How the Mountains Were Raised, by Matthew Hartman

You all want to hear another story of Sekeriah tonight? Truly there has never been a man more deserving of his tales being told and told again, but still there are many others of the First Generations you should hear about. Perhaps Henrekta? It was he who decided the contours of our great lake in the way back when, you know, and it is a most fascinating history- No? It must be Sekeriah again? Very well then, hear now the story of how the mountains that now shade and trap rain for us were raised:

These were the glory days of the First Age when the great heroes of old could do anything and often did. This village of ours had been founded not a century before by Sekeriah and some of his friends and had rapidly grown as people flocked from afar to his wise and protective rule. It was a time of growing watchfulness as the old friendships faded and gave way to rivalry and hostility and competition for resources and followers. Thus when Sekeriah did see that his adopted sons and daughters needed more rain to prosper it was no great matter for him to pile hill on hill and stone on stone till a new range of mountains arced across the north to trap the clouds. The true struggle would come in the moon that followed as he prevented others from tearing down what he had raised.

It was a brilliant summer day just like today- though the days were brighter and the nights darker and the lake bluer in those days- 80 of my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmothers ago when Hreijibor the giantess raged down from those hills like an avalanche. Taller than the great sycamore by the square, old as the roots of the earth, and louder in her bellowing fury than a great storm she stomped on a hut and punted a cow over the horizon.

Sekeriah was cooling his feet in the great lake while he bent a damaged plow back into shape; when he heard her thunderous footsteps he rose to greet her with a bow- this being a greeting of his own recent invention. “Ah my honored cousin! To what do I owe this pleasure?”

She had been drawing her enormous hand back to pummel him and was disconcerted that he didn’t defend himself. The giantess paused hesitantly while Sekeriah straightened back up and regarded her fondly, a mighty fist inches from his face.

Hreijibor snorted like an enraged bull and drew up to her full height, towering over him as she stepped in close. His head didn’t even come up to the waist of her belted robe. Sekeriah seemed puzzled at her ire, he cocked his head quizzically even as he craned it back to look at her. “Ah!” he snapped his fingers with the realization, “This is about the mountains isn’t it?”

“YES, FOOL! I’M HERE BECAUSE OF YOUR DAMN MOUNTAINS!” a cloud of sand rose from around his feet with each of her words as she shouted down at him.

“My new mountains? What about them?” A few of his villagers, our ancestors, were peeking out from behind their houses at the commotion. Where he was lounging in the world’s first hammock, the great Ashkantir had his hand on the hilt of his sword, silently he gestured inquiringly at the armory. Should he fetch the Fire Emblem? Or maybe just dispatch this interloper himself? Sekeriah met his follower’s eyes a moment and stealthily shook his head.

Hreijibor had been caught completely off guard. She’d expected to meet him in a battle that would have shaken the world on its pillars or maybe for the coward to deny his guilt; either way it was a simple problem to be resolved with her favorite simple solution. But for him not to understand what he’d done to anger her complicated things in ways she didn’t yet understand, “JUST LOOK AT THEM,” she waved to the cloud-touching, still-settling heaps of stone.

“Oh yes, I see. They are indeed a fine and beautiful range. I call them the Tarakas. Well I do love being complimented for my craftsmanship and I’m really flattered you walked over just to say you like my new mounta-“

“NO! SO STUPID!” She prodded him in the chest, the force nearly throwing him off his feet. “YOU BUILT WHILE I SLEPT OFF A FEAST LAST NIGHT SO I COULDN’T STOP YOU!” she gave this a moment to let it sink in, “SO I’M HERE TO STOP YOU NOW!”

Sekeriah patted her on her burly arm, “Oh I’m sorry, cousin, but you see I’m already finished. So I’m afraid you can’t stop me this time. Tell you what, next time I’m going to build some mountains I’ll warn you beforehand and you can stop me halfway thro-“

“SHUT UP!” She advanced on him now, though she’d nearly been standing on him already. Sekeriah matched her gait, walking smoothly backward along the shore. “ALL THE TIME YOU ANNOY ME, LITTLE MAN! NO MORE. WE DUEL; I WIN; YOU DIE. I’LL SCATTER YOUR MOUNTAINS AND YOUR PEOPLE TO THE HOWLING WINDS!”

Sekeriah rocked back and forth on his feet thoughtfully as the echoes of her shouting faded. Then his face slowly brightened into a wicked grin, “I thought you’d never ask. Well I accept the challenge of a duel, but as the challenged party I get to choose the terms.”

This caused Hreijibor a twinge of worry in the back of her mind and should have caused much more. Sekeriah had a towering reputation as a warrior without fear, just as she did. Why did he not simply agree to fight her now? But he was continuing, “So something not necessarily lethal,”

Ah, well that explained it then, “COWARD!”

He just shrugged, “I’ve been called one before. Now as I was saying, I’m feeling a bit thirsty after looking out over the lake so let us make this a drinking contest. First to fail to drink something the other can down or to die trying is the loser. You may go first if you wish, though I care not. If I lose, you can remove the mountains and turn the weather of your lands back to the way it was. If I win, the mountains stay and so do I. You can do with your people as you will. And of course they’re welcome to join me.”

Hreijibor had paid little attention to the details. If she won she got her way and she’d reduce this constantly smiling, unceasingly talking little coward to a smear in the dirt and that was what mattered. Besides, she was an enormous and hearty woman and it took her a hogshead of mead to even get tipsy; this little man not even 8 feet tall would be unconscious before he started in on the second barrel no matter his reputation. “I AGREE! WE START NOW! HAVE YOUR MEN FETCH YOUR WINE!”

He had known of course that she would agree without a thought but had expected the giantess to at least pay attention, “Wine? Oh no, I think you misheard. I haven’t nearly enough of that here for you, let alone for me. Not to mention it would be a terrible waste for us to swill it by the barrel without even tasting it. No, we’ll be drinking water. Let’s start with the lake.”

Surely Sekeriah must be jesting. But even the sardonic glint in his eye from before had vanished. He seemed almost a different person now the terms of the duel had been set. Was he mad then? Or was there more to him than she guessed?

When she didn’t move, the renowned hero shrugged, “I’ll start then,” he strode to the water and made as if to down it all in a single gulp. Not jesting then. As he drank away she wondered for a moment if she was just imagining she saw the water all around the vast shore lowering. Suddenly he stopped and straightened again, “No. Not the lake. Too small. Too easy. For us both. Waste of time,” he punctuated each phrase by spitting back several gallons of water it seemed, “Besides, we dug this out together with the others back when we were all so close. It wouldn’t be fitting to use it for a duel now.”

Well if that was supposed to be an appeal to her memory of their friendship in the old days it wasn’t going to work; those had been many centuries ago and since then he had become a threat to the prosperity of her people and a personal nuisance to her. “WHAT THEN?”

“The great sea north of your lands. Some say it goes on forever and I’ve a mind to test that without spending months trying to swim it. Of course, you can back out now if you want. But the mountains will stay in that case.”

She was not a stupid woman, but a rash and overweening one to be sure. Either Sekeriah could do no such thing and was jesting –in which case she would simply kill him- or insane –in which case she would kill him more carefully- or he could indeed drink the great sea, in which case she doubtless could simply drink something larger if she really tried- for was she not Hreijibor who all feared and admired?.

In the former case the duel was irrelevant but she would get her way through force as she had planned originally, in the latter she would win and therefore get her way. So reasoning she managed to quash her inner doubts at last, “THEN I SHALL DRINK THE GREAT IBOREAN OCEAN! NO MORE STALLING, WE GO NOW!”

They set out immediately toward her sea-side lands, Sekeriah’s people farewelling him with heavy hearts and wondering for the first time if he was up against an opponent he could not best. Hreijibor’s stride was long and her pace punishing, but Sekeriah was nimble as a mountain goat and tirelessly matched it. He regaled her endlessly with tales of his great deeds of late and the many successes of his followers, particularly having drunk the whole of the wide River Kora to parch the villages of the southwest to stop them threatening war and quaffing a far-southern lake to quench his thirst after working without end for a week digging a canal. By the time they finally reached the edges of her lands, the fields still green but just beginning to show signs of drying out without rain, she was quite convinced that he could indeed drink a prodigious amount of water and therefore she could too. She was also now resolved to wring his puny, bragging neck when she won to make sure he finally shut up.

Scarcely an hour after their hundred-mile march began, they were tramping through the damp beaches on the north of her lands. “Well I get to start!” Sekeriah splashed into the crashing waves.

His opponent’s booming voice stopped him, “NO! I GO FIRST, THOSE WERE YOUR OWN TERMS!” She was fairly sure they were anyway and there must have been an advantage to going first if this wily one was trying to renege on the deal to do it himself. Besides, she had run very fast indeed both to and from his lands and was extremely thirsty. She pushed the man aside and splashed out nearly to her mighty shoulders in the water.

Before he lips touched the sloshing waves, Sekeriah shouted out to her from the beach, “You can still yield now and no one will ever know for sure you couldn’t do it!”

“EVEN IF THIS SEA IS TRULY ENDLESS I WILL DRINK MORE OF IT THAN YOU COULD IN A WEEK!” her thunderous growl answered him as she took her first gulp. Had she but turned, the giantess would have seen his victorious grin spreading ominously from ear. The first rush of seawater scorched her mouth and throat. Ye gods, she’d forgotten how salty it was! It had been many long centuries since she first drank of the ocean and neither she nor her kin had often repeated that mistake since. Well she was hard and tough as a century-old oak, this was nothing to her! She took the next gulp with pride and feigned gusto, swallowing quarts at once.

“Rather slow start there don’t you think?”

Gallons, firkins, barrels! With tremendous grit she did not even stop to breathe for minutes as she drank and drank and screened out the growing pain in her mouth and stomach.

“You’ll have to do better than that! A child could drink more!”

She took her first breath, the air welcomed in betraying and burning her lips and lungs. Hreijibor stifled a gasp by drinking once more, trying to pace herself now. As long as her will was unbending, the ocean would fail before her body!

After several minutes of eye-rolling and checking the sun, Sekeriah stomped his foot in the sand in exasperation, “You try my patience, cousin! Stop playing games and start drinking!”

She tried not to let his taunting break her steady, agonizing rhythm. Every word was like a spike driven through her skull though, for it had begun to ache worse than that time she’d fallen and struck it while taming the first of the great rukhs. Her head spun as her nausea grew overwhelming. Surely the water was lower than it had been before!

From the shore, Sekeriah watched her antics with amusement. This was far more entertaining than it would have been to simply kill her when she attacked him and nearly as safe as obliterating her on the horizon with his spear. Others may have their doubts over who would truly have won a battle between them -perhaps in some hidden corner of himself where he kept his uncertainty so it would never hold him back he did as well. But no matter what, Sekeriah’s ever-growing legend in his own mind held quite clearly that he never NEEDED to best such foes through trickery like this. It was just more fun, more challenging. He splashed loudly back into the sea himself, “Well if that’s the best you can do you’ve lost already. I’ll drink that much in half a minute and then pull you out before you drown in this little pond of yours.”

Hreijibor’s vision was growing dim and she now felt her guts might burst before her head. Amazingly, heroically, foolishly she drank on, poisoning herself gulp by gulp. She barely remembered now through a heap of muddled thoughts why she was doing this in the first place. All that remained was her unbreakable determination to succeed at whatever this was about. She. Would. NOT. LOSE! The giantess now hastened her pace as she heard Sekeriah take his first few noisy drinks, seawater rushed into her by the barrel, by the hogshead! The force of her mighty gulps sucked in small fish and sea life as well as the water. Her enormous heart raced until it could burst! But she drank on. Her limbs grew leaden and lifeless! But she drank on. Her headache was like her skull being caught again and again between hammer and anvil! But she drank on. Her vision faded to blackness and she could hear nothing but the blood racing in her ears! But she drank on. Surely , surely Sekeriah could not drink this much! But she drank on. Surely she would win even if she stopped now, but she would forever regard it as her first and only failure regardless. She drank on. She was bloated to impossible size, more will and aegir than a million men could muster letting her do the undoable one last time! But she drank no more. The mighty body that had served her unfailingly for most of a thousand years through all perils and dangers was beaten at last by the cold, unchanging sea.

Sekeriah’s smile died with her as he swam out to retrieve the waterlogged corpse. They had both loved triumph above all other pleasures, but he at least took no joy in another’s defeat. He had been glad to win, had had to win, but it was still a shame this feerless heroine he had once called friend and cousin had lost.

They say he lifted her in his sinewy arms and bore all that remained of Hreijibor away from that forlorn shore where the waves still pounded, heedless. Town by town and farm by farm her cowed followers joined him on a slow, funerary march high up above the clouds. And there at the top of that peak, the tallest in his new range, he laid the enormous body where the snows might cover it and preserve it evermore.

-Matthew Hartman

Featured in Vol. 1 Iss. 3
Featured in Vol. 1 Iss. 3