Watchful and the Mountain
In the time after the separation, the world was a hostile and dangerous place for men. The gods who had loved, were now angry. The gods who had protected, now killed. Men were forsaken and suddenly found that life was hard and death was easy. During this time men began to build the first great towers and the world was split in two parts. The first was the land that men had tamed and the second was The Wilds.
Men feared The Wilds above all things – Miles and miles of unbroken forest and severe mountains wreathed in mist and cloud. These were The Wilds and they would suffer no man, for in their depths there lived old magic and ancient horrors.
Men lived out their lives clinging to the tame areas of the world and beating back The Wilds where they could. The Wilds loomed on the edge of this world, waiting for the moment when men dropped their guard. Waiting to press forward and reclaim what had been lost. Ominous, like a shadow on the horizon, ageless and enduring.
Now on this very border a king built a castle. The castle protected the men and kept The Wilds at bay. The king’s name was forgotten, but the castle was called Watchful. The castle lived up to its name and for many years the people under its protection were at peace, though their towns and villages lay in the very shadow of The Wilds.
Watchful stood on a hill among green fields, facing a great forest at the foot of a great mountain. This mountain was very old, even in those days. Old enough to have a spirit that walked the earth. The spirit of this mountain took the form of an ancient man, stooped and withered. The man had a long white beard and a broad straw hat. The white beard brushed the slopes of the mountain and was filled with twigs and leaves and living things. The broad hat brushed the branches of the trees and was quite as covered with the forest as the beard. People from the villages often claimed to have seen the spirit of the mountain, but few spoke the truth.
This spirit appeared as peaceful as the mountain, and though foolish men were often tricked into believing this was so, the spirit of the mountain was too ancient to know anything of peace. Indeed, the spirit was frighteningly powerful and had the strength of the whole mountain behind its every movement. For the mountain and the spirit were one, bound together in two forms. The spirit might find a tree with deep and tangled roots and on this tree might place a hand and push. Then far away on the slopes above, a boulder would shift and fall. Despite the great distance the rock would strike with the barest sound, as gently as a leaf might light upon the ground. However, the tree on which the spirit had placed its hand would be thrown from the earth, breaking to a hundred pieces a thousand times, from all the dreadful force of the falling slab of stone.
Now the king of Watchful had two children, one boy and one girl. As the children grew the boy became handsome and the girl became beautiful. News of the daughter’s beauty spread and kings and princes from all the kingdoms came to win her hand, but the daughter would accept no suitor.
The children had grown up in the safety of the castle and had no understanding of the danger of The Wilds. Indeed, the daughter spent her time playing in the forest, on the foothills surrounding the great mountain. When her father discovered this, he forbade her from entering the forest, but she only wandered farther.
One day the spirit of the mountain saw the girl walking through its forest and was captivated by her beauty. He took her and carried her up the mountain to a hovel where he lived. She was terrified and wept and begged to return to her father in Watchful castle, but the spirit refused and though the daughter tried, she could not escape for the cliffs of the mountain surrounded her.
When his daughter did not return the king was heartbroken. He immediately gathered thirty soldiers and a ruthless captain and prepared to send them in search of his daughter. The king’s advisor, an old man and very wise, tried to warn the king.
“Oh King,” he said, “You were young and strong when you came to this place and could see clearly the dangers of this forest. In your wisdom you built this castle and have kept your subjects safe. In these years of peace your strength has grown great indeed. Too great, I fear, for you no longer see your weakness. The forest is strong. Far too strong for men and for all your strength you will not tame it. These men will not find your daughter.”
The king gazed upon his men and saw their shining armor and their sharp spears and did not believe that the forest could match these fine soldiers. He ignored the advisor’s warning and sent his men into the forest to find his daughter. The king waited ten days, but not one man returned.
The king then gathered sixty men, led by a battle hardened general. Again the advisor spoke a warning, “Oh King,” he begged, “You did not listen, you did not see and your men did not return. Now as I speak you gather a larger force, but I tell you The Wilds are stronger than sixty soldiers! These men will not find your daughter.”
But again the king looked on his men and saw their broad shields, their heavy swords, and he believed the forest would yield to his strength. The king ignored the advisor’s warning and sent the soldiers to find his daughter. He waited ten days, but not one man returned.
After the ten days had passed the king gathered all the rest of his army, a mighty force of one hundred men and horses. They were led by the king’s own son. One last time the advisor spoke, “Oh King,” he pleaded, “You are blinded by your strength! And if you do not heed my words the lives of your soldiers will be wasted, your son will be lost and your power will be spent. I say to you a third time, not even one hundred will be enough. These men will not find your daughter.”
But when the king saw his army arrayed before him he forgot his advisor’s words. The men rode into the forest led by the king’s son. Ten days passed and not one man returned.
Then the king wept and went to his advisor, “What have I done? I have lost my children! All my strength was not enough. I have sent one hundred, sixty and thirty men into The Wilds, but none have returned. What must I do?”
“Oh King,” said the advisor sadly, “In your pride you sent commanders who wished to fight. I tell you, send a man, a common soldier, who wishes to live and he will return. I fear in my heart that your daughter is beyond recovery, but your son might yet be saved.”
“Who must I send?” asked the king.
“Oh King,” said the advisor, “Send Brandon, for he is a clever man who values cunning over strength.”
So the king sent for Brandon and asked him to enter The Wilds and find his son. The king offered Brandon his best armor and his mightiest sword, but Brandon refused all the king’s gifts and entered The Wilds carrying only a walking stick and a shield made of leather. He was gone for nineteen days and the king gave up hope, scoffing at his advisor, “You see! One man is nothing compared to thirty! How could one succeed where a hundred failed?”
However, on the twentieth day Brandon emerged from the woods. He had neither walking stick nor leather shield, but he led the king’s son by the arm.
The king and all his court rushed from his castle to the edge of the forest and the king embraced his son.
Brandon, however, was downcast and spoke sadly, “My King, I bring with me two pieces of unhappy news. The first is that your son is greatly changed. He spent thirty days wandering in The Wilds, but cannot speak of what has taken place there. The second is that I have found your daughter, but she has been stolen by the spirit of the mountain and I do not know of any power that can save her.”
The king was greatly disturbed to hear this and tore his clothes, cursing the spirit of the mountain while the son was led back to the castle. The advisor approached the king, “Oh King,” he said, “You have seen that I speak the truth. Hear my words again I beg. Your son must not be allowed to enter Watchful. He cannot speak of what has passed and we do not know what manner of foul magic he may have come upon while lost. I say again, he must not pass the gates.”
But the king did not listen to the advisor and welcomed his son back to the castle throwing a splendid banquet in his honor. He rewarded the advisor with a golden goblet and gave Brandon a staff and shield of gold.
The advisor, however, did not speak again. He was silent all the feast and while the king was occupied the advisor left his seat, leaving the golden goblet sitting on the table. Brandon noticed this and followed the advisor as he left the banquet hall. The advisor walked to the gates and left the castle, making his way through the village and off down the road. Brandon followed and no one from castle Watchful ever saw Brandon or the advisor again.
With his son returned, the king spent his days gazing towards the mountain, brooding over the spirit that lived there. He let it be known that his daughter’s hand in marriage and a thousand pieces of gold would be given as a reward to any man who could rescue his daughter from the spirit of the mountain. This news spread and men came from far and wide, all attempting to steal the king’s daughter back from the mountain.
The mountain, however, met all comers and none returned. The greatest attempt of all was made by a foreign king, tall, with patterns of ink across his skin. The foreign king marched up the mountain with a thousand men, a force larger than any in those parts had ever seen. However, this king met the same fate as all the rest and only a small handful of his thousand men returned. They fled the mountain, bringing with them tales of rock itself waking to fight, boulders raining from the sky, and worst of all, an old man whose touch was death to any who came near.
After this no one attempted to climb the mountain and the king gave up all hope of ever rescuing his daughter.
So the years passed and Watchful watched less and less. The king grew old and the soldiers, so foolishly sacrificed, were sorely missed. No longer could the borders be carefully guarded and The Wilds began to creep forward once again. Fear spread among the towns and soon they were abandoned. As men vanished from villages, so Watchful grew empty as well.
Meanwhile, in a faraway land, on the plains of a scorching desert, a tower was built. The men who filled this tower were renowned for their inventive minds. They ingeniously combined the power of magic and the strength of science in ways no one had ever dreamed. But of all these intellects, no mind stood out more brilliantly than the one possessed by the prince. The prince was young with eyes as bright as his imagination. The eyes of all his family were green and their minds were sharp, but none as green or sharp as his. The prince’s crowning achievement was an airship of his own invention, powered by magic and driven by wind. The ship would float with billowing sails on even the lightest breeze.
During this time it became known that a soldier from a distant land had traveled to the tower. The soldier brought with him a story of a king and a captive daughter. The prince heard of this man and was intrigued. He summoned the soldier to his court and demanded to hear the story. When the soldier had finished speaking, the prince exclaimed, “That is a great reward and the daughter must be beautiful indeed! I will travel to this place and rescue the king’s daughter.”
The soldier’s face darkened, “If your grace will let me speak, I have two warnings told me by a wise companion who is long since dead. The king of Watchful did not care to listen and has suffered greatly for his foolishness, or so it has been said.”
“Tell me these things,” said the prince.
“Your Grace,” said the soldier, “The first is this: Do not think you can use your strength to free this daughter. Men more terrible than you have tried and failed. The Wilds will not yield to strength and so it is by cunning that they must fall.”
“I hear truth in the words you speak,” said the Prince. “What else?”
“The second warning is this: The Wilds corrupt all they touch. Like a vine creeping up a mighty tree, once the root has taken hold the entire tree is strangled despite the thickest bark. The Wilds have taken root in Watchful and corrupted both king and castle and the shadow of evil has spread. Your grace too will be lost if you accept the king’s reward or enter castle Watchful. ”
“I have all the wealth I need,” said the Prince, “I will heed your warnings and I thank you for them.”
So the prince left with his best and most loyal men on a journey to the edge of The Wilds and castle Watchful.
Though the distance was great, the prince and his men traveled by airship and made the journey quickly. They landed on a grassy hill and the prince looked towards castle Watchful. The castle stood against the dark forbidding line of forest. Behind and darker still, the mountain rose against the sky, casting its shadow over Watchful. No lights shown from any window.
The prince was cunning indeed and sent his men marching to the mountain. They made no attempt to hide their path and did their best to look eager for the coming battle. The men were seen both by the king watching from his castle and the spirit watching from the mountain. The king laughed when he saw they were so few, thinking they would face a quick defeat. The spirit laughed to itself as well and made its way down off the mountain to the foothills where it planned to meet the men and fight once more for the king’s daughter it had stolen.
But while all eyes were focused on the advancing men, the prince took his airship and flew around the mountain to the very top and came upon the hovel where the king’s daughter was imprisoned. For all her years of captivity the daughter was no less beautiful. She wept with joy when she found she had a rescuer, especially one so handsome as the prince. The prince flew her away and they returned to the grassy hill where the prince had promised to wait for his men.
But the king had seen the rescue in the airship and rode out to meet the returning soldiers.
“I have seen that you have done what no other could!” exclaimed the king when he reached the men, “Come! You and your prince must join me in celebration at my castle! I will reward your prince with the thousand pieces of gold which I have promised and he shall have my daughter as his wife! You also I will reward! Each one with gold for the part that you have played in this triumphant rescue!”
The prince had warned his men and they knew not to pass the gate, but the lure of gold proved too great a temptation. On the distant hill the prince and the king’s daughter watched together as the men followed the king back to his castle in the shadow of the mountain. The daughter wished to see her father, but the prince refused, remembering the soldier’s warning. The two waited for ten days, but they saw no one leave the castle and at last they flew away. They returned to the prince’s tower where they were married. The two lived long and happy lives together and had many children. And from that time to this very day, their descendants are known by their shining green eyes.
However, far away, on its darkened slopes, the spirit of the mountain seethed with rage. It had pursued the airship to the foothills, the farthest edge of its domain, but could go no farther. The spirit swore revenge as it climbed back up its cliffs. It sat, still as stone, gazing towards the horizon where the airship had disappeared. The spirit bent all its will on the prince and bitterly waited for the day when the prince would once more be within its grasp. The mountain rumbled ominously for many years, but no one heard and no one saw for Watchful now stood empty. The castle’s darkened windows looked on sadly as The Wilds silently crept forward and surrounded and swallowed.