The shadows of old birds
crawl over young stone
while pines huddle together
and knot crowns beneath the earth.
You fled south from the Cold Hills, leaving behind the icy fogs and venturing under the open arms of the sky. You watched the dirt give way to granite. You watched the sky grow huge and blue and flat as a plate.
And now your maps are wrong. Beneath the shrugging pines and laughing choughs, your maps have become completely, utterly useless.
The rivers are running the wrong way. The mountains are not where they were described. The shrub-throttled 'road' that you followed so carefully ended at a flat slab of granite, almost as if the road had disappeared into a crack on the mountainside.
And so there you were, sitting on a glacial erratic, eating the last of your horse, when you looked at the mountains for the tenth time and finally saw their faces. And once you saw their faces, everything snapped into cold focus, the realization filtering through shades of confusion, terror, and finally awe.
You were so shocked you dropped your chunk of horseflesh.
The Fighting Pile
A mountain might gain half a centimeter of elevation every year. It might also move three centimeters to the north. By standard geologic standards, this is a very fast mountain. This is a leaping gazelle.
The mountains of the Fighting Pile move many hundreds of feet every year. They are able to do this because they are not mountains, not quite.
They move so quickly because they are trying to kill each other.
What It Looks Like
Thick-browed mountains covered in smooth young granite. Jagged ridges elbowing themselves over each other. Piled strata on their sides dappled with shrubs. Crows, chickadees, magpies, hawks.
A trained geologist would burn his books in a haze of tearful doubt. The average traveler would never notice anything amiss. (Except perhaps the occasional hillside of C-shaped trees, formed when the east side of a mountain becomes the west side of the mountain within a tree's lifetime.)
But examine the sides of the mountains, and you can see the clenched teeth and straining neck. You can see ridges like forearms, struck through with veins of hematite, the whole hillside tense with pressure as one mountain attempts to unseat the other.
Stone hands wrapped around an escarpment, crushing it, forcing it back into the earth. Two mountains restraining another, limestone crushed beneath granite. A stone face, shattered and wincing, covered with granite boulders where a granite mountain struck it a century ago.
Minor earthquakes occur almost weekly.
The average mountain moves less than two feet per day. And while many mountains duel alone or in triads, the great bulk of them all surge towards Young Mount Torgedda
The Monks of Young Mountain Torgedda
The monks live atop Young Mountain Torgedda, as they have lived for generations. They travel across all of the mountains, following obscure routes and schedules. Every morning, each mountain is drawn from a half-dozen different angles.
They have vaults of these drawings, yellow reams brushing the cobwebbed ceilings. Cabinets groan with the weight of these papers. Each of these pictures shows a fighting mountain.
And in the evenings, they study their sketches. From these sketches, they have taught themselves to fight. They tattoo Serpinski triangles onto themselves and break their hands so that the bones may grow back thicker. These are the Fighting Monks.
Their leader is the Fight Master, who is said to be the greatest warrior in all of Centerra. She was once known as Ziraludra of Worthless Zyro, a former lieutenant of the Pearl Divers Mercenary Company.
She wears the Four-Tower Crown. Her lieutenants wear Three-Tower Crowns. The sub-lieutenants below them wear Two-Tower Crowns. Those below them, the fully inducted members of their cult, wear a white stone tied around their brow with a red string, because there are too many of them to adorn with crowns.
While the higher ranking members rarely engage in lethal pursuits (except to combat the monks of the void, who they despise), the novices are often killed in their practices. Crushed by boulders while running up a hill, or thrown from precipices while learning The Bull Tosses His Horns.
They despise the void monks because they have a common history and contrary philosophies. The fight monks believe that Life and Truth live in the heart and the blood and the muscle. They believe that the meaning of life, if there is one, is to be found in this world, not the next.
The void monks think all of this is laughable.
Young Mountain Torgedda
The monks live atop his crown, a five-towered structure made from the same white limestone as himself. It is the only intact building within the Fighting Pile.
According to the monks, he is the youngest mountain as well as the strongest.
The Mountain's sword lies discarded nearby. A dusty, irregular mirror seven hundred feet long. Its length has mostly been buried by spilled earth, and what bands are exposed to the sky are clouded and warped. The sword is solid adamantine. It'd be worth a fortune if anyone could ever find a way to break it into smaller pieces, or melt it, or reshape it.
The monks speak of the scabbard, a vertical shaft that has not been seen in centuries.
Young Mountain Torgedda is not the tallest of the fighting mountains, but it is the straightest and the strongest. A number of slightly-salty springs cascade down his flanks, proof of his great exertion. The amount of foreign boulders that lay scattered in his valleys is proof of his prowess.
His long reaching spurs and hard, quartz-rich fists have broken the jaws of many of his challengers. And of course, there is the fate of Young Mountain Gundregor, of which the monks do not speak.
The Transmetallic Alchemists
They frequent Young Mountain Bora-Dhun. It is believed that they may have discovered some way of communicating with the mountain, however unlikely that seems.
Or more likely, this is merely a convenient halfway point between the Four-Chambered Mountain to the east and the Hills of the Hollow Men to the west. In any event, the alchemists will happily buy any stone eggs you find, laid by the shaggy grey orn, a giant bird that seems to be going extinct, since no one in living memory has ever seen them produce a viable egg.
The Miners of the Ridgeways
With the fickle orientations of the earth and the regular tremors, men have been taught very quickly not to erect anything larger than a tent on the Fighting Mountains. And even a cluster of tents might have to move hastily one day when a miner notices a hillside shifting, in order to swat them with a rockslide.
They are not good miners. Their excavations are hasty and easily collapsed. They have a poor working knowledge of geology. But they are fast, and they are desperate, and geology doesn't work here anyway so fuck it.
They circle the mountain like vultures, just flinty eyes casting their gaze over the next hill, wearing their donkeys' hooves down. They are sometimes comically under-equipped, just a pair of boots, a pickaxe, and a hole in their belly that can only be filled with rubies.
Because this is where rubies come from. It's possible that all the rubies came from the Fighting Mountains.
The miners live like vultures. They watch the struggle like veteran gamblers, arguing about fighting techniques. Sometimes they ape the positions of the mountains and then try to fight each other, trying to figure out which mountain has the advantage, and which mountain will be speared down.
The miners are looking for weaknesses. A prone mountain pinned beneath his fellow. A broken arm, where an outstretched ridge was broken over a knee. A new wound, not yet scabbed over with landslides.
And then they rush in, with their shovels and pickaxes and buckets. And they dig their terrible shallow mines, pour their agonized excavations out on the hillside beneath them. And sometimes in that frantic flotsam, they find rubies.
Among the faithful, rubies are known as earthsblood, or ichorine, and they are seen as symbols of savage power made humble. The largest ruby ever mined was the Heart of All-Desiring, and it was plucked from the chest of Young Mountain Gundregor.
Young Mountain Gundregor
The corpse of Young Mountain Gundregor lies to the south of Young Mountain Torgedda. If you stand on Gundregor's shoulder, you can usually see the sun shouting off Torgedda's crown through the hurly-burly of the intervening mountains.
Young Mountain Gundregor was the mountain that came closest to defeating Torgedda. Gundregor had his foe staggered and was driving his thumbs deep into Torgedda's eyes, when Torgedda threw Gundregor over his shoulders. In fifteen years--the blink of an eye to a mountain--Gundregor's neck had been snapped.
Or so we assume. Who can tell when a mountain is truly dead? In any event, Gundregor has not stirred from where he fell.
You may be wondering what a mountain looks like when it is being thrown. The monks know, although they do not like to speak of it. The thing is considered obscene, embarrassing. It is like seeing your father naked. Which makes sense, since of course they consider the mountains their fathers.
Mountains draw power from their feet, submerged deep in the magma below. To throw a mountain involves wrapping your arms around its neck and whipping it over your hips hard enough to wrench it from where it is anchored. Assuming you are a mountain, of course.
Imagine wrenching out someone's leg from its socket over the course of a decade and you'll have some idea.
Spurts of magma shot up along the fractures as indecent strata were uprooted, pulled up several feet each day, until the roots of Gundregor strained at the clouds, and found no footholds among them.
Mountains are very strong in once direction. They have great compressive strength. But hold them sideways, and they will break. And that is what the great legs of Gundregor did, as they hung in the cruel air, like fingers poised over piano keys. Leg-lengths fell by the quarter mile, hemorrhaging stone, magma, unnamed ores, and yes rubies as well.
Gundregor groaned and shook, and all the mountains stopped their struggles to watch their brother die sideways in the sky.
When they perform this technique, the monks call it technique The Bull Tosses His Horns.
Rubies are normally mined from the seams of the mountains, when they are revealed in moments of weakness. But Gundregor, unmoving, was completely hollowed out. The miners descended on its body like flies. The largest ruby in the world was produced from this pillaging: the Jewel of All-Desiring, which vanished from history amid a flourish of corpses, and many enormous jewels are wont to do.
The other mountains have sealed Young Mountain Gundregor through small landslides, perhaps the equivalent of kicking some dirt onto a corpse.
The wizards claim that the mountains are fighting for the Crown of the Earth. (It is not the structure on top of Young Mountain Torgeddon, but rather a ring of solid diamond inside him.) Mountains think on the same time scale as us, but they move much slower. Because they have so much time to think, their movement are ultra-efficient, with each punch carrying years of careful calculation, like dueling oil tankers piloted by genius machines.
The Church claims that this is the final result of Zulin's extirpation of the powers of Earth. With the volcanoes dead and the mountains sleeping, the last batch of powerful Earth spirits has been confounded into destroying themselves.
The elves claim that this is normal behavior for mountains. They are fighting to occupy prestigious positions in a new mountain chain. There are many similar instances recorded in elven libraries. . . just none in the pamphlets of human history.