The Spirit of the Mountain

The first thing I learned for myself in Nayendra was to be careful where I put my feet. That wasn't the first thing I learned about the spirit world, of course; I'd spent two years having my head stuffed full of facts by my three teachers. But for every shaman, it's the things you learn for yourself that matter the most, and stay the longest. And for me at that age, just come into my height and unaccustomed to it, watching where I put my feet took most of my concentration. If you step on the wrong thing, you might spend the next three years apologising.

There was much more to see besides my suddenly-clumsy feet. Nayendra is a realm just a shade apart from ours, but those few degrees of reality lend everything a glow and a glamour and I could spend days watching a tree grow infinitesimally slowly, stretching its roots down and its branches up, basking in the pale sunlight we get up here in the North. That's another thing I learned for myself; to be careful of the time. It runs differently, although the seasons tend to align.

I'm told in other countries, warmer ones, young people choose to study their magic, and go to schools and sit down and learn magic the way we learn to write. For us, the calling comes when it comes, but it is normally around the time a child starts becoming a man, or a woman. I was chosen at the age of twelve, and I left my family and went to live outside the village. I remember saying my goodbyes to my father, tall and broad like I am now but back then I thought he could touch the sky, and my mother, short and plump and tearful and proud all at once at saying goodbye to her youngest son. It is a real farewell, because when we become shamans, we leave behind our family, both past and future. Although I would see my family again, my father and mother, my two older brothers, tall like me, and my little sister, too small then to understand, they would not be my family any more.

The shaman's circle is four stone huts clustered around a central area with a fire pit, and I spent my youth there, learning. Drinking in knowledge, or having it dinned into me, finding fascination in the small things of the earth and the height of the sky, in understanding the motions of the wind and the winding ways of magic through the twin worlds.

The senior shamans then were Grandmother Iskar, Grandmother Veriya and Grandfather Taiyendar, and they served four villages between them, all within a day's walk of the shaman's circle. I lived with them, and with Eslin and Carrack, the two senior novices, and with Dariya and Fionn, who had been called at the same time as me. This is how we learn, as a family, adjusting to our individual needs and strengths. And we squabbled like a family; after a few days' awkwardness I tussled with Fionn like I had with my brothers, and like with my brothers I usually lost. Fionn was taller back then, and stronger, two years older than me and beginning to come into his adult strength. He never needed to watch his feet, either.

Fionn's Guide is a bear, or at least it has a bear's shape. I am still not sure whether our Guides are truly related to the animals whose guise they wear. Quick as ever, he was first of us three to find his Guide, two summers after we came to the shaman's circle and almost as soon as he set foot in Nayendra. While I was watching my feet, and studying trees, he met his Guide and sealed their bond in the private, individual way that he would never speak of. No shaman ever speaks of that meeting, that agreement. I wanted to know, but although we were close, he would not tell me.

Finding your Guide is important. So much so that shamans will spend their whole lives looking, if necessary. The only power we have that is native to our bodies is the ability to see, speak, and survive in Nayendra. A shaman without a Guide can foresee somewhat, and learn herb lore, but that's about it. Anything else requires a being of the spirit world, and a bond with that being, so they will do favours for you, allow you to use their strength. But there is no set time for finding your Guide. Grandmother Iskar said her mentor had found his Guide in his thirtieth summer, which seemed, at the time, a very long way off. For a long time, Dariya and I were alike in our lack of a Guide, and I did not worry.

Six years we spent being trained before we were initiated. Six years of study, of learning, six years of hard work tending the small garden of herbs we keep for medicine and the vegetables that we live off when the hunting is scarce. Shamans do not hunt, but we share with the rest of a village if a hunt that we helped with goes well. I grew familiar with the herb garden, and learned the preferences of the small, tough shoots on which we relied for so much. I learned the ways of Grandmother Iskar with the dying, the rites to ease passage, and the ways of Grandmother Veriya with women in labour and the newborn. Grandfather Taiyendar taught me about wounds and broken bones. We all learned these things, but I found a deep satisfaction in the slow, patient work of healing which Fionn and Dariya did not share. As the years went by, and I found no Guide, I was grateful that the healing, at least, required little actual magic.

Dariya found her eagle Guide one year after our initiation. She has always been good at foreseeing, and with her Guide was able to see further and better than any of the rest of us. That was when I started to worry. At nineteen years old, surely I should have found my Guide? Eslin and Carrack counselled patience, and Grandmother Iskar shook her head gently, and I buried myself in herb lore and healing, but the worry remained.

Four years after our initiation, Grandmother Iskar passed on. I was one of the appointed Watchers, keeping guard over her body for the required three days so that her spirit should not be confused if it returned. Eslin, Carrack, Dariya and I took turn and turn about here and in Nayendra, but she did not speak to us. Whenever I returned from the spirit world, the real world seemed grey and dispiriting, Grandmother Iskar's body a dark, formless lump in the middle of the small hut. I saw Dariya weeping soundlessly, and heard the keening outside as the population of four villages mourned for her. Shamans do not marry and do not have children, but in a way she had been grandmother to all of us.

After the mourning was over, we redistributed ourselves around the huts of the shaman's circle, and shared out the duties between us, we younger three taking on much of the physical labour as we could, to spare Grandfather Taiyendar and Grandmother Veriya, and even Eslin and Carrack. I willingly took on the herbal and healing duties, and began to spend more time away from the shaman's circle, seeking out rare herbs and testing them to see if they had any potency. I made notes on birchbark and filled up the half of the hut I shared with Fionn with my jottings. He teased me about them, but never complained.

It was Dariya who first spoke of the problem. At first, we thought it was simply that people missed Grandmother Iskar. We all did. But six months after her death, the gloom that lay over our villages had not lifted. Even the brief summer, with its bright skies, unexpected warmth, and abundant food, did little to cheer people. Eslin grew withdrawn, her face troubled. Carrack looked worried, his stories and singing bleak and sad, and cheerful Fionn became grumpy. I took to spending several days at a time away on my herb-gathering trips, finding peace in being alone and away from the pall of misery that had settled on the community.

Dariya raised the issue one day over the evening meal, as we all sat round the firepit huddled over our bowls of broth. It did not have the wholesome taste it usually did, and the bread Carrack had baked that morning was already stale, but we all sat eating in silence.

"There is a sickness on the land," she said. We all looked at her, but nobody said anything. The silence dragged on until Grandfather Taiyendar coughed.

"Is this something you have seen?" he asked. Dariya nodded, looking down. Her face was troubled.

"My Guide showed me a shadow," she said. "Stretching out from the North, coming towards us."

"But what is it?" asked Fionn. "Where did it come from? Why is it here?" Dariya couldn't answer these questions, and nor could anyone else. We finished our meal in silence, and I went to my hut alone. Fionn was meditating, asking his bear for help. I had no Guide to ask, so I left him to it.

We did not speak to the people of what Dariya had foreseen, not even to the headmen and headwomen of the villages. Her seeing had been too vague, too unfocussed. The others spent more time in Nayendra, trying to seek out the source. Perhaps that was why they succumbed so quickly, or perhaps it was because as shamans, they were closer to Nayendra than the people, and as shamans with Guides, closer than I. I came back from herb gathering one evening to find Dariya running to meet me, her face stricken. It was more emotion than she'd shown in days.

"What is it?"

"It's Grandmother Veriya," she said. "She hasn't woken up."

"Since this morning?" I had gone out before daybreak, before any of the others were up. Dariya nodded. I went to Grandmother Veriya's hut, which she had to herself now that Grandmother Iskar was gone, and knelt by her pallet. Grandfather Taiyendar and Eslin moved aside for me. Grandmother Veriya was breathing shallowly, and her skin was dry and cold despite the three furs that covered her. There was no fever, no indication of sickness. I felt for her heartbeat; it was weak but steady, with no hint of arrhythmia. I was baffled, and said so.

"An extra day's rest won't hurt her," Grandfather Taiyendar said.

"You think she will wake up tomorrow?" I asked, but he didn't reply.

She did not wake up the next day, and Eslin and I prepared thin broths and devised a method of getting them into her using thin, absorbent cloth as a wick. It seemed to work. It was well we had had the chance to discuss her condition and find these ways to keep her going, because the following day two children came from Eslin's village to say their father wouldn't wake up. Eslin went out to help them, taking some of the cloths with her, and returned to say it was the same thing. He slept, unwaking, unmoving but unhurt in any way.

"I left the children and their mother with instructions," she said, and sighed.

"I think we had better prepare more cloths," said Carrack.

Over the next week, more of the villagers succumbed, from all four villages. Worse, Grandfather Taiyendar and Carrack also slept. Dariya, Fionn, Eslin and I spent our days tending our colleagues and travelling to and from the villages to see the latest casualty. We didn't have the time or energy to discuss the issue, but I knew the others were spending what time they could spare in Nayendra, asking their Guides, over and over again, what the problem was. What could they do?

Without a Guide, there was little I could do in Nayendra that the others could not do better, so I occupied myself with studying the illness, if it was an illness. There are three sources of sickness; the body, the mind and the spirit. They are all interconnected, of course, so an illness of the body may manifest itself as a disorder of the mind, and an illness of the spirit may show as a sickness of the body, but the source is what matters, because it is there that healing must begin. So, although I suspected all along what I would find, I studied the body first. Those who were afflicted had nothing wrong with them. There was no wound, no sickness, no infection, no fever. I studied them from Nayendra, where infection and disease can show more clearly, and I studied them in this world. And when I found nothing in any of the villagers, nor on Grandfather Taiyendar, Grandmother Veriya, Carrack and Eslin - for she too had succumbed by then - I focussed on the mind. It is hard to study a mind when a person is sleeping, so I talked to the villagers who were still awake, and made notes, so that when someone slept and would not wake I could go back and look at their conversations. Aside from the lingering sorrow that lay on all our hearts, there was nothing unusual in their responses and nothing that singled out those who slept from those who woke.

On the ninth day since Grandmother Veriya had slept, it was Dariya who wouldn't wake. Her face was lined with exhaustion, so that at first I hoped it was that she was simply too tired, but at the end of the day I had to admit it was the same. It frightened me. There were too many people now for Fionn and myself to care for even without our need to tend the other shamans.

"We must ask for help," Fionn said. His voice was hoarse. I nodded.

Two people came from each village to help us, after Fionn and I had trekked out and explained our need. On the long, slow way over I had pondered the things I had learned and what they meant. If there was nothing wrong with mind or body, and if the shamans, so much closer to Nayendra than the villagers, were so affected, it must be an illness of the spirit. And yet, there was nothing wrong with the sleeping people in the spirit world, at least, not from what I could see on my brief visits. I had spent most of my time with the sleeping people in the real world, and left Nayendra to my colleagues, being better equipped for it than I was. Now they were all sleeping, save for Fionn, perhaps it was my turn. I knew that might leave me sleeping too, but I couldn't see where else to go. I told Fionn, and he didn't argue as I thought he would. Perhaps he was tired himself, or perhaps he just didn't want to spend any more time in the spirit world, frustrated and weary with looking for something he couldn't find. He would stay and tend to the sleeping, he said. And so I sat in our hut, closed my eyes and entered Nayendra.

As always, it was beautiful. I have never stopped wondering at the spirit world. It can be a dangerous glamour, but right then it was a balm to my spirit. I couldn't see the shadow Dariya spoke of, and the world seemed fresh and bright. Bees buzzed past my eyes and turned, as I watched them, into butterflies, then wisped away into the wind. The huts of the shaman circle were brown blurs in the landscape, and I could see my colleagues sleeping in them, Fionn's bright spirit and the fainter glows of the villagers who helped him. I turned away from the circle and stepped out into the ghosts of the trees that had once grown here. What was I looking for?

What was I always looking for? My Guide. Why would they come now, if they had not before? And how could they help, anyway? Nobody else's had. I folded the old ache over and put it aside, but I held onto the idea. Someone else's Guide. Were they here? Could I speak to them? Or were they ill too? I looked around for Carrack's ferret and scanned the sky for Dariya's eagle, but there was nothing.

"You won't find them," said a voice from my feet. Horrified, I jumped back. Had I finally managed to step on something?

It was a small white rabbit, hard to see against the snow. She looked up at me, and somehow I recognised her.

"Grandmother Iskar?" My voice squeaked.

"In a manner of speaking," the rabbit said. "I was her Guide."

I sat down, and the Nayendran snow started soaking through my clothes, as cold as snow in the real world. I ignored it.

"You were Grandmother Iskar's Guide?"

"Didn't I just say so?"

"But you can talk to me?"

"I can talk to whoever I wish, boy," she said, and there was that acerbic tone which I remembered so well.

"I didn't know..."

"There's a lot you don't know. Never mind."

A thought was growing in my chest, a hope so bright it was nearly painful. I bent forward.

"Are you - are you going to be my Guide?"

The rabbit laughed, which sounds like a sneeze when it comes from a rabbit. I ducked my head and looked away, embarrassed.

"I'm sorry, boy," she said. "It was a fair question. But no, it wouldn't be good for me to Guide another from the same world so soon."

"Another from the same world?"

"Did you think there were only two worlds?"

I gaped at her. That was the basis of our magic, the twin worlds, the power gained from one world applied to the other. The rabbit waggled her head at me.

"Nayendra is a hub," she said, "and many worlds connect. We who form here can choose who we Guide, but it is a bad idea to become too entangled with any one world. We might not be able to go anywhere else, after. I will choose another shaman in due time, but not from your world."

I was silent for a moment, trying to get my head around what she was implying. Lots of worlds all twinned to Nayendra? Lots of spirits all willing to Guide? What did they get out of it? Would she tell me?

"Why do you Guide us?" I asked, the need with which I'd come to Nayendra forgotten. The rabbit cocked her head at me.

"Very few ever ask that," she said. "Why do you think?"

I couldn't give an answer. The spirit world just was, it was there, and sometimes there were Guides. We shamans didn't generally ask these questions. Perhaps we should have. But if the spirits had the choice of guiding, then...

"Is it... is there something you get from us? Some benefit?" I ventured. The rabbit hopped closer, and I thought I saw approval in her dark eyes.

"Close enough," she said. "From you, we have permanence. In Nayendra, everything is prone to change. Here, the land is stable because it is linked to your world. Elsewhere, it is linked to other worlds. But we have no such link, unless we make one. So we make the link, and you give us the gift of a past and a future, time and thought, presence and mindfulness."

I didn't really understand what she said back then, but I stored her words away to ponder later, and returned to the matter at hand. She might not be my Guide, but she was a Guide, and she was here.

"I've come about the sickness," I said. "Everyone is sleeping. Dariya said she saw a shadow on the land."

"The Hot One is stirring," the rabbit said. I blinked.

"The Hot One?"

"It is not only humans who have spirits. Long ago, in the dawn of your world, one of us fell asleep in the shadow of a mountain, and in his sleep he dreamed himself into the mountain. Now he stirs, and Nayendra shudders."

"And so we are affected?"

"Through your link with the land and with Nayendra. Yes."

"What can I do about it?"

The rabbit abruptly turned her back on me.

"Wait!" I called. "Don't go!"

She looked back once over her shoulder, her dark eyes unreadable. That odd resemblance to Grandmother Iskar wasn't there any more. I watched her hop away, and vanish into the snow.

When I returned to my body, there was a child shifting uneasily by the door to the hut, peeking in from time to time. When she saw I was awake, she startled back and then came in hesitantly.

"Shaman," she said. I nodded. My throat was so dry I couldn't speak, which often happens to me when I come back from Nayendra. I reached for the water I'd left by the bed, and knocked the cup over.

"The other one, he's asleep too," the child said, ignoring the spillage. I clambered to my feet, feeling the pins and needles start up in my right leg. I stumbled. The girl looked up at me, and pointed to the fire pit, then scurried out of the door.

When I lurched over to the fire pit, the tingling in my leg receding as the muscles woke up again, I saw Fionn slumped over one of the seating logs, his hands blue with cold against the dirt. I checked his pulse and his breathing; the same as the others. I heaved him up and carried him back to his bed, then turned to the child, who had accompanied me. In the light, I recognised her as Inga, from Carrack's village, daughter of Aethela, who had come to help.

"Inga, who is in charge here?"

Her eyes widened as she stared at me.

"Apart from me, I mean." I didn't feel like I was in charge at all. How much longer did I have before I slept too?

Inga gestured to her mother, who was bringing a bucket out from Carrack's hut. I went over to her.

"Aethela, thank you for helping us."

"Is Fionn sleeping too?" she asked, and I nodded.

"I have to go on a journey," I said. "Will you be all right to stay here, and look after the others?"

Aethela paused, looking around the circle. I could see her thinking, considering what might happen, if people came from the villages to ask for help, if her helpers went to sleep themselves. She was a sturdy, practical woman. After a few minutes, she looked back at me, and nodded assent.

"We will look after them," she said. "Are you going on a spirit journey?"

I hadn't thought of it that way. Staying here seemed pointless, and I knew the shadow came from the North, and I knew there was a mountain involved, so it seemed to me that going North to find the mountain made sense. Trying to explain it to anyone, Fionn included, would have been impossible.

"Yes," I said. "Something like that."

She nodded and turned away to deal with the contents of the bucket. I went back to my hut and prepared for my journey. When I left, Inga waved to me, but nobody else was in sight.

I walked for three days, and slept as little as possible, worried that I would also succumb to the sleeping, out in the wilderness with no-one to look after me. It was coming onto winter, so the days were more dark than light anyway, the brief sunlight barely venturing above the horizon. My nights were lit by the waxing moon and the green and blue flickerings of the spirit curtain, fading in and out above me. On the fourth day, when I was further from the villages than I'd ever been, I entered the forest that lurked on our horizon, and two days after that I left its northern edge and saw the mountain.

It wasn't alone, but it did stand out, high among the foothills that surrounded it and further south than its brethren of its mountain range, which stretched north and east. Was it the mountain Grandmother Iskar's Guide had spoken of? With no way to tell, I kept going.

It didn't take me as long as I expected to reach the foothills because, as I approached, I found the snow had melted, revealing grassy ranges spotted with rocks. It was wet, but much easier footing than the snowdrifts. I was at a loss to explain the warming. Perhaps this was something to do with the sleeping? With the spirit inside the mountain?

This close to my destination, I dared not sleep, terrified that I wouldn't wake up. I drove myself on, climbing the mountain in the light of the moon, now huge and full in the sky above me. It was not a hard climb, especially now the snow was gone, and in the quiet hours before the dawn, when the moon had set and only the stars lit my path, I reached the top, a cluster of rocks strewn across a broad plateau, with nothing special to mark it save that there was no higher point. As the late dawn approached, I huddled down among the rocks at one side, not really cold but nervous enough to shiver, and I closed my eyes and entered Nayendra.

The spirit world felt different. There was a tension in the air I'd never felt before, a looming presence which clouded the atmosphere and bore down on me like the tension one feels before a thunderstorm. The air was muggy and thick, hot with apprehension. The glowing, eager light I was so used to had become an oppressive reddish glow. I wondered, for an instant, if I'd come to a different spirit world. But no, how could that be? There might be many real worlds, but there was only one Nayendra, hadn't the rabbit said so?

I was looking out and down, over the climb I had made in the real world. That looked much the same as it had when I had climbed it, but when I turned round everything had changed. The plateau was gone, and instead, four feet from where I crouched among the rocks, was the lip of a huge hole going down into the centre of the mountain. I crept close and looked over. The heat shimmered up at me, as though I'd put my face above the fire pit, and I reeled back blinking, feeling my face redden with the sudden blaze. Carefully I peered back down.

The hole did not go that deep, or if it did, I couldn't see the bottom. About ten feet below me was a rocky ledge which circled the edge of the hole, and within it was fire. Blazing white, glaring red, gleaming gold, roiling in constant motion. Tongues of flame licked up and retreated, never coming close enough to me to be a threat, but I recoiled from them anyway. Was the placid mountain on which my physical body rested like this underneath? The question I hadn't asked the rabbit came to me now. What happens, in the physical world, if a mountain stirs?

Grandmother Iskar's Guide had said a spirit was sleeping and stirring within the mountain. I couldn't see a spirit, but I was willing to believe one was in there. Could I persuade it to go back to sleep? How? Carrack was the musician and storyteller, renowned for being able to sing even the most stubborn child to sleep. I couldn't hold a tune in a bucket, and I didn't know if spirits liked music anyway. Talking to it would wake it up, not put it to sleep.

As I thought, the fire turned and I saw the spirit for the first time, looping up to the top of the fiery glow. It had a long, lithe body, at least five feet in length, turning in the flames, small legs which stuck out from its sides, and a broad head with eyes that bulged up a bit. In shape, it resembled a salamander. The rare salamanders of the cold north froze every winter and returned to life in the summer, miraculously preserved, and we treasured them for this feat. This creature would never need to freeze, if it bore its own heat with it. Or was it simply living in the fire of the mountain? Its body was patterned in black and fiery red-gold, in irregular blotches along its side and down to the tip of its long tail, and in this it was very different from the dull browny-green salamanders I knew. It looked like it was already awake. If I couldn't persuade it to go back to sleep, what else could I do?

As I stared into the roiling fire and the turning, twisting body of the spirit within, a small thought stirred in my mind. Was I coming at this from the wrong direction?

Nobody ever told me how they had formed a bond with their Guides, although I had begged both Fionn and Dariya. We shamans share much of our lives, but that is private. As novices, before we had ever entered Nayendra, we'd memorised the words to offer a Guide, and Grandfather Taiyendar, who'd taught us all, had said we would know when to say them. The only thing Dariya had ever told me about her eagle was that Grandfather Taiyendar had been right. She had known when to say the words. I had always assumed that, because I had never had that mystical knowledge, I had never found my Guide.

However, if Grandmother Iskar's Guide was to be believed, Guides without a shaman - spirits - lacked mindfulness and presence. And understanding? Without a shaman, was a spirit anything more than a loose wisp of Nayendra? The butterflies I saw, which occasionally changed shape mid flight and became dragonflies or tiny birds, were they in need of a shaman and simply too mindless to recognise one? How many people had Grandmother Iskar's rabbit Guided before she learned personality, to speak and think for herself? How had the first bond been formed? Some time over the past nine years, if I had reached out to the butterflies, if I had said the words, would I have found a Guide?

This wasn't a butterfly. But if I understood Grandmother Iskar's Guide, it was made of the same stuff as any other spirit. Perhaps its unformed desires were the same.

I didn't know. I had no surety. But the fiery thing was still a spirit, and if it desired mindfulness, it wasn't going to get much from the mountain. If it left the mountain, would Nayendra be at peace again? And if Nayendra was at peace, would our people wake up?

I stood up and came as close to the edge as I dared. The heat beat up at me and the fire crackled and leaped, tens of feet below. Unwillingly, I realised there was a way down to that circling ledge. I stripped off my outer layers and clambered down, slipping the last few feet to land with a jarring thump. The fire flickered closer. I swallowed, feeling its heat on my body, and took off more layers. Leaving them piled by the cliff, I walked closer until I couldn't bear the heat any more, then I closed my eyes and recited the words I had been taught eleven years ago.

At the end of the words, there was silence and sudden, intense cold. My exposed skin prickled and my teeth chattered. I felt my extremities go numb. I opened my eyes to see the fire salamander's head two inches from my face, staring at me with its black eyes. There was nothing friendly in that gaze, nothing that might predispose me to want it as a Guide. It seemed to me that it was a challenge. I fought back distaste and fear and concentrated on wanting; I wanted it. For eleven years I had longed for a Guide. For nine years, I had been trying to find one. Although it made my toes curl, I gave the salamander my despair on the long nights when I lay awake and thought I would never be a full, proper shaman. I let it have my misery and my feeling of failure, which I'd never really let surface before. I spread out before it my soul-crushing jealousy at the unfairness of the situation, that no matter how hard I tried, nothing had worked. I couldn't blame Dariya or Fionn. But I had envied them, and how intensely had I done that. I told it, without words, about the nights I had planned to leave, to go into the wilderness and not live with people at all, not be the half-shaman I felt I was. I could feel tears freezing on my cheeks. It wasn't enough.

I fought past the pain of incompleteness and tried for something positive to lay against all the negative I'd just given it. For all that I dreaded my lack of a Guide, I loved Nayendra and I valued my skills and what I could give to people. I had not gone to live as a hermit. I had not hated Fionn and Dariya for having what I did not. I had chosen to lay aside resentment. I had learned as I could and given as I could, and I wanted the salamander to be my Guide so I could learn more and give more. I told it about the intricate ways of the human body and how they could be manipulated and soothed back into proper function once more. I told it about the herb garden and the fascinating ways different herbs worked in the body and the mind. I had reams of notes recording what happened when people (usually me) smoked or ate different herbs, and how that worked when applied to disease. I told it about how a Guide would help, how I could see so much more clearly if only I had its help, its aid in healing, its vision in seeing the body. And somehow, in all of that, I found I wanted not just a Guide, but the salamander. If it would not be my Guide, I did not want a Guide. The idea of saying that terrified me - over the past nine years I would, honestly, have taken any spirit that offered. But this was not just any spirit. This was the spirit of a mountain, and it wasn't about to choose anyone not wholly committed. It had its grasp on presence - a mountain has a lot of presence, if very little mindfulness - and it wasn't about to give that up for anyone halfhearted. So I steeled myself, held out my hand, numb from the cold, and told the salamander the truth; that if it would not be my Guide then I did not want a Guide.

There was a long pause. I could feel the shivers of the cold running through me, from numb feet to frozen crown. And then the salamander assented, and the mountain roared and trembled, and in the terror of the eruption I scrambled back up the cliff to where I had left my physical body, and turned back to watch the mountain vomit forth its spirit in fire and thunder. Nayendra shuddered, and I felt it shaking through me, but it seemed to me that it was as when a patient turns in fever, just before her temperature comes down and she returns to health. It might take some time, but I hoped that now, the spirit world would return to its normal equilibrium.

When I returned to my body, which was still fully clothed, of course, I felt as though I'd never be warm again. I rubbed my arms through the layers of leather and fur, trying to stimulate the shivering reflex. The warmth of the air was still all around me but I knew that in time it would revert to the cold once more, now that the spirit of the mountain was no longer in its place. Despite the cold, I felt a silly smile creeping over my face. I had a Guide. After so long, and in such need, I had a Guide. I tried to stand up, but my leg cramped and I toppled over on one side, nearly cracking my head against a rock. Massaging my leg, I sat up more cautiously and looked for a safe way down.

By the time I returned one week later, I was less certain of what I'd accomplished. Nayendra was returning to normal, I knew that from my visits, and the presence of my Guide was a wonder every time, if somewhat terrifying. My salamander was hungry for thought, and it drove me to things I had never thought of before, things I didn't know it was possible to think about. What is a human, and why are we different from animals? Are we different from animals? What is Nayendra, and what are the other worlds the rabbit spoke about? Some day I think we shall investigate, but back then the thoughts were running through my head one after the other, and I felt dizzy from the thinking. I worried that I had been wrong in my assumption, that despite the healing I now felt within Nayendra, people would still be sleeping. So instead of going straight back to the shaman's circle, I paused on the outskirts of my village, the furthest north of all four villages, and spied on the people from the shelter of a tree. I saw my father, older now but still tall and straight, and my mother, who I knew had been asleep, and I wobbled on my feet with relief to see her bustling through the village. I checked in Nayendra, and although some people slept, it was a healthy, normal sleep. So it seemed like all was well, and I breathed out in relief, leaning on the tree.

Thus reassured, I carried on the short way to the shaman's circle, and was greeted by Inga, who was standing just outside the circle looking north. She waved to me, then turned to run into the circle. I could hear her high-pitched voice shouting.

"He's here! He's back!"

As I came closer, I saw Fionn and Dariya come out from one of the huts, and from another came Grandmother Veriya and Grandfather Taiyendar, Eslin and Carrack. I found myself smiling so wide my cheeks ached, and I hurried towards them despite my tiredness. Fionn slapped me on the back and Dariya hugged me, and Eslin and Carrack clustered round. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, everyone wanted to know how the sorrow had been lifted. I tried to speak, but my voice croaked.

"Let the shaman have a drink," said another voice from behind me, and I turned to see Aethela, holding a steaming cup. I nodded my thanks to her, unwilling to trust my voice yet. The drink was lemon balm and honey, perfect for a dry throat.

"You've found your Guide," Grandmother Veriya said, looking at me sharply. I nodded again.

"Well done!" said Fionn, slapping me on the back once more, nearly causing me to spill the drink.

"Is everyone well?" I managed. I'd only seen one village, after all.

"Yes," said Eslin. "Everybody has woken up, although we were all quite weak at first. Aethela has been good enough to stay with a few others and has helped look after us while we recovered."

"I think you have learned a lot," Grandfather Taiyendar said. I nodded.

"I have a lot to tell you," I said. "About Nayendra, and other worlds, and about Guides."

"What is your Guide?" Dariya asked, looking curious. I felt a flush of pride, which I tried and failed to squash. I'd imagined saying something like these words so many times before. I took another swallow of the honey and lemon drink and cleared my throat.

"My Guide is a salamander, and the spirit of a mountain." is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis