs more audible and a name swap up and lodged itself in Knox’s mind, but he couldn’t speak it, not knowing how to pronounce it, this something out of his world. He just knew it was mighty and it smelled of wet fir and blood.
The presence, the voices, the scent all reminded him of that day so many moons ago now. He had died that day. The old man had said so himself after Knox had swum out of the river shivering and choking on bile. Knox remembered his words as they lived like a mantra inside him every day.
The man had spoken to him just as Knox had stepped over the steel, rusted rail of a bridge thinking of plunging himself into its rising frozen waters.
“It won’t work,” he had said. “They’ll just drag you back up and make you dream horrible things, see them in the light.”
The old stranger had garbed himself in a long brown coat and atop his head wore a dark blue alpine hat with snowflakes on it. Knox had hardly seen his face at first. He had screamed at the man through the booming waters to go away. The hungry vertigo had been foamy at his feet, splashes of water nibbling at the soles of his boots and he had gone tilting at that invite, but then the man had caught him at his elbow and had whispered in his ear.
“Come back now. No point in jumping. You won’t die, not really.”
Knox had kept his grip firm on the rails though they had gone numb from the hold. The entire flimsy construction had vibrated, nails and bolts clattering to unscrew and demolish both the bridge and Knox. He had looked upon the man with teary eyes and had asked the simple “why”. It was all he could speak after the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the paranoia and depression.
A crooked sad smile had played on the stranger’s lips then, but no answer had slipped his parched mouth. Knox remembered his eyes had been like glaciers and the locks of his visible hair white as snow. As he had pleaded once again the stranger’s voice had risen above the banging and fury of the river. Knox had heard him clearly just before he had given himself off to the white foamy waters.
“Because Gods are funny like that.”
To be continued…