Two hundred thousand and sixty four. Two hundred thousand and… I sigh. There are only so many times one can count the blades of grass on a hillside before the task becomes autonomous, like the beating of one’s heart. It’s more fun as an abstraction than an activity now. The wind complicates the task, making the blades bow in respect of its gentle might, and if I were younger this would frustrate me, but I defeated that demon long ago and welcomed the challenge. Nothing inspires patience like an eternity alone on a mountaintop. The change of the seasons brings variety, but today is another beautiful spring day. The air is so crisp my withered lungs ache to inhale it.
I stare upward, through the tangles of my grey hair and at the blue sky above. Such a pleasing mix of deep blues: azure, steel and lastly, powder giving ghosts of long forgotten storms subtle definition as they float past. I recall days where I tried to distinguish the point at which one shade ended and another began, but then I asked myself that devil of a question: why? Why do it? Why wonder?
I cannot think like that, for who knows how much longer I will be here. How long have I been here already? I’ve counted hundreds of winters, watched them devour the life of the land only to birth it anew from its pure white cocoon a minute later. I have witnessed the Sun being stolen from the daytime sky so often that I no longer fear it – the Monkey God always returns it when he discovers a new mischief.
It must be millennia since this task befell me. At least that is how I remember it. Oh, the memories do fade quickly now and I have nothing to replace them with save the change of the seasons. I cannot even remember who commanded me to guard this site or why. Is there something hidden? What would the gods treasure enough to leave a guardian like me to protect it, but detest to such a degree they would abandon it on Earth? Have I asked that before?
Such thoughts are treason! I will not pursue them.
I have thought that before.
Raising my hands, I stare at how Time’s ravages are finally beginning to take effect, transforming my capable flesh into gnarled branches and sinewy twigs. One way or another, it will end soon.
My heart soars at the thought of joining the angels in heaven as one of them, as a brother. It has been so long since I have seen another soul, even the weak and tainted mortals, but to live amongst such pure beings and enjoy the absolute white light of the universe… such pleasures are incomparable. It will make all of this – I look at my hands again – worthwhile.
How has the world changed since I came here? Perhaps man has grown and learned from his surroundings, his past and his mistakes, or maybe he has learned things beyond my imagination. Do they still dwell amongst Nature’s caves and travel the land barefoot? Maybe some mischievous spirit has released to them the secret of magic. Oh, how the world would have altered then. I only know of a few events, these so terrible that they shook the Earth. Perhaps they have extinguished life as I know it and that is why I remain alone.
No. There is still death. Carnage, I can smell it on the air; an acrid aroma like when fire consumes the sea, and if there is death there must be life to extinguish.
Then why has no man travelled this road in so long, even by chance?
Distant memories of a young warrior parading up the mountain’s path drift through my consciousness. Long, dark hair tied at the back of his head, he wore an armour of beads intricately sewn together across the mass of his wiry body, and … and was it a sword or a pike he carried? Time has erased the detail. It matters not. He met the same fate as all the others. I was forced to watch his form slowly dissipate into the mountainside, mourning his loss, but welcoming the change in the landscape.
Others came. I know this, but no images come to mind, only wisps in the fog of centuries. Perhaps knowledge of what I guard has faded into forgotten myth.
I watch the stony ridge of the trailhead with the faintest hope. Come noon, I have calculated the exact angle of every protruding rock based on the position and length of their shadows at known times. No one arrives to disturb this, and why should my thoughts arouse such activity?
No matter, the end is coming soon.
As I listen to another morning song from the birds, a rhythmic clanking sound drifts to me on the mountain breeze. I raise an eyebrow. Similar sounds pervade my memory, but from so long ago its cause takes time to surface. The crusts of memory litter my brain like the layers of earth on a dried river bed. The pattern matches that of a man walking. It is also a piercing, metallic sound. Only man, to my isolated knowledge, has mastered the art of hardening the earth into his weapons, to replace the claws that Nature took from him.
Would it be a challenger resplendent in battle armour, or a lost wanderer in rags and rust? Perhaps a deserter from a distant war looking for a hole in which to hide his shame. My heart thumps once and rests. A small bird hops from a tree to the soft earth, twitches its little head in a search for food, then sighting its target, it bounds first left and then right before digging up a worm and carrying it off into a distant tree. After this, my heart thumps again. It has not raced so for many a century.
The noise increases and is soon accompanied by the proud singing of a warrior. He sings of bravery and of love with such spirit, the impact of human emotions leaves me weeping. At last, I know.
Before long the footsteps of the man – and it becomes apparent, his companions – move along the last steep stretch of the mountain before reaching my trailhead.
Whatever happens now, it will fuel my thoughts for centuries to come.
A helmet appears over the ridge. It is metal and smooth. There are no markings or decorations, it only gleams in the cold sunlight with a splendour I have never seen.
Now I can see the face of its bearer; handsome with strong cheekbones. His cheeks puff out in exhaustion, though he hides this when he turns his head so his followers think him tireless. This is important to them. His dark eyes light up as he sees me; like a fish he becomes. This look is erased seconds later by a beaming smile. He quickens his pace to meet me as his followers, five of them, come into view. They are all male. A scrawny one, who looks as if he is about to pass out, struggles with a pack upon his shoulders. I guess it to be made of an animal hide, but its smooth hairlessness confounds me.
The other four wear similar dress to the first, but none of them bear the metallic armour that shines so. They talk amongst themselves in a series of taut grunts and yells which have subtle inflections. As their words flow I deduce their patterns and form meanings until I understand fully what each sound communicates.
“…. is real. Who would have thought?”
“… legend speaks of. There is truth in those old legends.”
“ The church would never admit it.”
The leader – the warrior – steps forward. He takes his eyes from me for the first time as he calls to the scrawny man with the pack.
The servant drops his load with a relieved grunt and detaches from it a green cloth tied to a large stick. He carries it over to his master where he attaches it to the warrior’s back. A portable flagpole. How interesting.
The banner has all the authority of a king decorated with the dark dashes of their written language. The servant returns to the pack, leans on it, panting. His face narrows towards the mouth as if he is considering private thoughts.
As this event plays out, I examine my first challenger in many centuries. He wears body armour similar to his helmet, which wraps around his ribcage leaving only a few gaps at the joints to allow movement. How does he get inside? There are no visible seams or straps at the front. Perhaps he wears it for life.
His legs are protected by flaps of a softer material. It bears resemblance to the animal hide used in the making of the backpack, but appears unyielding. No doubt it is created through a modern craft I have yet to hear of. Underneath, he wears a tunic of dark green, giving me the impression that the colour is of importance to his identity. At his waist rests a blade in its decorated scabbard. That fact never seems to change. He grips the hilt and watches me with impatient determination as the servant does his job, then he stands straight.
Is this the respect I get?
“I seek what is inside that temple.”
My eyes tell him all he needs to know.
His face screws up. “Do you not view me as worthy?” He shakes his scabbard. “I have travelled the breadth of many lands and defeated all who opposed me. My presence is sign enough. My reputation demands recognition!”
I stare, letting every nuance of his appearance soak into my mind. His nose crinkles further.
“What would you have me do to prove it?”
“Tell me the tales of the world,” I want to say, however, a tightening in my gut warns me against interaction lest I divulge secrets of the gods. The risk is too great.
“Enough!” The warrior draws his sword and it makes a loud noise in the mountain air like… shink. Such a beautiful sound, but a prelude to death. I watch with amusement as he slices it down, demonstrating that he is not afraid to use the blade. It seems however much the world may have changed, the people in it have changed very little.
He points the sword directly away from his body – at me – generating a hum of excitement from his followers. He charges forward. One hand holds the blade firmly at the hilt, the other is held above the guard like a guiding wall. This is no barbarian. Yet I do not move.
The point of the blade comes to a halt within an inch of my chest. I look down at it with purposeful sloth then my eyes return to his as they soften and he retracts the blade. He stands upright before me.
“Why do you not fight, old man? You are the guardian of this shrine?”
It is a shrine I guard?
I turn to look behind me. From out of the broken patches of grass and fallen leaves, of nettles and weeds, a worn, stone archway protrudes through the earth. It does not appear unnatural, having long ago been accepted by the earth surrounding it and lovingly embraced by the undergrowth.
I turn back to the warrior, smiling with the warm success of recollection. This man has truly brightened my day. So much to think about.
“If you are not, then you will not mind my walking inside,” the warrior adds.
The soft grass bows before his presence, but I cannot let him pass, that is the one thing I swore ages ago that no one would ever do. As he strides onward, I realise I am going to have to do something I have not done in centuries. I am going to have to move.
I reach under the folds of my robe for the staff that helps support me – or was it given to me as a weapon? – and with a thrust of the arm I let it extend through my grip so it blocks his path.
He stops and looks down at the gnarled stick of wood.
“So, old man, you are the guardian after all, and you seek to stop me with such a weapon?” He withdraws until he is in front of me again. There, he paces, a grin upon his face. “ I believe the legends to be greatly exaggerated, but I must see for myself.”
He slices his blade left and right, around in a circle and then he halts with the metal pointed at me. I lower the staff and return it to its spot amongst the folds of my garment.
He is an arrogant man, as most warriors are, but I sense no malice from him. That only makes the coming events more tragic.
He charges at me with his blade approaching from my top right. At the last second he switches the angle and slices from the horizontal right. I step forward into, but behind his swipe, and in that small gap of his arms’ length, between his hilt and his body, I kick up my staff with deceptive force. The stillness is punctuated by a terrible crunch. Two of the warrior’s followers raise their hands to their mouths, before he collapses against me. I step to the side and let the warrior’s body fall to the dirt.
His throat is crushed from the impact of my staff. His followers didn’t even see what happened, muttering and crying in disbelief.
I stare past them, into the horizon where the sun is descending towards the Gydan range, but I am watching them. The followers seem frozen one moment then mill about the next, agitating in raised voices the events they have just witnessed. Before long, they begin to leave. The first disappears as two others discuss whether to take the body home for a traditional burial, his family would demand it, but they fear approaching me to retrieve it. In the end they abandon their master, and I am alone on the mountain once more.
Now I am going to have to start counting all over again.