The first time she saw him it was was raining, a cold drizzle that hung over the mountain and dripped down into the melting snow. He was standing stock-still on a rocky outcrop, staring at her. His features were blurred by rain and distance, but there was something familiar about him. His height, his build. The way he stood with his arms stiff at his sides. The scruffy grey coat. But she didn’t know him. She couldn’t. She knew no one. It should have scared her to see a strange man this far into the mountains, far from the settlements and farms. She might have gone to him if it hadn’t been for the wind, which awoke at that moment and gusted down from the high pass. It brought with it the scent of lichen and darkness and cold, wet stone. She turned and headed into the wind, back up towards the shadowy pass. Back home.
The snow had melted the second time she saw him. She had ventured down the slope as far as the first stand of trees. It was too close to the farms, and she knew she shouldn’t have come. But when he stepped out from between two stunted birches she stood rooted to the spot.
“It is you,” he said. His voice was hoarse.
She shook her head and managed to whisper, “I don’t know you.”
“You do. But you’ve forgotten.”
Had she? She couldn’t think clearly, not with the spring sun on her face and the cold wintry air of the mountain at her back.
“Look at me,” he said.
She glanced up, and saw a face framed by greying hair. A stubbly beard, a crooked nose, lines around the eyes. His eyes were grey like the mountain, but not as cold, and they made her feel like the ground under her feet was shifting. She had to look away. The birch trees, that was what she had come here for. They were just budding. The new leaves were the brightest green she had every seen.
“I don’t know you,” she said. Before he could reply, she turned away and ran back up the slope.
She saw him again at midsummer. This was her favourite time, when the sun hung low on the northwestern horizon and the night was still and clear and bathed in golden light. Tiny pink flowers grew in the cracks of the weathered stones. She hopped from rock to rock, humming to herself and sending clouds of little midges swarming through the air. From the summer farms that dotted the lower slopes came the faint noises of sheep and cattle.
And suddenly he was there again, just by the little brook that murmured over the stones. His hair was thinner and greyer and his face more lined than when she had last seen him.
“Don’t go,” he said. He held his hands in front of him as if approaching a frightened animal.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“Neither should you.”
“But this is my home.”
His face grew slack and empty at those words.
“What can you remember?” he said. “Can you remember anything at all?”
All her memories were of the mountain. The mountain was her home. The rocky slopes that saw so little sunlight and the deep echoing caverns. But she couldn’t say that to this man whose lined face was so strangely familiar, and whose voice sometimes lingered in her mind when she woke from dreams that she couldn’t remember.
“I don’t know you,” she said. She fled, again.
Autumn came early to the mountains. On the lower slopes, the brook ran yellow with fallen birch leaves. Further up there were boggy plateaus, where the white heads of cottonsedge nodded on their slender stalks. She was out picking cloudberries when she saw him again.
“Why do keep coming back?” she said.
“How can I stay away?”
The wind whistled around the rocks and tugged at her hair. Run, it whispered to her. Turn and run and never look back. The words were heavy and cold, with the weight of the mountain behind them.
“You have three brothers,” he said. “And a sister. She’s only seven.”
“I have no family,” she said. She clutched the basket of cloudberries to her chest. Come back, come back inside the mountain. The bog smelt of autumn and berries and slowly decaying plants. The sky above her was impossibly vast, an endless vault of deep blue. If she wasn’t careful she would fall into it and be lost forever. Come back, the mountain is waiting. She longed suddenly for the deep caverns and their reassuring darkness.
“Your name,” he shouted after her as she ran. “Your name is -”
But the wind took his words and swept them away.
The last time she saw him it was midwinter. There was little daylight. Just before noon the sun would rise above the horizon, but its feeble rays carried little warmth. When the sun set, the golden light faded away to blue. But darkness never truly fell. The moon and the stars shone above her, and below her the snow glittered where it lay, thick and heavy on the slopes. She had gone outside to watch the northern lights dance in the frosty sky, and saw him almost immediately. His breath was a pale ghost in the air and his cheeks were blue with cold.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“Neither should you.”
She took a few steps towards him. Her snow shoes kept her from sinking into the deep, powdery snow.
“Please come back,” he whispered. He held out his hand. His mitten was white and black, knitted with a pattern that she had never seen before and was as familiar to her as the ridges of the mountain.
Come inside, the wind breathed in the air. Come into the mountain, this is your home, these are your halls. Above them, the northern lights shimmered in great curtains of green. Very faintly, she heard the lights singing. It was a haunting song, full of loss, but the wind blew it away.
“I have to go,” she said. Why were there tears on her face? She brushed them away and hurried back to the mountain, to the secret entrance to the underground caverns.
The mountain king was waiting in the hall. He wore a silver crown that gleamed dully in the light of the many torches on the walls.
“You have been outside,” he said, when she sat down beside him.
“I saw the northern lights.”
“And a man.”
She didn’t reply. He knew. He always knew.
He took a great flask of shimmering liquid and poured some into a drinking horn bound with red gold. It smelt of summer and cloudberries and birch sap and cold stone.
“Drink this,” he said, handing her the horn. “All will be well.”
The mountain king waited while she drank forgetfulness for the second time, and all memories of her old life and of her father were lost again.
“Well?” he said.
“I’ll live, and I’ll die, here in the mountain.”