The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

 

In the high lands, people spend words as if they were golden coins. But the custom is strong there: strangers who ask for hospitality must be granted it, though you have a blood feud against them and their clan or kind.

The woman—little more than a girl she was, while her husband’s beard was grey and white, so I wondered if she was his daughter for a moment, but no: there was but one bed, scarcely big enough for two—the woman went outside, into the sheep pen that adjoined the house, and returned with oatcakes and a dried ham she must have hidden there, which she sliced thin, and placed on a wooden trencher before the man.

Calum poured the man whisky, and said, “We seek the Misty Isle. Do you know if it is there?”

The man looked at us. The winds are bitter in the high lands, and they would whip the words from a man’s lips. He pursed his mouth, then he said, “Aye. I saw it from the peak this morning. It’s there. I cannot say if it will be there tomorrow.”

We slept on the hard-earth floor of that cottage. The fire went out, and there was no warmth from the hearth. The man and his woman slept in their bed, behind the curtain. He had his way with her, beneath the sheepskin that covered that bed, and before he did that, he beat her for feeding us and for letting us in. I heard them, and could not stop hearing them, and sleep was hard in the finding that night.

I have slept in the homes of the poor, and I have slept in palaces, and I have slept beneath the stars, and would have told you before that night that all places were one to me. But I woke before first light, convinced we had to be gone from that place, but not knowing why, and I woke Calum by putting a finger to his lips, and silently we left that croft on the mountainside without saying our farewells, and I have never been more pleased to be gone from anywhere.

We were a mile from the place when I said, “The island. You asked if it would be there. Surely, an island is there, or it is not there.”

Calum hesitated. He seemed to be weighing his words, and then he said, “The Misty Isle is not as other places. And the mist that surrounds it is not like other mists.”

We walked down a path worn by hundreds of years of sheep and deer and few enough men.

He said, “They also call it the Winged Isle. Some say it is because the island, if seen from above, would look like butterfly wings. And I do not know the truth of it.” Then, “ ‘And what is truth?’ said jesting Pilate.”

It is harder coming down than it is going up.

I thought about it. “Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take.”

Calum MacInnes looked down at me and said nothing. Then, “You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one only, and that way is treacherous and hard, and if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”

We crested the ridge, and we looked down to the coast. I could see villages below, beside the water. And I could see high black mountains before me, on the other side of the sea, coming out of the mist.

Calum said, “There’s your cave. In those mountains.”

The bones of the earth I thought, seeing them. And then I became uncomfortable, thinking of bones, and to distract myself, I said, “And how many times is it you have been there?”

“Only once.” He hesitated. “I searched for it all my sixteenth year, for I had heard the legends, and I believed if I sought I should find. I was seventeen when I reached it, and came back with all the gold coins I could carry.”

“And were you not frightened of the curse?”

“When I was young, I was afraid of nothing.”

“What did you do with your gold?”

“A portion I buried and I alone know where. The rest I used as brideprice for the woman I loved, and I built a fine house with it.”

He stopped as if he had already said too much.

There was no ferryman at the jetty. Only a small boat, hardly big enough for three full-sized men, tied to a tree trunk on the shore, twisted and half dead, and a bell beside it.

I sounded the bell, and soon enough a fat man came down the shore. He said to Calum, “It will cost you a shilling for the ferry, and your boy, three pennies.”

I stood tall. I am not as big as other men are, but I have as much pride as any of them. “I am also a man,” I said. “I’ll pay your shilling.”

The ferryman looked me up and down, then he scratched his beard. “I beg your pardon. My eyes are not what they once were. I shall take you to the island.”

I handed him a shilling. He weighed it in his hand, “That’s ninepence you did not cheat me out of. Nine pennies are a lot of money in this dark age.” The water was the colour of slate, although the sky was blue, and whitecaps chased one another across the water’s surface. He untied the boat and hauled it, rattling, down the shingle to the water. We waded out into the cold water, and clambered inside.

The splash of oars on seawater, and the boat propelled forward in easy movements. I sat closest to the ferryman. I said, “Ninepence. It is good wages. But I have heard of a cave in the mountains on the Misty Isle, filled with gold coins, the treasure of the ancients.”

He shook his head dismissively.

Calum was staring at me, lips pressed together so hard they were white. I ignored him and asked the man again, “A cave filled with golden coins, a gift from the Norsemen or the Southerners or from those who they say were here long before any of us: those who fled into the West as the people came.”

“Heard of it,” said the ferryman. “Heard also of the curse of it. I reckon that the one can take care of the other.” He spat into the sea. Then he said, “You’re an honest man, dwarf. I see it in your face. Do not seek this cave. No good can come of it.”

“I am sure you are right,” I told him, without guile.

“I am certain I am,” he said. “For not every day is it that I take a reaver and a little dwarfy man to the Misty Isle.” Then he said, “In this part of the world, it is not considered lucky to talk about those who went to the West.”

We rode the rest of the boat journey in silence, though the sea became choppier, and the waves splashed into the side of the boat, such that I held on with both hands for fear of being swept away.

And after what seemed like half a lifetime the boat was tied to a long jetty of black stones. We walked the jetty as the waves crashed around us, the salt spray kissing our faces. There was a humpbacked man at the landing selling oatcakes and plums dried until they were almost stones. I gave him a penny and filled my jerkin pockets with them.

We walked on into the Misty Isle.

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

It is a day from that jetty until you reach the black mountains.

Calum MacInnes looked at me, half his size or less, and he set off at a loping stride, as if challenging me to keep up. His legs propelled him across the ground, which was wet, and all ferns and heather.

Above us, low clouds were scudding, grey and white and black, hiding each other and revealing and hiding again.

I let him get ahead of me, let him press on into the rain, until he was swallowed by the wet, grey haze. Then, and only then, I ran.

This is one of the secret things of me, the things I have not revealed to any person, save to Morag, my wife, and Johnnie and James, my sons, and Flora, my daughter (may the Shadows rest her poor soul): I can run, and I can run well, and, if I need to I can run faster and longer and more sure-footedly than any full-sized man; and it was like this that I ran then, through the mist and the rain, taking to the high ground and the blackrock ridges, yet keeping below the skyline.

He was ahead of me, but I spied him soon, and I ran on and I ran past him, on the high ground with the brow of the hill between us. Below us was a stream. I can run for days without stopping. That is the first of my three secrets, and one secret I have revealed to no man.

We had discussed already where we would camp that first night on the Misty Isle, and Calum had told me that we would spend the night beneath the rock that is called Man and Dog, for it is said that it looks like an old man with his dog by his side, and I reached it late in the afternoon. There was a shelter beneath the rock, which was protected and dry, and some of those who had been before us had left firewood behind, sticks and twigs and branches. I made a fire and dried myself in front of it and took the chill from my bones. The woodsmoke blew out across the heather.

It was dark when Calum loped into the shelter and looked at me as if he had not expected to see me that side of midnight. I said, “What took you so long, Calum MacInnes?”

He said nothing, only stared at me. I said, “There is trout, boiled in mountain water, and a fire to warm your bones.”

He nodded. We ate the trout, drank whisky to warm ourselves. There was a mound of heather and of ferns, dried and brown, piled high in the rear of the shelter, and we slept upon that, wrapped tight in our damp cloaks.

I woke in the night. There was cold steel against my throat—the flat of the blade, not the edge. I said, “And why would you ever kill me in the night, Calum MacInnes? For our way is long, and our journey is not yet over.”

He said, “I do not trust you, dwarf.”

“It is not me you must trust,” I told him, “but those that I serve. And if you left with me but return without me, there are those who will know the name of Calum MacInnes, and cause it to be spoken in the shadows.”

The cold blade remained at my throat. He said, “How did you get ahead of me?”

“And here was I, repaying ill with good, for I made you food and a fire. I am a hard man to lose, Calum MacInnes, and it ill becomes a guide to do as you did today. Now, take your dirk from my throat and let me sleep.”

He said nothing, but after a few moments, the blade was removed. I forced myself neither to sigh nor to breathe, hoping he could not hear my heart pounding in my chest; and I slept no more that night.

For breakfast, I made porridge, and threw in some dried plums to soften them.

The mountains were black and grey against the white of the sky. We saw eagles, huge and ragged of wing, circling above us. Calum set a sober pace and I walked beside him, taking two steps for every one of his.

“How long?” I asked him.

“A day. Perhaps two. It depends upon the weather. If the clouds come down then two days, or even three . . .”

The clouds came down at noon and the world was blanketed by a mist that was worse than rain: droplets of water hung in the air, soaked our clothes and our skin; the rocks we walked upon became treacherous and Calum and I slowed in our ascent, stepped carefully. We were walking up the mountain, not climbing, up goat paths and craggy sharp ways. The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed and clambered and clung, we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and even in the mist, Calum knew where he was going, and I followed him.

He paused at a waterfall that splashed across our path, thick as the trunk of an oak. He took the thin rope from his shoulders, wrapped it about a rock.

“This was not here before,” he told me. “I’ll go first.” He tied one end of the rope about his waist and edged out along the path, into the falling water, pressing his body against the wet rock face, edging slowly, intently through the sheet of water.

I was scared for him, scared for both of us: holding my breath as he passed, only breathing when he was on the other side of the waterfall. He tested the rope, pulled on it, motioned me to follow him, when a rock gave way beneath his foot, and he slipped on the wet rock, and fell into the abyss.