The Dream Twister - September 2003
The Raven - Alex Crosse
(page 10/14)

The Raven

Alex Crosse

Gasping for breath, he struggled up the mountain path. His legs ached and the cool mountain air stung his lungs. He stopped to catch his breath. Ahead of him the path curved right, across the mountainside to where the slope steepened to a near vertical wall of stone, rising to an aręte high above him. He could see the path's course etched on to the side of the western wall, light brown against the harsh darkness of the shadowed rocks it clung to. The thin, brown line climbed up the rock face in a series of switchbacks before cresting the ridge and passing out of sight behind mountain. Behind him the dusty path wound its tortuous way between the scree and greying rocks down to the lake, sparkling deep blue in the evening light. The grass danced in the summer breeze, sending ripples of yellow green gliding across the seat of the mountain, soft satin between the harsh arms of the ridges that embraced it on either side. Bounded on three sides by towering walls of earth and stone, the small plateau cowered beneath the oppressive might of the peak above, but on the fourth side it had its freedom, for beyond the lakeshore the grassy slopes fell away to the valley floor a thousand feet below. He turned to gaze on the vista laid out before him. The valley stretched away into the distance. The sun, low in the sky, cast a waning glow on the countryside below. Shafts of soft light touched the edges of the mountain before falling to valley floor, filling the land with weak warmth and rendering the landscape in rich hues of golden brown. A cold wind caught him. The loose ends of his coat flapped in the breeze and he shivered. Night was closing in and he would have to hurry if he were to make it down in the light. He was about to head down but something stopped him, a faint prickling on the back of his neck, an odd moment of warmth in the chill of the evening air, some latent, subconscious perception that needled his mind for attention.

"Little late for mountaineerin' isn't it. T'will be dark soon." The voice came from behind him.

He turned around. A figure sat on upon a large boulder not far away. His hair was greying with age and his wispy beard danced in the breeze. Across his lap lay a staff of weather-beaten wood. From his appearance he seemed to be a man of the mountains, an integral part of the rocks and grassy slopes that surrounded him. He seemed to effortlessly blend in with the landscape, but his presence was still surprising; surprising that he had gone unnoticed until now.

"I still have sometime yet. It won't be dark for an hour or so. Anyway, I prefer it at this time. It's quieter... more peaceful."

The old man smiled. "Aye, that it is." He looked up at the evening sky. "Should have a fine sunset tonight."

"Really? How can you tell?"

"My nose does tell me so. Be wanderin' t'em here mountains for more years than I can remember. My nose does tell a good sunset sure as my stomach can tell it be meals-time. Say what brings yeh' up here. ‘Tis far from the tourists trails. Don't get many folks wandering these mountainside."

"I don't know really. Trying to get away I guess. Find somewhere where I can be on my own for a bit. Why are you up here?"

"Mindin' t' sheep."

He looked around but the mountainside was bare, devoid of life save for the old man and himself. The old man saw his confusion. "They be over the ridge there." He said gesturing with a wave of his hand. "Yep, tha' be why I'm here, ‘Cause of t' sheep. Where them sheep go I's go too."

The old man rose from his seat on the mountainside and walked over. "So What be your name, son?"

"Daniel" He replied.

"So, Daniel, d'you go wandering the hills on your own often."

"Whenever I get the chance, which isn't that often. It's nice to get away from... everything. While I'm up here I can pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist, that I am the only person left. I can pretend there is nothing wrong. Well, for a time anyway."

"'Tis a dangerous form of escapism, son, people go missing in these every year."

Daniel said nothing; he just shrugged.

The old man smiled, "Let me show you som'mi't."

"The locals gone called it, Cwm Eryres. Means "Eagles Hollow". Can't think why they gone and given it a silly name like that..."

They stood on the edge of a corrie. The glacial ice had cut deep into this landscape and the precipice fell over hundred feet to a scree filled ledge that clung precariously to the side of the mountain. Beyond the ledge, on the far side, opposite to where they stood, the mountainside climbed upwards to the ridge, the towering rock face standing over them like some unearthly giant of stone. The near side face looked like any other mountainside in North Wales. Slate grey rocks mingled with brown debris as the bare cliff-face curved downwards to the base of the hollow where shards of shattered stones coated the glacial cradle like some sort of angular carpet. But here the similarity ended for as the darkening rock climbed the far side it turned from soft, familiar greys and browns to black. A towering wall, the colour of coal, rose before them and in the failing light it seemed to move. The whole mountainside rippled and glittered as shafts of evening sun glinted of the feathers of a thousand ravens, all clinging to the rock face. It was as if someone stepped across the gap and painted them on for nothing of the rock beneath could be seen through the layer of beaks and feathers. The noise was deafening. An untold number of voices crying out as they hustled and jostled and fought for space on the bare mountainside. Daniel let out a gasp of amazement.

"Quite a sight ain't it."

"Yes," Daniel replied, "Where did they all come from? Why are they here?"

"Don't know. Nobody does. When the ice moved out the ravens moved in. Been here ever since."

"It's unbelievable!" Daniel breathed.

Wide-eyed, Daniel gazed down at the sight before him. The black mass rippled with life, the many facets of the flock glinted in the evening light making the whole mountainside glitter like some sort of crystal shade. The calls of the birds filled the air, enveloping them in a blanket of sound... And for the first time in his life Daniel felt free. He felt the burdens of his life fell away from his shoulders and an inexplicable calm fell over him. He sighed wistfully,

"It must be so easy being a bird. Nothing to worry about, just the freedom to roam the skies..."

The shepherd laughed. "It's probably not tha' much different. I'll bet they have their own set of problems just as bad as ours."

"I still envy them in a way. When I was young I used to dream that I could fly, to escape, just spread my arms and fly away from everything. Then I grew up. I don't even have the dream anymore."

"They say that if you stand here and make a wish it will come true."

"And do they?"

The shepherd smiled, "Stood here many a time, and thought of things and such. None of them e'er come true... Well, not yet anyways..."

It had gone eleven by the time Daniel got back to the "Bed and Breakfast" where he was staying. He stepped into the dark hallway and kicked of his walking boots. The place was all but silent, but not everybody, it seemed, had retired for the night for a line of soft yellow light flowed from a side room, bright in the dim gloom of the hallway. For a moment he stood, silently, and let the quiet calm wash over him but in the peace of the hallway he could here the most gentle of sounds. From behind that closed door he could hear the soft rise and fall of a piano. The tune was familiar but he could not place it. There were chairs along one wall of the hallway so he sat to listen. The slow cascading notes wrapped around him. The haunting melody beckoned and he rose to follow. It took his hand and guided him away from this place, away to another world. He could feel the music around him, soothing him, caressing him, as the calming chimes rippled and danced in the air. He cast his eyes about the hallway, and his eyes fell on the wooden crucifix that hung on the wall opposite. As he looked at it he thought he saw it looking back, the tortured face momentarily calm, the pained eyes, for the briefest instant, at peace. The last chords of the melody rose to the closing crescendo, then they fell away, returning the hallway to still silence. There was a shuffling noise behind the door and the light went out leaving him, alone, in the darkness.

He stood on the edge of the corrie again. This time, however, it was silent. The ravens had gone. The only sound was the hollow howling as the wind whipped around him. To his right the shepherd stood. He stood with his arms out stretched, his eyes gazing away into the distance. For a moment the wind dropped and there was silence. Suddenly Daniel realised what was going to happen. He wanted to shout, to run over and stop him, but he could not move. The shepherd leant forwards. Daniel watched in horror as the figure fell, but as he fell something happened; the figure began to change. His face grew longer and more angular, his legs grew shorter and then seemed to merge and his arms disappeared beneath his chest. His appearance grew darker. What was once wispy white hair changed first to light grey and then dark, and finally to black. The rest of his body followed, darkening until the colour of his hair merged with the colour of his clothes and skin. The sallowness of age was replaced with the healthy lustre of youth. He was still falling. The ledge was near now, the inevitable approaching, but in the eternal moment before the end a final change occurred. The top layer of his back seemed to peel away and the lithe arc of wings spread their graceful shadow over the mountainside. With one beat of the monumental span he cleared the ledge and with a haunting cry the giant raven glided away down the valley.

In the darkness he fought the tangled knots of his bedclothes. Somewhere in the darkness a clock chimed 4am.

Dawn came, and with it a new day. Light rolled across the landscape like a great wave as the morning sun slowly climbed the clear blue sky. Daniel scratched the sleep from his eyes and rolled out of bed. Despite feeling uncommonly tired he had not managed to get much sleep. His night had been plagued by strange dreams, and when he finally awoke from them he found that could not return to slumber. He had felt restless. He had sensed something rising inside him, the strangest of feelings. Agitation had overwhelmed him and he had spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, alternately suffering periods of light dozing and periods of unbearable awareness, until he finally managed to fall asleep again a mere half hour or so before sunrise. During the torturous night he had been unable to find the cause of agitation was but now with the break of day the feeling had returned, strong this time, and with it an understanding of how he felt. Something was calling him. Hungry though he was, he skipped breakfast and headed for the mountains. There was something inside him that kept pulling at mind and soul. It twisted his path, turned his actions, until he found himself climbing past the lake up towards Cwm Eryres and the mountainside he was on last night. As he climbed the urge grew stronger and stronger until it was almost unbearable. He was running now, scrambling up the slope towards the corrie. He ran, then scrambled on all fours, then he ran again, stumbling and tripping over rocks and stones. He gasped for breath. The icy morning air hurt his lungs but he kept on running. He was nearly there, just a few more yards... But as he crested the top of the rise he stopped. The shepherd stood on the edge of the corrie arms out stretched. He raised his head and looked across the gap to where Daniel stood. For a moment a deathly silence filled the mountains. Their eyes momentarily met and the shepherd smiled.

"No," Daniel shouted, but it was too late. The shepherd had gone.

The sky was split by a deafening shriek and as one the ravens took to the sky, their black forms flowing like water from the cleft in the mountain. The oily mass circled once before disappearing out of sight over the ridge.

It took him nearly hour to climb down the scree slope to the ledge at the base of the corrie. Not that there was much he could have done. The Mountain Rescue team arrived soon after in a helicopter with ropes and winches and a stretcher to prise the broken body from the grasp of the mountain. Daniel sat and watched as they hauled the bright orange stretcher across the scree and attached it to the ropes hanging from the helicopter, hovering just above. They slowly winched up the macabre cargo. The orange stretcher swung left disappearing into the hold of the helicopter. The great machine turned and flew away down the valley, the low thump of the rotors slowly fading until silence returned to the mountains... And then they were gone, and Daniel sat alone on the mountainside. They had offered to fly Daniel down but he had declined.

Later that day Daniel stood on the platform at Bangor waiting for the train that would take him back to London. From the corner of his eye he caught movement. Turning he saw a yellowing piece of paper stuck to the window of the waiting room. A loose corner flapped wildly in the evening breeze. He walked over. It was a missing person's poster. At the top bold black letters asked:

Have you seen this man?

And below in smaller letters it read:

Owen Philips.
Accountant from Bangor.
Father of three.

Beneath was a picture of the shepherd. Daniel stared at the poster for a long time before tearing it from the window and crushing it in his hand.

It was hot. Hot and humid. Beneath the merciless summer sun London perspired. Even with the window fully open the temperature in the room rose to nearly unbearable levels. Despite the morning heat Daniel remained in the folds duvet. It was nearly eleven. He should have been at work two hours ago. The phone had rung almost constantly since about ten but he hadn't answered it. Eventually he had got up and unplugged it, before retiring to darkness beneath the sheets. In the silence that he could almost believe that the world beyond the edges of his bed had ceased to exist, that he was alone, the he was the sole entity in the universe. He lay, eyes shut, cowering from the face of the world. Silence surrounded him, but through that silence drifted a sound. From beyond the stillness of the duvet came the gentle flutter of wings. He pulled back the bedclothes and peered out. As his eyes adjusted to the light the he saw the source of the noise. The black form of a raven shuffled up and down the edge of the windowsill. The raven turned towards him, regarding him with its black pearl eyes. Daniel stared back and for an eternal moment their eyes met, and within those dark spheres he saw something; something he thought he would never see again... The bird was the first to break the gaze; tilting its head to one side. With one fluid movement the raven turned and launched itself from the windowsill. Daniel rushed to the window. Grasping the windowsill tightly with both hands he stared out at the cityscape beyond the frame and out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a black form disappearing over the rooftops.

Daniel pushed his way through the mouth of the crowded tunnel and up the escalator into the station forecourt. The 12:15 would get him to Bangor by mid-afternoon, from there a bus to Llanberis, and then up into the mountains. He reckoned he could be at the corrie by early evening. He wondered what he would find there.