“Where I come from, people do not go where there are not human footprints.” The newcomer talked softly, but with sternness and authority, slowly taking a sip from his stein of lager as he spoke.
The barkeep was listening, but was not very impressed. “A young man has so much to learn. The whole world is greater than the sum of its individual parts.”
“Indeed.” Gunter cherished the richness of his drink; it was a taste he had never experienced before. “But in my village, it has always been said, that those who seek out the unknown, do not convert it to the known. They die trying. Whatever else is out there, it can remain in our imaginations, for whatever we envision is usually better than what we see.”
“Young lad, that won’t carry you far here in Starkes Herz.” The barkeep gestured at the colorful array of characters that filled the busy and lively tavern. “In this town, we have nary a side of the mountain that we haven’t explored yet. And the mementos from our expeditions make it more than worthwhile.”
“Certainly.” Gunter already finished his lager, and motioned for another. “I am here now. The trek from Eisinsel was quite a bother, and to someone with no experience in the outer world, quite a fright. Everyone told me I should not go. But as you said, opportunity is abundant here in Starkes Herz.”
“Did you mention you come from Eisinsel?” The patron seated next to Gunter guffawed. “Hey Roper, get a load of this! This chap here is from Eisinsel! I never seen someone from there! It’s like a mystical creature is sitting right here!”
“What’s that Johannes?” A scruffy older man walked up to the bar. “You said, ‘Eisinsel’? Never heard of that place!”
“Your ignorance of it is more than understandable.” Johannes turned back to Gunter. “Tell the bloke here about your hometown, lad.”
“Eisinsel doesn’t have more than a few hundred people living within its walls,” Gunter lectured, “and believe me, those walls are tough to scale, on either side. It’s an area on the side of the mountain that’s seen its share of horrors and tragedies. Landslides, avalanches, frozen spells, toothy beasts of terror – so it’s well guarded. Whatever commerce the town has is contained entirely within the community. Other than a few brave woodsmen who make their trade in timber from the nearby forest, leaving the village is quite rare.”
“Oy! They got everyone locked in a prison up there!” Roper was incredulous. “They tell you they’re keeping you safe, but what’s safety if the faces and walls are all the same every day?”
“Oh it’s not a prison. No one is forced to remain there who doesn’t wish to stay. But to my kinfolk, venturing outside is foolhardy when all of their needs and wants are provided for in the community. And we have our spiritual needs satiated too. We have our harvest festivities, our town square promenades, we go to church and celebrate the Lord on Sundays and holidays, and town hall gatherings and taverns have their sing-song revelries and lively debates. However, it is all of a distinctly local brand, for we know very little of the rest of the mountain, let alone the world down at the bottom.”
Johannes looked at the out-of-towner with wide-eyed astonishment. “Pity that. You notice that when you entered Starkes Herz there were not but thin wooden walls on the perimeter? Folks here would suffocate in a setting such as yours.”
“He’s right!” Roper declared, “And we got danger in these parts of the mountain too, you know! Just the past few nights there’s been this beast prowling around, terrorizing the townspeople, questing for human flesh and bone! But he ain’t keeping anyone here a captive!”
Gunter gulped nervously; his eyelids opened as wide as they would allow.
“We live to see everything!” Johannes slammed his mug hard on the bar. “I’ll be damned if there’s a snowflake on the mountain we haven’t seen yet! You telling me you don’t know of all it has to offer? The vistas, the woody plateaus, the sparkling lakes, the rivers that flow off the cliffs into beautiful falls, the crafty network of tunnels that snake inside, or the breathtaking views from the highest grounds? You haven’t seen any of that?”
Gunter shook his head.
“Young lad, consider yourself cursed with your past but blessed with your future. Your life has just begun! What trade are you beginning here?”
“I got a mining job I’m supposed to start next week.”
“Well that’s the kicks!” Johannes joyously threw his hand onto Gunter’s shoulder. “You’re gonna see so much in the shafts! The caves contain wonders the likes of which you’ve never imagined!”
“Yes, I know. I am a bit apprehensive about it, of course.”
“Well, what’s life without a little fright now and then? You can’t spend your days sitting in cold comfort, knowing exactly where you’ll be the next sun cycle over! You even recognize that yourself, saying that you smelled opportunity here!”
“It’s getting dark, lad.” Roper called to Gunter. “Why don’t you go see the Vista of the Icy Fairy just outside the town? If you time your arrival just right you can see the most beautiful star twinkles your eyes could ever be blessed with!”
“Thank you gentlemen, but if it’s all the same, I think I need to find a lodge and retreat for the night.” Gunter slapped a few silver coins on the bar and vacated the tavern, the other two men eyeing him warily as he opened the heavy oaken door and slipped off into the chilly evening.
The outside road wasn’t any less populated than the building from which he had just exited, and the town’s economy was evidenced by the multitudes of pedestrians milling in and out of the shops and canteens that lined the main street. Gunter recalled how often people in Eisinsel remained in their homes for most of their days, except for formal preplanned events. He had a slight itch to browse some of the other stores, but felt a sense of alienation from the crowded venues, and decided a bed would suit him best right then. So, he turned straight left down the road, and without looking at anyone else, headed for the nearest inn.
A week later, a coal-stained and exhausted Gunter, having just completed his first day of work in the mines, retired back to the village. His cadence was slowed greatly by his fatigue, and he was baffled to see the boisterous happy hour that the townspeople relished in so shortly after the conclusion of the work day. Where he came from, intoxicating beverages were rarely imbibed during the week, and taverns were never this full in the early evening. How did people have energy for this activity? Starkes Herz was becoming more confusing to him with every passing day.
Although he was greatly tired, Gunter did not return to his abode right away. En route to the small hut he had rented on the outskirts of town, he passed by an intriguing and quaint little spa. The aromas that wafted from within were pleasurable, and so on a whim he entered. He was pleased to discover that the shop housed a delightful hot spring, located outside the walls and in the frigid mountain air. Gunter paid the attendant the required fee, then undressed and sat in the spring. He could have stayed there for eternity if that were allowed. The sparkling and sultry water contrasted perfectly with the near-zero temperature in the air, and replenished his body and spirit.
Never had Gunter experienced anything this soothing or satisfying in Eisinsel. He was duly impressed. After finally emerging from the spring, he felt quite refreshed and invigorated, and began wondering if there were any other novel delights to be found in the neighborhood.
As he walked through the eastern corridor of town and passed the many saloons and other watering holes situated along the cliffside route, he remembered the conversation he had had the previous week when he first arrived at Starkes Herz. One of the men he had talked to, whose name he could not remember if his life depended on it, had spoken of some great sight outside of town. Where exactly that was, Gunter hadn’t an inkling. Though the first person he passed on the street was a complete stranger, he stopped him with a quick query.
“Excuse me sir, sorry to bother you, but you wouldn’t happen to know where the Vista of the Icy Fairy is, would you?”
The stranger pointed toward the interior of the mountain ledges, above where the town stood. “Take a left on Neumann St., then a right on Rouse. Follow the little skinny trail past some tall evergreens, and the sight will be in front of you.”
“Thank you very much sir.”
“Best be very careful, sir.” The stranger looked at Gunter with warning eyes. “You know, there’s a beast that’s been lurking around lately. Definitely not something one wants to tangle with.”
Before Gunter could respond, the stranger turned and walked away. Gunter stood there scratching his head for a moment, then continued walking according to the directions given to him. He did not recognize the man who was doing the walking, even though it was himself.
The forest trail that led from the edge of town to the outer cliffs was dark and narrow, which hardly put Gunter at ease. But even as the sun settled down below the horizon and the light grew even more dim, he pushed forward. Fortunately, the going was anxious but did not last for very long, and soon he was past the trail and had made his way to a flat and empty clifftop that overhung the valley below.
Gunter walked over to the edge of the cliff, noticing a wooden signpost that stood proudly against the backdrop of rugged ice mountains. On the sign were plain black block letters that stated simply, “Caution – Vista of the Icy Fairy.” The stranger Gunter had spoken to had not steered him the wrong way, much to his relief. He tiptoed past the sign and gazed into the distance, stunned by the beauty of the white-peaked mountain range in the distance and the fading reddish sunset beyond it. Once the darkness began in full, he observed the effect of the misty air and the snow-covered mountain surfaces reflecting the pinprick points of light from the stars in the dark blue sky. It created a majestic panoramic view that Gunter’s eyes could barely accept as a true vision.
He stood there for nearly half an hour, mesmerized beyond comprehension, wondering the meaning of the name given by humans to this lookout point. Perhaps a fairy had one time long ago blessed the spot with her presence. Maybe at certain times of year the stars formed the pattern of a mystical flying creature. He was not used to asking himself such questions, but imagined that the people of his new home did so regularly.
Eventually he decided to leave the cliffside, resolving that it would not be his last visit. He turned around and headed back across the snowy field toward the trail. It was then that he noticed a path that led in the other direction, continuing further up the mountain. He hesitated, noticing that the path was very clean and that there were no footprints to be seen.
Gunter turned his head back and forth, eyeing both the trail that would return to civilization, and the path that led the other way to an unknown location. He gave one final longing gaze at the trees that lined the trail, then turned around and began heading up the mountain path.
The wind blew gently past him, the snow on the surface rolled in a mist around his ankles, and the cold and darkness did not abate. Yet Gunter pressed on, determined to see what was beyond. His ambition was soon rewarded, for the path he walked led him to another flat cliffside much like the one he had visited earlier. This time, a small wooded area hid a tiny frozen lake, with a mysterious cavern entrance beckoning beyond it.
The locale intrigued Gunter, and he imagined there was more to be found if he pressed further. But for the moment, he was content to examine the lake and explore the cave for anything it may contain.
As he headed over toward the grouping of trees, he suddenly heard a low growling noise. He froze and looked around nervously, but could not see anything out of the ordinary. The trees swayed in the wind, but did not betray anything else nearby. He continued walking, but at a much slower pace. Then he heard the growling again. His heart rate jumped fivefold, and sweat began creeping down his face despite the bitter cold.
He weaved his way through the gaggle of trees and stood at the edge of the lake. It was mostly frozen, but he could see the water lapping up beneath the thin sheet of ice on top. He looked ahead and could see the cave entrance past the trees on the other side of the lake. Not seeing much else of note right then, he decided that it was time to retire back down the mountain.
Just as he turned around, he heard the growling again. It was louder this time, and sounded fiercer. He whipped his head around, and could see two tiny circles of light in the dark hole of the cave entrance. His mouth and eyes gaped open, and soon the entire face of the berserk mountain goat materialized in the cave, followed by its thick muscular body.
“AAAHHHH!!!!” Gunter took off immediately, sensing the rage coming from the beast. He ran around the trees and out of the woods, but the goat raced out of the cave at high velocity, galloped around the lake, through the forest thicket and soon caught up with him. Gunter dashed across the field and back down the mountain path, but the beast was catching up and growling with even more fury.
Realizing that he would never be able to outrun a creature of the mountain, Gunter searched his brain for means to defend himself. He suddenly remembered that as he had come straight from working in the mines, he still had some of his tools on his person. One of them was a small claw hammer that bore a head of dense iron. He desperately fumbled it out of his work sack and held it with both hands as he continued running from the goat.
The roars behind him were now almost deafening, and the goat bared its teeth as it came within meters of its human prey. Gunter readied himself, knowing that he probably only had one shot to save himself.
He stopped running and planted himself firmly on the ground. Then, with as much speed as he could muster, he whipped his body around, his arms fully extended with the hammer in his hands, and swiped the weapon right into the face of the beast with great force.
The goat felt the brunt of the attack immediately, crying out in pain and falling onto the ground, its blood spurting in the other direction. Gunter was filled with a surge of adrenaline and did not hesitate to pounce upon the beast again. He laid onto its body, pounding the hammer again onto its head and again on its body, determined to end its life as quickly as possible before it could thrash at him with its lethal claws.
Once the beast had finally stopped moving, Gunter stood up to catch his breath, looking at the gory scene and marveling at his capacity for self-defense. He then heard footsteps behind him. After realizing that they were human, he relaxed, turned around and saw an unknown man walking up the mountain path toward him.
“You alright, mate?” The man came up to the scene and gaped. “What have you done? That’s – that’s the beast that’s been terrorizing the town! And it’s dead!” He jumped up and down, patting Gunter on the back. “Young man, you are a hero of Starkes Herz!”
The road that led back into town was lined with eager onlookers. All of them gasped with glee and relief as they saw Gunter, accompanied by a merry group of men, dragging the body of the goat on a toboggan.
“Everyone, this young man has slayed the monster!” One of the men cried out to the crowd. “We are now safe from its feral madness! Join us with libations and merry music as we celebrate this fine hero!”
Gunter, basking in the crowd’s cheers but still slightly discomfited by them, turned to the man. “I can’t really call myself a hero. I was just wandering where I should not have gone, and slayed the monster only to save my hide.”
The other man patted him on the back. “Around here, there’s no such thing as a place not to go. You said you were from out of town originally?”
“Well, my friend, welcome home. I think you’re going to fit in quite well in Starkes Herz.”