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Hills Dreaming Themselves Mountains


Hills Dreaming Themselves Mountains
By Kyle Brandon Lee

1
"Whisper, whisper and hear the stone giants.
The mountains watch with guardian repose,
over the earth and dust that lives below."

The Thalmissian Val Braga Verse 1:1:1 (Translated)

“They are hills that dream themselves mountains,” she heard the purple-robed merchant muse while parked in his stall at the end of the caravan’s market row one humid and overcast day. Though the caravan’s southwestern route along the Oustelian coast boasted a large population accustomed to rain, the customers stayed away and he would fill the quiet with his stories. “They are constantly reminded that they can neither stand as tall as the mountains which surround them nor can they ever be leveled flat. The fiery earth roars from below. So, what do they do? They dream. Oh, noble gentlemen and noble ladies, can’t you see?”

She had seen the merchant, his name Guin, throughout the caravan many times before, his stories frequently catching her ear. As a member of the Witch Guard, she distrusted smiling men on principle but Guin sold stories along with the baubles he gathered in his travels. He never swindled or deceived his customers, deeds accentuated by a wholly unthreatening aura. Every merchant, worker and guard in the caravan assumed his stories came from others, real adventurers or genuine world travelers.

“Ah, the necklace for you, madam?” Guin smiled to a passing customer drawn in by his boisterous tale and trapped by his offerings. His hands moved freely, speaking a supplemental language many of the caravan merchants spoke. “A fine choice, if I may say. You’ll not find another like it along the coast. Oustelain ships don’t often travel that far south, or so I’m told.”

He spouted facts and figures to the poor woman, convincing her of the uniqueness. She did not doubt the truth behind Guin’s words but neither did she fully accept his embellishment. The transaction complete, the customer moved on and the silence returned. Guin resumed his tale.

“All they do is dream,” he said.

She hung on every word despite this reputation.

“Sand pours from their sides, like tears of jealousy and mournful resignation,” Guin continued. His stall had not been the only place he wove his tales. She found him going on at length in taverns or around cook fires with his meal cold on his plate. She noticed many of his meals went unfinished like this, perhaps explaining his feeble physique. “From this sand comes glass of the most luxuriant shape and ever changing color, forged by those same fires below the hills. Do you have a sense of it, friends? I gather you don’t sense all of it. I gather no one does. Some even say that this glass comes from the kitchens of the Glass-Eyed Butcher himself. We all know his stories, what with the heat of his ovens, stoves and boiling pots haunting our nightmares. Is that not to be expected of the Grim Cook for the Dread Founder’s Underhorde?”

These stories spoke aloud what would better be left whispered if uttered at all. Yet, they slipped from Guin’s tongue with a conviction often ignored by those in the caravan. She watched the chill that ran up Guin’s spine as he spoke of the Butcher.

“Now do you get a sense? This dreaming glass that comes to the surface is so prized, a demon clan lords over it. The clan’s chief even has his own glass eye, one it uses in judgement. Why? Because the chief judges not just you but every you in every world. Those faithful believers in the ethereal web could preach to you at length about what that means. This glass is given to only those who gain the master’s attention and then only those it deems worthy. Could there be a man or woman so worthy?”

Guin turned to meet her stare across the row.

“Oh, young one, can’t you see?”

2
“Oneiromancy’s importance should never be in question but neither should the fact that the school goes beyond divination. All dreamers utilize the art of it and all seek the same thing, an exploration of self and an exploration of reality.”
Effrom Sol Busra, From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Finally, after a journey of five months, she stood upon a mountain overlook, scanning the area below for encampments while shielding her eyes from the sun directly overhead. Jagged mountains formed a craterous circle in which hills of various sizes filled the bottom, showing only the truth of Guin’s tales of tears and sand. She felt a resonance about the place, one that hummed in her very bones.

“Nothing?” she suddenly heard Guin ask her upon finding no sign of life. “They will come. They will know once one foot touches their soil. Yeowen Ryal Tyraad!”

She resumed her task of spotting where the clan might strike from. She heard Guin whistle before he broke into laughter.

“Oh, the stories you will have. Can you see, child? Can you see?”

She tried to imagine Guin wasn’t there, but she couldn’t.

3
“The people of this region share an odd mythology tied to the earth itself. The landscape appears part of the natural hierarchy. But even the hills, though they may crumble into sand at my touch, carry hope for what they can achieves.”
From Jonast Haldershact’s Field Guide to the Western Reaches of Y’rrow

Once, countless dreams ago, she lived under a roof with a mother who cared for her and a father who cared for nothing but himself. By grand misfortune, the custom of her homeland dictated that the father owned the honor of naming his children. Out of spite just for her being born to her gender, her father never graced her with a name. Her mother, though a stern follower of tradition, used nicknames for her out of love and sympathy. However, these could never be uttered in public, especially if the risk of her father hearing remained. The child knew that if she possessed a name, her father would never tell.

Here, the dreams began, all for a name.

Here, the child heard many names, often in tongues she didn’t initially understand. Every name belonged to a variation of herself. Though appearing different in a multitude of ways, they were always her. But as the dreams repeated and continued to show these other versions of herself as those reflections lived, the words eventually became decipherable. Other names were in her native tongue, of course, but there were no tongues she could speak at all.

Even after her mother died, her father refused to grant his child a name, a real and proper name. Mostly he referred to her by the various profanities he had picked up in his travels as a guard for caravans, carnivals and traveling bands in need of a pitiless thug. He surprised many who knew the family by staying around long enough to do what was right by his wife and daughter.

Upon the death of the one family member who cared for her, she sank deeper into her father’s world. They both joined the East Rennian Caravan Company not a day after the burial, but father and daughter would not stay together. In a tent filled with a haze neither smoke nor steam, the father presented his child to a woman in a black hooded robe, a woman her father addressed only as The Eldest Witch. Though The Witch’s face appeared withered, her eyes pierced with a menace the child had never experienced before. If that had been the only looming presence, the child would have been calm. But behind The Witch stood a tall woman in leather and steel whose scars and tattoos blended together like a cartographer’s map. Her hair once may have been black but streaks of grey revealed her age. The child had never seen a woman so imposing, imposing enough that even her father shirked at the warrior woman’s mere glance.

“She will do chores, run errands, all in all make herself useful. But, you understand what is to become of her when she is older?” The Witch asked upon looking the child over. “You understand what must be done for her to succeed Bolandin?”

Meeting the warrior woman’s eyes for a brief moment, he nodded.

“I understand,” his reply. “Do we have an agreement?”

The Witch nodded, reaching into her robe to retrieve a small bag. The child heard the clinking of coins as it dropped from The Witch’s hand to her father’s. Years later, she would come to understand the meaning of the transaction.

Her father departed without a word. The child would have called after him, but she could not. She would have chased after him but even at her young age, she accepted his leaving as an expected part of his routine. Eyes filled with uncertainty, she turned to The Eldest Witch and Bolandin.

They asked her for her name.

When she could not answer, she shrugged.

So, that is what they called her.

Shrug.


4
"Does the mountain yearn to be anything other than what it is?
Does the lion yearn to be the gazelle?
Does the hawk yearn to be the mouse?”

The Thalmissian Val Braga Verse 4:7:1 (Translated)

“I’ve told the stories about the dreaming glass countless times,” Guin began on a more temperate afternoon as his eyes darted from one would-be customer to another. The caravan made camp along one of its routine stops, and as always, Guin built his stall at the far end of the market row. No one would tolerate him elsewhere or otherwise as they could only stomach his stories so long. Shrug stood there as his only companion, ignoring for the moment her regular duties for the Witches. When the aisle cleared, Guin turned to her with a keen gaze. “You are the first to purposely listen to that story repeatedly and as I recall, no one has been so enamored with dreams. You do not say it, but I know.”

She believed more and more as she grew older the existence of her world came from the dream of another version of herself, a self whose own existence was born of a dream. Multiple selves, multiple dreamers, all acting in concert, intertwined within the web of reality. These other worlds could be just as real. Her world could very well be just a dream. But every dream, every her, were bound together.

She could never verbalize how she knew such things and few, if any, ever acknowledged a dream as anything more than temporary images thrown together in slumber. Still, she felt their relevance to her world and to the worlds of her other selves. To hear, and mostly, to hope, that there was meaning behind all this merited exploration, no matter how futile the experience may eventually be.

“You yearn for such a long journey?” he asked.

Remaining silent, as it was her only option, she nodded and stepped away, back to her duties. Guin smiled and returned to his stories.

5
“Every dreamer walks through the same city at one point. It’s a sprawling metropolis into infinity. Familiar streets to complete strangers. The market, the hearth, the temple, all housed in a nexus of unconsciousness.”
Wilheln Brannat, From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Upon reaching the base of the mountain, Guin remained silent though his presence never escaped her. He had once pointed to a spot on a map where to roughly look for her glass but even he admitted his information to be incomplete. Others had come to the valley with few returning. However, Guin remarked that many may have died on the voyages at sea. Merchants and storytellers made their lot on embellishments.

Shrug pushed on into the valley, coming to the first hill of spewing sand. Puffs of hot, foul air came at infrequent intervals. She tied a scented scarf over her mouth and nose, fighting back the strength of such putrid odors. She found no reason to stay, no glass amidst the sand and no hope for a quick resolution. Hope for her had never been a realist in any of its incarnations.

6
"The mountains of the north are largely indistinguishable from those of the south. Same for the east and west. But you will remember the one whose peak you first ascend."
From Ebryn Alu's "Contemplations of Stone"

Not all of Guin’s stories involved dreaming hills or glass that peered into the souls of man. Many tales proved more mundane in Shrug’s estimation, but those very simple selections from Guin’s depository often found an audience, one not so concerned with the otherworldly nature of the present reality.

“You see this ring here?” Guin asked Shrug in a hushed tone one late morning on the market row. “I found it on the side of the road. Yes, it shines now, its gem sparkles. But, I will never forget that I found it on the side of the road.”

Guin dropped the trinket into her hand and for a brief moment, Shrug glimpsed that the jewelry at one point in time meant something special. Perhaps it belonged to royalty, or maybe a ring like it had. She handed it back to the merchant.

“Something like this, I’d wager there are thousands upon thousands of rings just like it, scattered across the world, nay, the universe,” Guin mused. “But I have only seen one. Most people will only see one. Someday in your travels, you may come across one just like it, or maybe you’ll spot thousands. You seem like the type to have a knack for that kind of thing. Wouldn’t you say?”

Her eyes narrowed while looking at him.

“No offense intended.”

He placed the ring back with his other items for sale and paused. Something among his merchandise caught his eyes. He pulled his baggy sleeve back before reaching to take up a small knife, simple in make and ornamentation.

“And this, well, that is another story,” Guin laughed to himself. “Sometimes an item’s past isn’t as important as its future. And for the present, it is yours.”

Hesitant to accept the gift, Shrug took the knife only upon Guin’s further encouragement. Guin said nothing more with his words and Shrug said everything with her expressions of gratitude. Nothing Shrug possessed belonged to her, as was the mandate of The Eldest Witch and Bolandin. Her accoutrements were for utility and were for the purpose of her duty as a Witch Guard. The knife, simple as it was, meant much as her only true possession of value.

That night, she dreamed of one of her many selves. This reflection cherished a father who loved her.

This was a father she wished to have known in her childhood, a father who cared for her in a world where stories of beasts born in blood and shadow were only stories, not realities. She often wished to be in her dreams where a father fathered and she could be anyone but herself.

That was a father who gave her a name.

So, she named the blade for him.

Father.

7
“It is said that any hill on this continent can fight to be greater with full understanding that failure would mean a flatness, an arid fate, death.”
From Jonast Haldershact’s Field Guide to the Western Reaches of Y’rrow

Before her growth into womanhood fully began, her hard labor and errand running for The Eldest Witch, her brood and Bolandin had consistently transpired from before dawn till beyond dusk. Despite this, she did not despise or fear the witches as many others in the caravan did. They had become her family, even though her father worked among the same people in the same caravan of merchants, guards and workers.

Come the day Shrug started to look more than a child, Bolandin waited for the young worker’s duties to be completed. Without giving a solitary moment to rest, the sole Witch Guard bid the child follow her. Though exhausted, Shrug trailed the warrior as commanded, traversing in the warrior’s wake through the diminishing crowd of customers and throng of nomadic merchants closing down for the evening. On the far side of camp, the guards gathered to drink and do anything but be guarded, making this no place for a child.

“I met your father long ago, grub,” Bolandin began that night. “He has never been much of a man, much less a warrior or a caravan guard. Don’t let that fact disappoint you long.”

Bolandin shoved Shrug into a gathering circle of men and women, mostly drunk and looking for whatever distraction available. The Witch Guard followed her inside, somehow looking larger and stronger than she was before. She removed her armaments and armor and looked no less ready for war.

“The moment your father sold you to The Eldest Witch is the moment you were blessed to not follow in his footsteps,” Bolandin said, looking down at Shrug. “The moment The Eldest Witch purchased you from your dreg of a father is the moment you were blessed to follow in mine. At day, you will do your work as the witches call. At night, you will train with me, in and outside this circle, to join me as Witch Guard.”

Shrug nodded her understanding, even if it was not complete. The gathered off-duty guards stifled laughter as Shrug glanced at them all, her eyes meeting each of theirs.

“First, you will learn to fight,” Bolandin continued. “By fighting.”

Unable to plead against what was to come, Shrug found herself overwhelmed by a mercifully short beating at the hands of Bolandin, a beating unworthy to detail. Shrug lay there in the dirt, listening to the laughter of the guards. They left her there, returning to their merriment. She would lay there the entire night, eventually falling asleep to dream of fathers and lives not her own.

A dream of another her, one who wore a mask of silver and lightning, came to her in slumber. This her endured her own trials, her own father who challenged her. This her grew stronger. This her grew greater. This her possessed thunder. In that dream, Shrug felt this masked iteration was a better version of herself.

It was The Elder Witch who woke her.

“There is work to be done.”

Shrug’s waking moments were clouded with the pain of the previous night’s beating. The Eldest Witch compelled Shrug to drink a variety of awful tasting potions and concoctions. Foul smelling ointments were applied and come the time Shrug fully awoke, her searing pain had been reduced to a low ache. That day, Shrug went about her work. For what she endured the night before, Shrug expected to be broken but her burdens seemingly felt lighter. Her bruises faded more as the sun crossed the sky. That night, Bolandin brought her to the circle. Come the morning, The Eldest Witch healed her so the cycle could begin again.

8
"If the mountain were to partake in a journey, the world would shake, not from its movement, but from the implication of its decision."
From Ebryn Alu's "Contemplations of Stone"

After dumping a surly customer bent on harassment into a nearby creek, Shrug washed his blood from her hands. Long after the ripples settled and the waters had returned to its relative calm, she looked into her reflection, wondering if all her days as a Witch Guard would entail piling broken bodies on the outskirts of the caravan camp.

Shrug returned to the tent of The Eldest Witch to find her in conversation with Guin. Bolandin stood at the back as she always had, staring at the old merchant with murderous intent.

“Your presence here, as always, is tolerated, Guin,” The Witch scowled.

“And as always, I shall keep this brief,” Guin said without smile or the bombastic flair Shrug grew to expect from him.

“Your business then?”

“I’m here to purchase the services of your guard,” Guin answered as he retrieved a heavy pouch of coin.

“Bolandin? She’ll work with you just as soon as she pluck out her eyes.”

“While I acknowledge and admire the skill of your elder Witch Guard, she is not the one I inquire about.” Something about how Guin carried himself in this moment struck Shrug as strange. Too often, the people of the caravan disregarded Guin as nothing more than a happy charlatan. Here, The Eldest Witch regarded him with caution, maybe with a hint of fear.

“Shrug?” Bolandin asked, stifling a laugh. Shrug glanced to her former teacher, the smirk quickly fading from her face.

“I do not loan out my guards, Guin.”

“I do not speak of a loan or borrow. I am purchasing her services permanently.”

“Are you? You presume agreement for something I will not deliver. I have crafted the child to suit my needs. You know I will not waste a commodity.”

“You can and will create another Witch Guard as you did with Shrug and Bolandin before her. You know she is no child and you clearly know she is more than a commodity. Old as you are, you have the time.” Guin tossed the small cloth bag before her, making a metallic thunk upon landing on the ground. Shrug recognized that barter, the language of merchants, had begun.

“I do not have to count your coin to know that it is not enough,” The Eldest Witch remarked, eyes not once moving to the bag.

“Then take my stall,” Guin answered. “And everything within it. I do not have to hear your wants to know there are items in my possession you’ve long wanted or plotted to acquire.”

Guin turned to Shrug. His expression without a smile unnerved her.

“Or am I incorrect in saying you would have stopped the young one from listening to my stories on a daily basis long ago if you did not intend to use her friendship with me to your advantage.”

The Witch said nothing. He glanced next to Bolandin, who could not disprove the accusation either.

“Are we in agreement then?” Guin asked.

“We are,” The Witch answered. “I hope to never see you again.”

“Not in this world, or any other,” Guin answered, garnering the agitated sighs of Bolandin and The Witch. Guin fully turned, motioning for Shrug to leave the tent. He followed behind her but stopped a few feet away from the exit, her glare fixed upon him. After being sold by her father and used as a tool for so long by The Eldest Witch, she found her trust in Guin wavering.

“Yes, yes, I know what your thoughts must be, but I ask you only listen. You are free,” Guin soothed. “Your will is now your own, free of the trappings and chains your father sold you into. I do not keep slaves and I do not tolerate the practice, accepted as it may be in many of the lands we’ve traveled.”

Shrug’s eyes narrowed as she found herself reaching to her knife for comfort.

“Now is a new story for you, my friend. I only hope as you write this chapter that you find time to humor me by listening to my stories. And I hope, nay, I request that you consider an offer.”

His boisterous aura then returned.

“I intend to see the hills that dream themselves mountains. I find myself curious about them, more so than ever before. But I would have a guard to take me there.” he said, reaching into his cloak. “But enough of that, my friend. You let me wander on and on when you now have things more important than I to spend your time on. Let me give you this.”

Offering up another small bag, much like the one offered to the Eldest Witch, he shook it after a moment of hesitation on her part. Eyes on him, she accepted the bag.

“A gift to celebrate your freedom and perhaps allow you to acquire things sold in the caravan long denied to you. And as you do so, please consider my offer after some rest and time under your own devices,” he said. “As always, you will know where to find me.”

He bowed before her and departed to anywhere but his stall, as he had exchanged it for her freedom. She felt an obligation to the man but she knew him well enough to feel no guilt. He had truly left the offer to her. Looking around the tents and stalls, she settled upon her first free decision. She left.

Walking into the town by the creek, she moved through the streets with not an eye falling upon her. None feared her for being a Witch Guard. None knew her or cared. Laughter and merrymaking echoed from around a corner, leading Shrug to follow the joyful sounds. At the end of the way stood a tavern. With no duty to stop her, she made her way inside.

“Ale for you?” a woman asked, her hands carrying six empty steins. Shrug nodded in approval and found a table along the back wall. Sitting to face the door, she watched those who did not watch her. The server returned with a full stein, receiving a coin for her work.

“I see the old man cut you free,” another voice said. Looking up from her drink, Shrug saw Bolandin approaching the table, hands resting on the pommel of her sword. “Or did you already kill him as we had hoped?”

Humorless, Shrug stared at her former teacher.

“I told you long ago that you were blessed to not have to follow in the footsteps of your father. I told you that you were blessed to follow in mine.” Bolandin glanced around the tavern, nose wrinkling at either the odor or décor. “I tell you now that you are blessed to follow in no one’s. Do not waste it.”

Shrug pondered Bolandin’s words and nodded. The now singular Witch Guard returned the gesture and left without further word. Shrug spent the rest of the night serving no one’s interest but her own.

She found him the next day telling a customer about the origins of the sapphire silk of the eastern roads. The fact that the customer was not Guin’s proved agitating to the merchant who owned the stall.

“Do you not have your own stall, Guin?”

“I’m merely admiring your wares as a customer as I am no longer a fellow merchant, you see,” Guin answered, his attention rapt with the fair cloth. “Do you not think it matches this noble lady’s eyes?”

Shrug approached, backing down any retort the merchant may have had. Guin set aside the cloth, losing all interest.

“Ah, my friend, you return.”

Shrug pulled the same bag of coins Guin had given to her the night before minus a few bits and tossed it back to him. Shrug pointed at him and signaling in the hand motions she had learned from the merchants of the caravans, she issued her demands. He smiled with satisfied understanding.

“I see. You are hiring me to come with you. As a guide.”

Shrug nodded.

“I gladly and proudly accept your terms of employment,” he answered, eliciting an eye roll from the silk merchant. “We will depart for the Port of Abuwah tomorrow. As the caravan turns to the old worm roads of the east, we shall book passage through the Strait of the Seer and Strong before pushing on across the ocean.”

He took in a deep breath as if joy were a scent.

“A fine journey to make a fine story.”

9
"The rain mocks cruelly above it as the earth roars loudly below it.
The sky weights heavy upon it but the burden cannot be released from it.
The mountain yearns not to be mighty but is afforded no choice."

The Thalmissian Val Braga Verse 4:7:2 (Translated)

“Ha,” Guin started upon coming to understand her thoughts, a moment shared magnificently even in stunted communication. Two months into their voyage at sea, the two travelers and seekers of glass managed to speak without speaking. “This is why you wish to find the dreaming glass, yes?”

Shrug looked out to sea, pondering how else she could relay that a hard reality was not the reality she chose. Even the perils of the sea compared favorably to the easiest days in the caravan. The witches and Bolandin never bothered to listen or even ask for Shrug’s condition or opinion. Guin didn’t either but the storyteller frequently revealed his moments of clarity.

“You are a mountain dreaming herself a hill. Yeowen Ryal Tyraad!

10
“Why are these hills so fascinating? Could it be the folklore of Y’rrow the Dreamer and his people? Everything dreams here. Especially the hills.”
From Jonast Haldershact’s Field Guide to the Western Reaches of Y’rrow

The Eldest Witch and her Guard continued their work, crafting Shrug as a weapon to be honed by fighting members of the caravan guard, ones handpicked by Bolandin to test the young woman’s education of violence. Though Bolandin fought her, and mostly beat her without mercy, the Witch Guard was not the sole opponent Shrug found herself against. Other men and women from the caravan guard volunteered to participate. None of these possessed the strength or skill that Bolandin did, but the Witch Guard utilized them as she would any other tool, as a measure of improvement.

Shrug grew stronger as she grew older, thanks in part to Bolandin’s training, and thanks in part to The Eldest Witch’s curative potions. In all this, she grew accustomed to the pattern, accustomed to the daily need to be strong. In all Bolandin’s bravado of combative instruction, Shrug grew stronger out of necessity to herself. This was not for the Witch Guard’s benefit but for Shrug’s survival. Despite all her wants to return to a simpler life of working for the witches’ whims, a life without pain and abuse, she could entertain no choice but to be the warrior she was forced to be.

She dreamed of something different.

She dreamed to be anyone but herself and there, in her dreams, she saw just that.

She saw an iteration of herself who was protected, even by a father who was ill. Though this reflection who was not a reflection shielded her father from his own pain, Shrug believed the other her did not need to be strong in order to counter the exaggerated wars of her adolescence. Sometimes in her dreams, a name was just a name. They simply did not matter.

But no one else saw her dreams.

Unlike most of the women around her, she towered with the taller men, toned from her labor but powerful from the cycle of combat and a combination of curatives and amplifications not natural. Face and eyes often hidden by her brown hair, she pushed through those years by proving the witches and guards wrong, often taking advantage of their ignorance. Many times, she surprised the gathered drunken throng by defeating a night’s volunteer. But never Bolandin. Shrug could never defeat Bolandin.

11
"When would the mountain care? Not for man who settles upon its feet.
Not for the beasts who settle upon its sides. Not for the birds who settle upon its head.
Alas, would it not care for its maker?"

The Thalmissian Val Braga Verse 7:16:3 (Translated)

The third month at sea proved the harshest. Though the waters remained mostly calm, illness clutched two crew members. Fear spread throughout the ship but the captain maintained relative order, assuring his passengers that the disease came from traversing the wrong gambling halls and sampling wares beyond liquor and game. One passenger, a Thalmissian northerner of ill temper, could not find his fears so settled. That fear bred an anger which targeted those he deemed weak.

Especially when Guin took ill.

“He doesn’t belong on this ship,” the Thalmissian bellowed. “Tossing him over now would be mercy. He is broken, already half buried in dust. Did you goad him aboard, gully?”

“I partook this journey of my own accord, northerner,” Guin answered. “Our reasons for our journey would only be lost on you, like ideas in piles of heretic ash.”

The northerner raged, stood from his bench and grabbed Guin by his cloak. Before he could engage the merchant further, Shrug sprang to kick out the back of the Thalmissian’s knee, as she had done to many unruly customers unhappy with the witches’ wares. His grip still cinched, Shrug brought strikes to his throat and chest. His hold loosened, and he fell to the wooden deck in pain. Shrug pulled her knife, placing it to the northerner’s throat.

“You dote, child,” Guin joked, his boisterous storytelling faded in recent weeks. “I am fine.”

“You’ve killed that man, bringing him aboard,” the northerner spat. “You’ve killed him.”


12
“I, myself, often dream of a tree, the same tree. In the city of dreams, in the desert, an island in the ocean, it makes no matter. Always, there is a tree. It is knowledge. It is my marker and my anchor. There, as a dreamer, I stop for there is more to learn under its branches.”
Wilheln Brannat, From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Despite the smell of rot, Shrug pressed through the unnatural pattern created by the natural chaos of the hills and what Guin promised as divine upheaval. Did the hills dream of confusion, finding no place of their own and yearning to be like their brothers and sisters? Perhaps, the mountains were not siblings at all, instead gods of stone, ever present titans judging the hills in their sorrow.

Guin would tell such a story.

Yeowen Ryal Tyraad!” he yelled to her.

But such thoughts left her, for she had come to a magnificent tree.

13
"When would the mountain mourn? Not for the avalanche that sheds it bare.
Not for the cracks and shifts that mark its face. Not for the immortality that places it high.
Alas, would it not mourn its creator?"

The Thalmissian Val Braga Verse 7:16:4 (Translated)

His illness progressed further in the last days aboard the ship and gave no sign of improvement once in Darqundra, a port refuge between oceans of water and sand. Shrug bartered their way into a small dwelling outside the port once it became obvious he could travel no further in his condition. 

“You will come to a tree,” he spoke between fits of coughing and blood. “And it will be the most radiant tree you will ever see. Do not be distracted by this gleaming tree for it is simply the spot by which the demon guild shall mark your trial to begin.”

She urged him to rest, but he had been insistent to tell her every detail he could recall. He had been like this before but now he spoke with none of the flourish and bravado.

“They will come,” he wheezed. “They do not care for dreamers since they cannot dream themselves.”

The rattle in his chest worsened throughout the ensuing days, his nights filled with intermittent sleep. One windy night, as sand mixed with the salty ocean air, Guin woke, wide eyed and sweating. He gripped Shrug’s hand tightly.

“You must go without me,” he said. “I am but a hindrance to you and what you can be.”

She motioned in their shared language she intended to stay.

“But you must. You are the mountain that dreams of being a hill. You must be strong now, just as you must be strong in the valley,” he rasped. “I ever so wished I could be at your side and see the glorious valley.”

He turned his head towards the ceiling, his grip tightening.

“Before you can become a hill as you desire, you must be a mountain one last time. Yeowen Ryal Tyraad, the mountain of silent strength,” he wheezed as he looked at her one last time. “You are that mountain.” 

His eyes closed. He slipped back into sleep and never awoke. Never before had she wished she could give voice to her loss, scream out her pain. She could give no sound to her grief. But like the hills she would soon encounter, she cried.

14
“No would-be conqueror or emperor fought for what belonged to her or him in reality before fighting for the same in their dreams. What we wish for in sleep is the predecessor to reality.”
Lady Lea Enla Tawn, Fifth Starred Eye of House Tawn. From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Shrug lightly touched the tree where a low branch spread into a thousand directions of a thousand colors. The looming behemoth glistened in the valley sun, meticulously constructed of glass but still a flexible organism. She pictured Guin swinging from branch to branch, more agile in her mind than he ever was in life.

“They’re coming,” the imagined Guin called. “Do you hear them?”

Despite her day dream companion’s warning, five clan demons surrounded her. Each lashed out whips of blood red leather, extensions of their very arms. One cracked its tendril and caught her by the neck with such speed, she could do little to keep herself from being choked out completely.

Suddenly wrenched off her feet, Shrug found herself being dragged over rugged desert floor. She pulled at the whip with one hand as the other went to her blade. The glint of her knife caught the eye of one demon. It watched the captive pull the blade from her sheath and flash it across the whip’s length. Just as its companion reacted to the loss of its burden and tendril, the first was upon her. Before the others could join, it was dead, felled by the slash of Shrug’s knife.

Her breath came in spurts. She lunged for the closest demon standing as the one she dispatched bled out onto the sand. This second demon rattled in its native tongue. It reared back to strike with its whip, but the woman sprang too quickly. Slashes at its wrist left its muscles to go slack, leaving it in momentary shock. Before it could properly react to the first slash, it bled from five more and she moved on. It collapsed seconds later.

15
“I dare not get closer out of fear for my survival. My guide abandoned me as he claimed the nearby hills grew larger overnight. Did they dream of being something greater?”
From Jonast Haldershact’s Field Guide to the Western Reaches of Y’rrow

The routine of Shrug fighting the guards had become such a part of the caravan’s communal entertainment, the ruckus often drew a crowd. The frequency of Shrug’s victories grew at such a rate, the volunteers who fought decreased as mercenaries looking to earn extra coin from fighting increased. None of these weapon wielding nomads knew of The Eldest Witch’s work, not that Bolandin would give such knowledge away. Shrug’s reputation grew among those that traveled in and out of the caravan’s sphere of influence, and as her teacher, so did Bolandin’s. The Witch Guard knew the benefits of fear.

Thanks to The Witch’s potions, Shrug healed faster than her opponents, proving her resilience to all comers simply by showing up for the next night’s fight. Gambling flourished with bets covering the outcomes and the rare few bets wagering whether or not Shrug would ever cry out. She never did. Always she fought, as demanded by Bolandin.

Sometime after Shrug had finished growing into a woman, there came a night between outposts along the caravan route that Bolandin announced that none could beat her protégé. This was truth. Bolandin then turned to her pupil and announced the next truth.

“You will face me every night,” the Witch Guard began. “I will beat you to the edge of death and if you have learned anything from me at all, you will be able to walk from that edge back to the world of the living.”

The call for the night’s wagers began immediately, the easy money falling on Bolandin winning. The brave, the stupid and the few bet on Shrug overcoming her teacher. Among the gamblers that night, Shrug noticed her father walking to place his own bet. Briefly, their eyes met. He smiled at her as he told the bookkeeper to place his coin on Bolandin putting Shrug down permanently.

Shrug had been trained well but it had come by Bolandin’s hand. The Eldest Witch worked miracles like a blacksmith worked iron and from that, Shrug rose from the brink of death numerous times. Yet, Bolandin benefited from those same miracles. The same batch of potions and enhancements that hardened and rebuilt Shrug hardened and rebuilt Bolandin. Her mentor and assailant stood before her in that ring as yet another reflection of herself, one sadly not in the comfort of a dream. This monstrous echo encapsulated her reality, a reality in which a father sought to prosper from his daughter’s death.

The ensuing fight brought cheers in the opening moments but the brutality between Shrug and Bolandin hushed many of the most ardent bloodlustful observers. No semblance of training or education remained save the sheer violence of survival. Bolandin created her own reflection in Shrug, carving away pieces of the stone block of a silent little girl to reveal a quiet successor to the Witch Guard’s legacy. But Bolandin could never carve away the impact of a father who spite his child at an alarming magnitude.

That alone became Shrug’s chiseled point.

That is what brought student to victory over teacher.

16
“Why would I not wait inside a dream where I have eternity?”
Effrom Sol Busra, From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Mere feet away, the third demon, stout but fast, swung its whip to crack around Shrug’s wrist. Her movement momentarily seized, the fourth demon grabbed her free arm. The fifth demon advanced, punching her in the belly. In retaliation, Shrug waylaid it with a head-butt. The demon cursed in its language, more so as Shrug kicked it in the knee. She pulled away from the demon holding her wrist and charged the one with the whip. She took the slack and wrapped it around the demon’s neck. Shrug made sure it breathed no more.

Once she severed the tendril from the demon’s hand, it now functioned as a weapon at her command. She swung it to feel the weight and hear its sting. The final two demons inched closer, hissing and rattling until one burst forward. Shrug brought the whip to strike but the demon dodged, knowing the tool’s capabilities well. However, Shrug still brandished her knife and brought it across the demon’s chest. Black liquid poured from its wound but it gave no hint of surrender. Shrug swung the whip again as a feint, leading the demon to dodge and step into the precise thrust of her dagger blade between the ribs. The demon collapsed at her feet.

Her final attacker remained still, watching with dark eyes. Blood dripped from Shrug’s blade as sweat poured from her brow. The final demon started to walk backwards as the crying sands began to pour violently from the surrounding hills, small tremors shaking under Shrug’s feet. The ground erupted into complete upheaval, the hardened soil shifting into the same sand that poured from the hills. Shrug began to sink, her struggle growing more futile with every passing moment. The more strength she exerted, the quicker the earth consumed her.

Within seconds, she was gone.


17
“By the Saints of the Empire, I was one with the hill. I became the hill and the hill became me. I am ever the extension of its earth.”
From Jonast Haldershact’s Field Guide to the Western Reaches of Y’rrow

Shrug stood over Bolandin, once a harbinger of fear to herself and the caravan guards. For a brief moment, she thought this would demonstrate to her father that she was worthy of recognition and that he was mistaken in his abandonment of her. Finally, she thought, her father might care as the fathers in her dreams did. But she remembered that he had wagered for her death. No real father would stomach such an act. Shrug turned to look at him.

He was behind the crowd at a table playing cards, his back turned.

Her victory meant just as much as his lost coin. Nothing.

The Eldest Witch and her brood attended to the wounds of both Shrug and Bolandin throughout the night. Broken bones could be mended, gouges could be healed. Scars from the night would remain. Bolandin lay unconscious nearby, a mere shade worse than Shrug.

“We have made you strong. Worthy of us,” The Eldest Witch proclaimed. “Now you are Witch Guard.”

Shrug lived up to her namesake.

The next day, her father left, telling the caravan masters he wasn’t returning. The masters confronted Shrug, seeing if she intended to leave as well, warning her of The Witch’s ownership. She found the claim, the conversation and the master’s clear fear of The Eldest Witch to be irrelevant. Her father’s plans were his own. She had no knowledge of where he went nor did she care. The only father she would acknowledge from then on would be one seen in slumber. The caravan had become her home, just as Shrug had become her name. She was happy with neither but possessed no better option.

Except, of course, in her dreams.

18
“Ostensibly, we will see an idealized version of ourselves in our dreams as they are nothing more than mirrors. Often we will see ourselves at our worst and for some, these two versions are in harmony.”
Lady Lea Enla Tawn, Fifth Starred Eye of House Tawn. From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Shrug awoke, half covered in sand. The light of the sun had been replaced with an orange hue. Shadows flickered along cave walls. Eyes darting around, she found herself near the edge of a cliff. Peering over, she stared into a grand chasm, the fires of this underworld giving off the haunting glow from below. She could see cliffs further below, on them carved out dwellings with demons going about their lives. She stood and turned to find a trio of stone monuments.

The first and smallest bore a carving of a half circle, open side facing down. The second, both in size and position, featured a carving of a triangle, greater in size than the first. Shrug found the final monument, largest of the three, the most interesting. Etched into the stone was a large eye, one that gave off the same iridescent reflection as the gleaming tree.

Before she could approach, another demon stepped from behind the monuments. This demon wore different accoutrements than the others. Its physical size more impressive than the rest of its clan, its eye featured more prominently than anything else, glimmering in the underworld’s light. Hands open and tendrils retracted, the demon stepped towards Shrug. Instinct called for her to pull her knife but reason warned that this was the clan chief, the very demon of judgement she had come to see. Shrug mimicked the chief’s gesture, hands open and palms facing the judge. It stepped closer, gaze locked with hers. Stopping just before her, its iridescent eye widened.

She remembered that in between shouts of Yeowen Ryal Tyraad, Guin told stories of the eye, how it pierced the present reality, entering the webworks of dreaming and the ether of the universe. The eye saw every facet of every entity that came across its gaze. Whatever Shrug saw in dreaming, the demon’s eye saw in consciousness. The demon would not judge just the woman before it, but every iteration. It would judge every joy, every malignancy, every pleasure and every agony.

Her worthiness would be judged on the whole of her existence.

After a seeming eternity of unconscionable waiting, the clan leader stepped back to return to the large monument. It beckoned Shrug to follow with its glance. Cautious of what it may or may not have seen, Shrug made her way to the clan chief. He watched her as if expecting her to know what she must do next.

Shrug turned to face the monument, pulling her attention from the demon even as its radiant eye stayed upon her. At first, only the colors of the carving shifted in the glow of the underworld. As Shrug watched, the carving itself moved. She raised her hand to it, touching the stonework. Iridescent sand began to fall from the carving, prompting her to make her hand into a cup. As the sand pile grew, the grains continued to shift, locking together in continuously growing segments. Once the sand stopped pouring, the form in Shrug’s hand took a more concrete shape.

An iridescent orb remained.

The resonance she felt since stepping to the edge of the valley increased one-hundred fold, the humming now a roar. Visions filled her mind, giving birth to revelations she could not face in the moment.

“Yeowen Ryal Tyraad,” the clan chief said, an acknowledgement of her silent strength.

Tremors spurred up once more, giving way to a passage opening in a nearby cave wall. Black volcanic glass jutted from the floor and ceiling around the passage like teeth in the mouth of a snake. Down the throat, light from the world above radiated.

Placing the orb into her satchel she nodded her thanks and entered the mouth of the serpent, following its spine like path to the world above. She never once looked back, pausing only to glance upon the Gleaming Tree.

19
“Wake from the dream or wake inside it.”
Effrom Sol Busra, From The Oneiromantic Dialogues

Back in Darqundra, Shrug returned to the dwelling she and Guin had shared in his final days. Resting long enough to prepare herself, she could wait no longer as her long desired answers lay within her satchel. She sat at a small table outside, sun shining brightly over her shoulder. Shrug lay her satchel upon the table, cautiously pulling the orb from the interior. Before her, the glass radiated in the sun with colors she could not possibly describe.

More importantly, she could see that Guin’s tales were true and in that moment, she missed his longwinded storytelling. As if she were in a waking dream, Shrug could see a spectral image of Guin, the Guin of this world, sitting upon the chair across from her. It smiled just as the day dreamed ghost of Guin did while climbing the gleaming tree. The image faded but Shrug realized it was not entirely gone.

She finally gazed upon her reflection, not of her current self, but of her dreaming selves, one of a dozen, one of a hundred, perhaps even a thousand. With every slight turn of her hand or shift in her remaining eye, her visage changed. But always, it was her. In them all, she saw the same thing.

As she gazed into the glass, it split in half. Before slipping into panic, Shrug watched as the two pieces split again into four. She narrowed her eyes, watching the glass split into eight, then sixteen, doubling with every split until all that remained in her hands was iridescent sand. She could feel it moving against her hand, the fine particles tracing the lines in her palm. With a sudden yet painless jolt, the sand began to be absorbed into her flesh. Refusing to let panic overcome her, she watched until lines of ever changing colors patterned the skin of her hand like a tattoo.

A mark in her palm showed a downward half circle within a triangle within an eye.

A hill, a mountain, and a dreamer.

The resonance she felt in the valley and in holding the orb melded with her very soul. Once only accessible in her dreams, her visions came forth at a whim. The phantom Guin returned, applauding with laughter and pride. Joining this Guin were the Guins of infinite realities: heralds, mentors and guides to her reflections.

Here, her reflections, a mosaic of mirrors, combined into a larger, greater whole.

Here, in the aura of her dreaming glass, her true name lay revealed.

Yeowen Ryal Tyraad.

Here, in the dreaming glass, she did not see hills.

She saw only mountains.

* * *

Kyle Brandon Lee is an author and poet based out of Garland, TX. Though he tends to write more in the sci-fi and fantasy realms, his preferred genre is “Whatever is in His Head at the Time.” “Hills Dreaming Themselves Mountains” is his first but hopefully not final published work. If you enjoy inane ramblings, you can follow him on twitter at @Kyle_B_Lee

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Richard Matheson had a sign above his desk that read “That which you think becomes your world.” I’ve always loved that saying as all the external stimuli that goes into the process of thinking is fair game for a story idea. Dreams, people and places I pass on the street, random conversations with myself and the like have all ended up in one of my stories or the other.

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