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his body and the layers of leather and fabric that protected him. Up there the wind never stopped, and the elevation made the temperature plummet the moment the sun fell behind the horizon. Bijarni pulled the pelt closer aroun d his shoulders and closed his eyes. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour or mo re, and until then he saw no reason to rise and stir. He was huddled on a narrow outcropping that shielded him from the worst of the wind, with the downside of being located perilously close to a sheer drop down into the cold darkness below . Subconsciously Bijarni reached out and tested the hold of his axe in the ice w all beside him. It didn’t move against his touch, and even with his eyes closed he could follow the coil of strong rope down to where it fastened tightly around h is waist. With the cold freezing the ice cliffs solid, he was confident that the axe wouldn’t pull loose without a great deal of effort, and he huddled back under the fur to catch a few more hours of sleep. Come morning he would need to descend back down the mountain, and before night fell again he hoped to be back at the base camp set up at the foot of the mountain. There he would be able to have hot food for the first time in days, a nd a tent that would protect him from the elements. It was a descent he had made more times than he could count, but Bijarni never took his experience for grant ed. More accidents happened during the descent than on the climb, and just a mom ent of lost concentration would be all it took to make a fatal mistake. A particularly sharp gust of wind cut through him, but Bijarni hardly sh ivered. Compared to other nights he had spent high on the mountain, the night wa s downright warm. He could be much worse off. The wind carried with it a low rumbling howl that bounced off of the roc ks and ice and sank deep into Bijarni’s bones. It could have almost have simply be en the wind, making strange noises as it whistled through the glaciers and echoe d, but Bijarni knew better. He opened his eyes, heart suddenly pounding a little faster as he stared out into the darkness. There was nothing to see, just the g lint of stars and the blowing snow, but Bijarni knew his night was over. The cry was no trick of echoes. In all of the years he had spent climbing the mountain, he knew every animal that made its home on its slopes and cliffs. He knew the s ound of mountain goats and birds, and knew how snow leopards and bears sounded e ven at night. This was none of those, and huddled in his small outcropping, he k new he was far too high for any of those animals to be prowling around. He sat up carefully, digging the spikes at the bottom of his boots into the ground for added traction as he began to dig in his backpack. Bijarni had ho ped to wait until daylight to move, but now he had no choice. He dug into his pa ck and withdrew a long, narrow torch. It would be difficult to climb far with it in one hand, but Bijarni didn’t plan on venturing too far away from the outcroppi ng. All he needed was to get to the top of the ledge above him and light it. Fro m his height anyone and anything for miles would be able to see the flame, and t hat was what he counted on. Carefully he flicked on his headlamp and found his second axe where it c oiled and hung around his waist. With his axe in hand he stood, bracing his feet against the ground and hoping the first axe, still sunk deep into the ice, woul d hold if he lost his balance. His footing held, and after a moment of considera tion and adjustment, he sunk the second axe into the ledge above him and braced it against the mountain. Once he released the first axe and began to climb, the new axe, set above him, would be the only thing to save him if he fell. When he was confident that the axe was as secure as it could be, his dislodged the first and began to climb atop the ledge. After a day of climbing, his legs protested the effort, but by the time he clambered atop the ledge his body had begun to wa rm up and the motion didn’t feel so difficult. He had been born to climb the mount ain, and he fell into the rhythm of climbing almost immediately. Confident that the ground beneath him was solid and the wind whipping hi s fur cloak wouldn’t knock him off of his feet, he removed the axe from the ice an d looped it around his waist as he walked away from the ledge. The cry hadn’t come
again, and for a moment Bijarni simply stood still and gazed out into the darkn ess, waiting for some kind of sign. He worried that he had missed it, and whatev er had made the cry has slipped off into the darkness and away from where he wou ld be able to reach it, or worse, that he had misjudged where it had been to beg in with. The glaciers did strange things with sounds, and the wind could have ca rried the cry farther than Bijarni thought. Deciding to take his chances, Bijarni withdrew a pack of matches from hi s pocket and lit the torch. As it sputtered and flamed to life, he blinked in th e sudden light and surveyed his surroundings. The light only extended so far, bu t in the flickering flames he was able to finally get a handle on his surrounds. Below him the ridge sloped away to a sheer drop that lead down to a thousand fo ot vertical ice cliff. In the morning, he would need to climb down that cliff to reach the lower glaciers that would lead him to base camp. Above him stretched a long snowfield, ending sharply in an icefall that extended another mile furthe r up the mountain. He’d come down that icefall earlier that day, and as it always was, the trip had been harrowing. The icefall was full of deep crevasses and tow ering hunks of ice and snow that were poised to kill a man at any moment, and on ly the most experienced climbers even dared to tackle it once in their lives. Bijarni had climbed it a dozen times. He looked away from the icefall and swung his torch out to see more of h is surroundings. Save for the snow sweeping off the mountain and the hulking, da rk shapes of rock and ice, the mountain was still and silent. Nothing could live up there, he knew, but he also known what he had heard. As he swept the torch to the right, a flicker of motion in his periphera l vision caught his attention and made him whip around. It had been subtle, too far away to see well, but it had been there. He stared in that direction, motion less, heart pounding, and waited. It looked like a mound of snow had moved and s hifted. Like something white, something massive, just too far away…. Daylight found him on the ledge with his torch burned down to nothing. H e hadn’t seen the movement again, and with only a fleeting image glanced out of th e corner of his eye, he couldn’t say for sure what it had been. For all he knew, i t had been a trick of the light. Bijarni tossed aside the charred remains of his torch and settled down t o eat. He would have to start descending soon if he wanted to get back to baseca mp before it got too late, and the sheer cliff that awaited him was going to tak e all of his strength and concentration. It was past noon when he came down the lower glacier and finally saw the bright points of base camps tents sticking out of the snow. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was a simple walk down from there, and his stomach growled at the thought of a warm meal. As he reached the edges of camp he could hear and see hi s fellow campers moving around, some preparing to venture further up the mountai n, some heading down to the valleys and maybe even the flat lands. They greeted him warmly, their relief at his return showing plainly on their faces. At any ti me someone could ascend the mountain and never come back, no matter how skilled they were. Almost everyone that lived on the foot of the mountain had lost someo ne to it, and in the future they would lose even more. It was a fact they lived with everyday, but it didn’t keep them from celebrating triumphant returns. Across the camp he heard a bronze bell ring three times, echoing across the glacier until it faded away; the traditional announcement of a climber retur ning alive. The sound thrilled Bijarni, as it always had from the first moment h e returned to camp after a climb. The bell was relief, safety, hope, and victory , and he would gladly wake to it every day. “Bij!” A porter trotted up with a crate of supplies slung across his back, g rinning. “Welcome back.” “Thanks.” He patted the man on the shoulder and walked with him a way. The p orter would be heading up the mountain to deliver fresh supplies to the higher c amps, and Bijarni knew that he would appreciate any information on the status of ice and snow. “Where are you headed?” “Camp on the ridge.” The porter grinned and hiked the crate up higher on his back. “How are the conditions? Did you get to the summit?”
Bijarni nodded. “I did. Left a gift and a prayer at the top.” “Congrats. How are the conditions?” Bijarni gazed up the mountain as they walked. It was so high he had to c rane his neck back almost uncomfortably to see the top, obscured by a stream of blowing snow. “Warm, bright. The glaciers are okay, but I would wait before going on the icefall. The ice is melting, so it’s pretty likely there will be an avalanc he later tonight.” The porter nodded. The icefall on a warm day could the most dangerous pa rt of the mountain. Warm temperatures melted the ice, and at any moment huge chu nks could tumble down the side, dragging tons of snow behind it. Even Bijani, wh o had spent his entire on the mountain, had no way of knowing when the avalanche s would strike, and that made them all the more dangerous. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank Bij. Are you home for a while?” “A few days at least. Figured I’d try and get some rest.” “Good luck with that.” The porter patted him on the shoulder as Bijarni turn ed back towards the camp. If he was quick enough, he would be able to catch the tail end of lunch. “Oh!” The porter turned back. “Keifr said he wants to talk to you. No major rush though.” Bijarni thanked him and hurried off to the meal tent. The ringing of the bell would have told Keifr he was back, but the other man could wait until he h ad eaten and had some time to relax. Keifr would find him later. His stomach growled as he slipped into the meal tent. Being high on the mountain always killed his appetite, and he tended to subsist on protein and sma ll meals, but as soon as he descended to the lower camps it returned with a veng eance. Typically he returned from a summit five pounds lighter than when he left , and in the coming week he would work to gain it back. “Hello, Bijarni. Welcome back.” Bijarni smiled and lowered his pack to the ground. He had gone to food o n autopilot, without even bothering to stop at his own tent to drop his supplies . He had been on the mountain for days, and everything he had need was carried o n his back. “Hi Sanaa. Thanks. Am I too late for lunch?” The woman shook her head and ladled broth into a bowl. It began to steam immediately, curling up into the cold air, and Bijarni huddled close to the bow l as she set it in front of him. The chill went straight through him, even with the furs he still wore, and he ached for something warm. “For you, Bijarni,” she smiled, “I would cook all day and every day. Did you m ake the summit?” Bijarni nodded and raised the bowl to his lips to drink. The broth scald ed his throat as he drank, but he was willing to suffer the burn for the way an instant warmth spread through his chest and out towards his extremities. He sigh ed in pleasure. “Yes I did.” “What number is this, then? Twelve?” “Thirteen.” Sanaa smiled and sliced a loaf of bread in half before passing it to him . “A lucky number. Congratulations.” Bijarni accepted the bread gratefully, and began to tear off small piece s to dip into the broth. It was a simple meal, but more than enough to keep him going. “Thank you.” “Keifr wants to talk to you, you know.” “So I heard. Heard it wasn’t terribly important though.” “I’m sure not so important that you couldn’t nap for a while before he tracked you down to talk.” “That’s what I’m hoping.” He finished his meal quickly and returned his dishes to Sanaa. It was st arting to get late, and she would need to start preparing the evening meal befor e long. Feeding a camp full of hungry climbers and trekkers was a full time job, and Bijarni respected every moment of it. “Thank you for the meal, Sanaa.” She smiled warmly. “You certainly deserve it. Would you like anything to t ake back with you?” Bijarni considered. The meal had filled him up enough that he wouldn’t be
hungry until the evening, but he could think of something. “Some tea, if you have it. And some charcoal from the fire.” She presented him with both, and he accepted them gratefully as he colle cted his pack and returned to his own tent. A light blanket of snow had coated the top in his absence, and he took a moment to shake and brush it off before slipping inside. Despite the chill outs ide, the inside of the tent was warm from the sunlight outside and the fur blank ets piled on the ground. He stripped out of his climbing gear gratefully and pac ked it away, dressing instead in lighter clothing and wrapping himself in the fu rs as he curled up on the ground. Now that he was back the weariness was beginni ng to set in. His legs and arms ached with effort, and only now, back on level g round, did he let his tense muscles uncoil and relax. For a moment he laid and simply stared up at the roof of the tent, picturing the peak high above him. He had made the climb to place a prayer and offering at the top, to thank the Gods for raising the mountain that guarded the lands around it. It was his duty to pl ace that prayer every year, and now that his duty was done, he wondered what he would do with his time. Bijarni sat up and reached for the bundle Sanaa had given to him. The te a was still warm, and he sipped it slowly to help fight the chill, but it was th e charcoal that he was the most interested in. He dug the charcoal out of the pa ck and unearthed the pad of paper he kept buried in his tent. Cameras often froz en high up on the mountain, and Bijarni has always found it easier to record imp ortant images on paper with charcoal. His tent and home at the bottom of the mou ntain contained dozens of drawings, ranging from detailed maps of routes up the mountain, to unique weather formations and other sights that Bijarni wanted to t reasure. Today he had a different image in mind. He closed his eyes and touched the charcoal to the paper as he tried to recall the memory of the thing he had seen moving on the side of the mountain, h igh above the clouds the night before. Thirteen times he had climbed the mountai n to the summit, and he had climbed part of the way more than double that amount , and on more climbs than he could remember he had seen signs that something was living on the mountain. Sometimes he only saw footprints, or trampled paths in the snow where he knew no one had climbed, but occasionally he saw something mor e than that. Sometimes he saw shadows moving against the snow, or highlights aga inst the night sky along a ridge. It was always just a glimpse, never anything c oncrete. With the image in his mind, fleeting as it way, he began to sketch on th e paper, drawing the scene exactly as he remembered it. Bijarni knew there was s omething on the mountain, but what it was he couldn’t even imagine. It was no bea r or wolf, and certainly not an elk or ibex. He knew those animals. He had seen them for his entire life, even hunted some, and the furs he wore and laid on wer e from some of those very animals. Even in the dark, high up were the air was th in, he knew this difference between those animals and what he saw creeping on th e snow slopes. Slowly the picture came together: a hulking humanoid feature huddled aga inst the snow and cold, fur covered and abnormal. As he began to fill in the det ails he heard the soft rap of a hand on the canvas of his tent. He lowered the p ad of paper to his lap and half covered it with a fur pelt. “Yeah?” Keifr unzipped the entrance to the tent and looked in with a grin. “Welcom e home. Up for a talk?” “Always. What’s up?” The man had to duck to squeeze into the tent, and he moved awkwardly as he maneuvered his bulk to fit into the small space. Bijarni had never needed muc h room, not when he spent some much time climbing, and he had resisted every off er to give him a bigger tent. Keifr sat cross-legged on the ground, still grinn ing as he reached out to give Bijarni’s shoulder a squeeze. “You look good. Climbing is good for you.” Bijarni nodded. Once he recovered from the immediate exhaustion of a cli mb, he always felt better than he ever had. Stronger, more awake, more cleared h
eaded, then he did after spending days on the ground. “Thanks. I heard you were lo oking for me.” “I was. But I figured you would need some time to unwind.” Keifr leaned back and looked at him, and for a moment Bijarni thought the man might be gauging hi m. “Make the summit?” Bijarni grinned. Keifr knew better, but he asked anyway. “I did.” “And that makes thirteen?” Pride swelled up in Keifr visibly. “Incredible as a lways.” “Don’t flatter me too much.” Bijarni pulled a pelt up higher on his lap and le aned back against the canvas. “So what’s up?” “Just got back from the Flat Lands is what. I always forget how flat they actually are. Don’t know how anyone lives there without being bored out of their s kulls.” Bijarni laughed. Like himself, Keifr had lived his entire life on the mo untain and in the camps. Even the lowest of their camps was high in the hills, a nd to them the Flat Lands were too dull to entertain them. “I guess they get used to it. Why did you go all the way down there?” Keifr’s dark eyes shone. “That’s exactly why I came to see you. Do you know Od dr?” “Oddr?” Bijarni thought for a moment. The man wasn’t one of the mountain tribe , but he, like many of the surrounding tribesmen, came to visit from time to tim e. They enjoyed the change of scenery, and the tribes were more than happy to tr ade goods from the lower lands for necessary supplies from the mountain. Bijarni had met the man once or twice in the past, and remembered him as an honest and likeable man. “He’s been up here a few times. Nice guy. Is coming up for another vis it?” “Not quite. He wanted me to come down and meet one of his City Envoys.” Bijarni tilted his head. They had City envoys of their own, though they visited much less frequently than the ones who went to the lower valleys and Fla t Lands. “Are we having someone new?” “Almost.” Keifr explained. “He wanted to meet one of the Envoys he works with. This guy, Greyson, has worked with them for a few years, and recently he expres sed an interest in the mountain.” Bijarni hesitated. “In visiting it?” “In climbing it.” For a moment Bijarni wasn’t certain he had heard correctly. Typically the only non-tribes people that visited the mountain were the Envoys, and they never went any higher than the lowest camps. None had ever climbed the mountain. He s hook his head, disbelieving. “No one from the City had ever climbed the mountain.” Keifr’s grin grew. “Yet.” Bijarni gaped. “You said he could?” “Why not? He was a nice guy, seemed respectable, and he swore that he woul d do what we told him he needed to do to make it to the summit.” “But he won’t make it to the summit,” Bijarni protested. “People from the City a ren’t like us. They can’t breath up here. They get sick…they can barely make it past t he first camp. There’s no way he can make it to the summit.” Keifr shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. There’s no way of knowing until he tries. Maybe with the right guide and the right training, he can be the first man from the City to make it to the top.” Bijarni started to get a bad feeling. He was no elder, and he had no say who came and went on the mountain. There was no reason for Keifr to be bringing this up to him, unless… “Who exactly is going to be his guide?” Keifr gave him a look. “Come on. It’s pretty obvious.” “Me?” “Exactly. “Oh no. No no. No way. Why me?” Keifr rolled his eyes. “It’s it obvious? Bijarni, the Bear on the Summit. Th e man who has climbed to the top of the world more than any other man alive. Who else would be able to get him up the mountain and back alive?” “Has he ever climbed before?”
“I doubt it. But you’ll teach him. He’ll be here for a year before you even tr y to go up.” The idea was no less appealing. Bijarni had taught others to climb befor e, but they had always been tribesmen with some experience. “I can’t.” “Why not?” Bijarni opened and closed his mouth. Truthfully, he had no reason he cou ld put into words. He just didn’t want to, but that wouldn’t be enough for Keifr. “But why me? Is it because I’m your nephew?” “Well,” Keifr admitted. “That’s part of it, because I trust you, but also becaus e you are the best. There’s not denying that. Think about it, Bij.” He leaned forwar d and spread his hands. “This is going to be the next great challenge in your life . You’ve already completely more climbs than anyone else, you’ve done your climbs fa ster, you’ve done them unassisted… what’s the next record to break?” As Keifr spoke, Bijarni found himself growing more interested in the ide a. What Keifr was saying was all true, and it was an angle that Bijarni hadn’t yet considered. He looked at Keifr curiously, and motioned for him to continue. “The next big challenge for you is getting the first man from the City up to the top of the world. He’ll set his record, and you’ll be the one that made it ha ppen. That will be huge.” “I guess you’re right,” Bijarni admitted with hesitation. “But what if he’s not re ady? Taking someone like that up the mountain can kill us both.” Keifr nodded. He knew that his argument had roped Bijarni. “Once you’ve trai ned him, if he isn’t ready to go to the summit, then you can pull the plug. You’re t he expert, you’re the guide, and you build your summit team. If he isn’t on it in th e end, that’s on him.” Kiefr grinned. He could see Bijarni’s resolve wavering. “Come on. What do you say? You don’t have anything to lose.” Bijarni considered for a few seconds more, weighing his options before s ighing in resignation. “When does he get here?”
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