The Mists of Galahind
By Gray Winsler
Art by Derek Knierim
Published Issue 108, December 2022
“Your husband’s a fool.” His mother-in-law’s words rang endlessly in his ears the further he climbed up Galahind. Cursed woman, putting doubt in my mind. I have no other choice, he reminded himself as he pushed upward.
The air grew colder around him with each step up the mountain. The moss-covered trees that once lined his path had starved and withered. They were replaced by jagged boulders that towered over him, casting long shadows over his path. From their crevices crept a chilled mist that enshrouded his feet.
Hans peered down the mountain. He hoped to catch one last glimpse of Treska, his home. But it had long faded from view. In the first weeks of his journey he could look back at his little village in the valley and imagine his boys, Erich and Werner, giggling as they chased each other around the fire. That warmth seemed so far away now.
The icy mists churned around his feet. He sensed a storm was stirring. Exhausted, Hans decided to take shelter inside a wide crevice of reddened stone. He sat and took the wooden horse Erich carved for him from his pocket. A parting gift. He held it close it close to his heart as wind whipped at the rocks beside him.
“Are you coming back, papa?” Erich had asked. “Of course,” Hans replied. “But, Oma says no one comes back from the forbidden mountain.” Hans bit his tongue. “That’s only because she’s afraid, Erich. Your grandfather was lost to Galahind. She fears the same for me. But we must never let fear guide our actions, remember?” Erich answered, “Of course, papa. But … But what if something happens to you? Baba says— ” Hans pulled his son close to him, “I’m coming back, Erich. I promise.” He would give anything to be back with his boys now. But he knew he could not return empty-handed.
It was then he heard something — a melody drifting to his ears from deeper amidst the rocks. It warmed him to hear another’s voice, having grown so used to only the hiss of wind. He fixed his eyes upon the crevice as the singing grew louder, and was surprised when a woman emerged from the shadows.
Her hair was as rosy as the rocks she came from and fell down in waves over her bare breasts. She walked toward him, a warm smile on her face that said to Hans, everything is going to be all right. He could not understand the words she sang, but he felt their serenity all the same. He was still, entranced as she approached him. She reached out her hand to caress his cheek, but the chill of her fingers snapped Hans from his daze. He recoiled, falling from the rock he’d sat on and scrambling back to his feet.
“What’s wrong?” She asked, her voice softer than a cloud.
“Stay away,” he stammered. He’d heard stories of what he might face upon this mountain, of the witch who haunted its mists. She stepped toward him and he stepped back.
Her eyes sharpened then, the corners of her lips twisting into a smile as icy as the air around them. “You’d be surprised how many men succumb to the slightest of temptations.” She said. “So tell me, traveller, why is it you’ve come to my mountain?” She sauntered around him, studying every inch. Hans felt bare before her, like she could see parts of him even he was unaware.
“I’ve come to give my family the life they deserve.” He said.
“Is that the truth of your heart, or the truth you think I wish to hear?” She asked, placing her hand upon his chest. “Hmm, yes, family I feel … But something else …” She chuckled. “Ahh yes, there it is. The same desire dozens before you have held. The longing for a greatness that has eluded you all your life, isn’t that right?”
Hans clenched his jaw, determined not to let this woman inside his head.
“Always looked down upon, always pitied by those with more brains, more strength, more coin than you.”
“Enough!” Hans yelled.
“Or what?” She giggled, before disappearing into the mists.
Hans’ blood was hot. He stormed from the rocks and continued his trek up Galahind. He knew the promise that lay at its peak, and he knew why he’d come — no matter what the witch said. His boys would not have the life he had, begging for scraps of bread from those who thought themselves better. No, he would give them a life they could be proud of.
Conviction carried Hans up, up, up — but for how long? Time eluded him. The cycle of days and nights that guides our minds on this temporal journey vanished upon Galahind. There was now only mists and shadow. Had it been days? Weeks? Months upon the mountain? He could not be sure. He fought to quicken his pace, but the same stones seemed to haunt his path again and again. Was he even ascending at all?
He slept in fits and starts, curled against frozen stone. But he found no rest, dreaming always of the mountain. He tried to picture his family, but they felt so far from here, as if his memories could not make the journey with him. He reached for Erich’s wooden horse in his pocket, but only loose threads met his fingers. Panic gripped him as he searched every inch of his clothing, hands fumbling desperately for the carving.
“Looking for this?” The witch’s voice called from the mist. Hans turned to find her holding out the horse. Hans snatched it from her hands, and then turned to carry on up the mountain.
“Do you wish to hear news of your family?” She called after him.
He hesitated, “You know nothing of my family.”
“My memory holds true even in these mists, traveller. Whereas yours seems to fade with every passing step. Can you even remember your wife’s name?”
“Of course.” Hans said, but as he spoke he knew it was not true. Her name eluded him, sat beyond his reach. He whipped around to face the woman. “What games do you play, witch?”
She smiled. “I merely wish to know what it is that truly motivates you, Hans.”
“I’ve told you already.”
“Ah yes, but if you care so deeply about your family, then why are you not with them now? How long are you willing to sacrifice upon my mountain?”
“As long as it takes.”
“Good to know.” The mists reclaimed her.
These words haunted Hans’ mind as he carried on up Galahind. Starvation was beginning to take its toll. His legs had shrunk, little more than wobbly twigs now. His fingers were slender and sinewy, dotted with purple spots that warned of frostbite. The mountain offered no nourishment.
It only took from him, stealing even those memories which could bring a modicum of comfort in such times. His mind was clouded by the mists. The more he tried to think of his family, the more they seemed to fade from view. If not for Erich’s horse, which he now clutched at all times, he feared he may forget them completely.
“Tell me, traveller,” said the witch, “will it be worth it?”
“Leave me be,” Hans said, more exhausted than angry.
“All this time, away from those you love most … Will it be worth it?”
“Just go away, please,” her words like poison in his ears.
“As you wish, traveller.”
Hans picked himself up and carried on.
Up, up, up the mountain.
Forever climbing, forever cold.
Why was he here? He could no longer be sure.
Was his family real? Or simply a conjuring of the mists?
But then, upon the horizon, Hans spotted a dull sheen of gold protruding from the shrouds of white. His paced quickened. He leapt up through the fog, fueled by a sudden hope. It was not long before he came upon a modest temple with a golden dome, held up by an array of marble pillars. He climbed their steps and stood inside the dome, seeing a hole in its center.
Inching toward it he peered into the hole. His eyes could not decipher what he saw, a mosaic of infinite geometries coalescing as a kaleidoscope, falling in upon each other again and again and again. The center of the universe, he thought.
“You must make a sacrifice, traveller,” said the witch.
“What have I to give?”
She looked to his hand, which still clutched Erich’s horse.
“It’s all I have,” he muttered.
“All you have is precisely what is required, traveller.”
Hans ran his fingers over the horse, studying every inch of it, marking every notch made by his boy’s blade. He was terrified to let go, terrified of what else may slip from his grasp. But after all this time … It couldn’t all be for nothing.
“Go on then,” said the witch.
Hans tossed the horse into the abyss. For a moment, there was nothing. Only a complete stillness atop the mountain. And then the witch spoke.
“It seems the gods are pleased with your sacrifice. Go home now. Return to your family. Your reward will find you there.”
Hans did not have the strength to argue, no matter how much he did not trust the witch. He turned and started back down the mountain, head hanging low, fearful of what this journey had cost him. His only reprieve was that the mists seemed to part for him now, and it was not long before the evergreens returned to his side and he could see his village of Treska in the valley below.
When he came upon his farm there was young man in the field, perhaps just old enough to marry. The man greeted Hans stiffly, hand wrapped tightly around a pitch fork.
“Why are you here?” the man asked.
“I could ask the same of you,” said Hans. “This is my farm.”
The man snorted. “Be on your way, fool.”
But Hans saw the copper speckles in his eyes, the tiny crook in his nose and realization struck him with a weight he could hardly bear.
“Erich?” he asked.
The man’s eyes squinted with confusion. “Yes?”
Hans, overtaken with joy, leapt to embrace his boy.
But Erich pushed him away, bewildered.
“Erich, don’t you see? It’s me. It’s Papa.”
He shook his head. “My father died a long time ago.”
Erich turned and started off back toward their cottage, leaving Hans standing amidst a field of withered hay, alone.
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
Derek Knierim is a concept artist based in the Denver area. He makes comic books, and loves to draw. He wants to work in the video game / movie industry creating more characters and worlds. See more of his work on his site and on Instagram.
Check out Gray’s November short story, Discontinued, and Derek’s last Birdy install, Planet A Landscape, the Front Cover for Issue 102, or head to our Explore section to see more work by these two creatives.