Hymn for a Slow Fire

by Natalie Ritter

I don’t notice the woman arriving. The fault lies with me—my stone body is split open, and my metal core mostly spilled out. I am so close to corroding into death that it is a wonder that I still understand words.

“Are you full-stone yet?” The voice breaks the stillness in my cave. “They said you would be, after so long. A fool’s errand.” A pause. “I hope I’m not talking to another statue.”

I focus my eyes slowly, and sluggishly rouse myself from thoughts of the stone I aspire to be.

One of the mountain folk is staring at me. She is standing too close to the facets of my left eye, blurring her in my sight.

“I am here because of Rowena–” the woman starts, but a soft clatter interrupts her. The pile of wolf bones that rest alongside the curve of my neck shift and murmur. The bones are a friend, and it has been some time since we last spoke.

“Who?” I struggle to ask. I know the words of the mountain folk, but my voice is raw, full of gravel as my iron veins rust and crumble. It is a hard task to summon any words at all, and the mortal winces as I speak, a hand reaching for her ear.

“Rowena–” the woman starts again, and yes, it seems that I still recognize the sound of dismay.

“Speak to the bones,” I say, because they know. They can speak where I cannot.

So I let my eyes dim again—the strain of focusing them is too much. The darkness is preferable.

The woman says something. Her tone rises, and I hear the bones wheeze.

Life passes, stone breathes, and my mountain sings.

Rowena,” I hear again, a word pulled sharply out of soft murmurs, and I stir.

The woman has returned – or has she remained? She holds the skull from the pile of bones. It is a large, cumbersome skull. It was a wolf, once, one of the giant ones that roam below the mountains.

Surely there is no reason for a wolf to come up from the woods to die here.

The mortal looks up as my eye brightens again. She has done as I said, and spoken to the bones about Rowena. I know this because I can feel the pile of bones vibrating beside me, awakening as I have.

“Rowena spoke to me of this wolf,” the woman says. And then, “It is marvelously cruel, what they did to you. How can you bear it? How can a punishment last so long?”

“Who are you?” The strain is as great as before.

“I am Fuller, the Fourth,” the woman says clearly.

Fuller. Yes. I know the name, knowledge that rattles loosely in my memory. Lords of mountain lands they are, and they keep the miners and metal-poachers in check. The metal in our mountain ranges is vastly abundant, it multiplies even as it is pulled out of the earth. Rare and common metals are found beside each other, as they are found nowhere else.

As if she knows what my next question must be, Fuller continues. “I come because you gave Rowena the stone-secrets. As she lay down to die, she bade me come and fetch you to finish her work. In her last moments, she must have remembered you as you were, not as you are.”

A sensation sluices through me, unexpected and troublesome. I do not remember Rowena, but the knowledge of her death makes me shiver, just slightly. My stone skin cracks as I unintentionally flex my claws. Creeping rust has eaten the spilled iron of my veins, and corrosion has even begun to nip gently at my nickel core.

I have questions, but the words are impossible to force out; too much of me is gone. I can only shake and make a sound like rocks scraping against each other.

Fuller takes a step back, and then immediately reclaims the space she had given up. “She laid herself down, and turned to stone. If you put an ear to her granite mouth, you can hear something. The wind, or murmurs. Secrets.”

The pile of bones rattles and shakes beside me.

Fuller glances down at the bones, silent for a moment as she watches them, before she finally continues: “On her death, the wolves howled for three days, but there are no more wyrms except for you, here, and the last wyrms of the Elder Range. They have grown erratic, paranoid, and cruel since Rowena first went to your cave and came away with secrets. They offered no mourning for Rowena.”

How long has it been? A shiver runs through me, a trembling in my mind of unfortunate truths that were threatening to emerge. Something wells up in me, a feeling so vast I can barely feel the edges of it—I have only an impression of devastation. If I press hard, I remember being on trial before the wyrms of the Elder Range, or I remember the shade of the memory: it happened, but all that is left is the aftertaste of rage and impotence.

To give a mortal our stone-secrets is high treason among the stone-wyrms. This thought emerges like a brand, overshadowing anything else.

Why had I done it?

And deeper, more distressing: what has happened to my kind, that only a few wyrms remain?

Fuller takes a shaky breath. Rowena was important to her, as it seems Rowena must once have been important to me. “You are almost corroded out, and your hind legs have merged with the stone of the cavern. How am I to bring you back to Rowena’s garden, as she asked?”

The wolf bones roll away from me, up the slope of my cave so that they pile at Fuller’s feet.

Carry me back, instead,” the bones whisper. They sound yearning, and demanding, and something in me responds. This is good, this will be right. “Carry me. Bury me there. I am not a wyrm, but I have learned to carry their hymn.

Fuller does not hear the wolf, I realize. She does not have the ear for understanding the stone-secrets that lurk in the wolf’s bones and give them this awareness.

I strain against the weakness of my body, try to shift myself towards Fuller. I almost rise.

Instead, movement tears the gaping crevasse in my cracked stone chest still further. Clumps of rusted iron fall from me, followed by drips of uncorroded iron which cool and harden as the air touches it.

I do not understand mortal expressions, but perhaps Fuller is horrified as she hurriedly sets the skull down and stumbles over the bones to lay a staying hand on my long neck.

She says soothing words, but the contact is what I need.

“Take the wolf to Rowena, and bury him there,” I tell her, whispering through the stone of my skin, my iron speaking to the scant iron in her blood.

My mountain trembles around me. The eternal hymn that resonates through stone and metal around us loses its rhythm. I sense the edge of profound loss, but I do not know whose it is: the wolf’s, the mountain’s, or mine.

I will bring you with me, old friend,” the wolf says to me. “Have no fear. You are not abandoned. We share the same stone-secrets, we sing the same hymn now, and you will have use of my eyes.

It is better than nothing, so Fuller leaves with the wolf’s bones. I close my eyes, and I croon a little lullaby to my mountain, as best I can. The spiders that live in my shadow calm around me, while one of the darker things in the deep of my mountain harmonizes to an age-old song. It is almost soothing.

I expect to sleep again, but when my eyes dim, I feel them opening elsewhere. I see snatches of a mountain – my mountain, I realize belatedly, and something sweet shifts in me at the long-forgotten sight of the sun setting over the rim of my mountain’s peak. Fuller has the skull strapped to her back, and the image lingers in the shared sight of the skull and I.

The other mountains in the range rise along the horizon, and loss crawls up my throat. But mourning is something for the folk, not the wyrms. The unnatural feeling seeps through me, sits in me, until I realize that just as I am connected to the wolf’s bones through shared secrets, I have been exposed to mortal feelings through the secrets I gave Rowena.

I rust, and the mountain sings, and I see the land falling behind me.

Fuller joins the company of others, men and women with stern faces, wearing steel. The iron in that alloy whisper of the mountains they came from, lineages that mean nothing to me anymore. The men and women hold conversations that have no bearing for me, and it all slips away through rising suns and falling evenings.

I slip in and out of this consciousness, until I hear a song through the wolf-bones. The song fills a place in me that I had forgotten was empty, settles in and makes my whole body shake. Through the skull, I see that the sun is hard and bright, outlining every detail of a small courtyard garden. Alongside the neat dirt paths are stones that have been carefully chosen for size and color to decorate the space.

At the center of the stone garden is a statue of a woman. The woman is lying atop a long stone bench, one arm crossed over her chest, the other resting alongside her body, the palm of her hand open. The face of the woman has been carved so that the eyes are open, direct, staring into the distance forever, the mouth down-turned.

I know her.

“Rowena,” I say, feeling like calling to like across a vast distance. The skull begins to shake in Fuller’s hands.

The secrets that are sunk deep into Rowena unfurl, reaching out to me. They are sweet, and if I could just swallow them back in, I would know what Rowena has done with them. I would understand why I was cracked open and left to rust in my mountain.

“Old friend,” I hear faintly, raspy words that sound like they are coming home. “It has been too long.”

And then Rowena is dead, gone, the secrets in her swallowed by the wolf instead. All her works rendered to nothing more than stone, a memorial in a tiny garden that grows no plants. Did she succeed in–?

The memory isn’t there, and my thoughts scatter as I try to chase it.

Do you hear it?” The wolf speaks softly across the vast distance between us. “The lives buried around us?

   I do. Now that the wolf has called my attention to it, I can feel the pulsing of metal buried in the earth around us as Fuller sets the bag holding the wolf’s bones down on the carefully arranged stones of the garden. Metal worked in a forge, and yet waiting to be awakened and called out of the earth as if it were the natural ore that forms a wyrm’s core. I can taste flavors of familiar metals — copper, nickel, others — but I do not have names for these new alloys.

They are unknown to the wolf as well, but I sense that the wolf is proud of them, of what Rowena’s hands brought into being. “I wish you had been able to come here. I wish you could have sung the mountain hymns to this garden, as Rowena intended. But I will do it for you, old friend.”

Fuller does the work of burying the bones herself, moving stones and then plunging her hands deep into the rich dark soil. From the wolf’s eyes, I have learned that Fuller is tall and broad for a mortal, that she has strength enough to impress the wolf. That she has survived scores of years.

How many years has the wolf been dead? Long enough, it seems, that the mountain hymns that nourish all wyrms have sunk into its bones. The wolf can sing this metal awake, but who will guide the wyrmlings that crawl out of this stone garden?

I have not forgotten what Fuller told me in those hazy first moments of awakening, and I turn my thoughts towards the Elder Range. The peaks of those mountain soar into the sky like they would rip it open. If Fuller has spoken truly, then the wyrms of the Elder Range are all that is left of us. They are the oldest of all our kind, formed of noble metal that never corrodes. Surely I must have made these plans with Rowena and the wolf when more wyrms lived, when these wyrmlings would not be left alone to the mercy of the Elder Range?

I fear a new generation of wyrms raised in the shadow of the Elder Range. It is a deep, instinctive fear that causes me to shudder in my cave, and I have a vision – a memory – of an Elder Wyrm crawling towards me, snarling, flecks of corroded titanium flying from eir throat as ey scream at me.

They blamed me for their corrosion. By giving the secrets to Rowena, a high treason that caused–

The thought is gone.

Fuller leaves the wolf-skull for last. She approaches, and as she touches it, that distant connection asserts itself again.

“Where did they go?” I ask, as soon as she does. “What happened to the last of my kind while I was cut open to die in my mountain?”

“The wyrm-plague,” Fuller says. Blunt, direct, a recitation of history that keeps her own feelings held close to her chest. “Healthy wyrms corroded from the inside out. The mountains gave up no more ore to be raised into new wyrms. No rhyme or reason to it, just that it left the ranges unguarded, and the plains folk began to poach the metal. They claim innocence to the plague, of course, and we mountain folk and wolves are left struggling to protect the mountains.”

“I don’t understand,” I say, because it is impossible to understand such devastation so calmly stated. But I believe it, because my range-siblings died shrieking as corrosion burned through their iron veins, before Rowena first came to see me.

I turn away from the memory. I do not want to recall those losses, do not want to measure my siblings’ swift demises with my long return to stone.

Fuller draws in a breath, and steadies herself. “And I do not understand either. What are these secrets you gave Rowena? What about them was so terrible that the wyrms of the Elder Range punished you so grievously?”

She pauses, cups a hand over her mouth, and I do not know what emotion she is trying to hide from a creature of stone.

“She was already old, long-lived but old, when I was young,” Fuller continues, “and she scared me. Her single mind of purpose, the metals she made in her forge, how she buried them in her garden here. She never saw folk after she left your cave. Just metal. But my grandmother remembered Rowena from before she took stone-secrets.”

Fuller prepares a place to bury the wolf-skull. She speaks as she works, telling me the stories her grandmother told her, and recognition blooms in my head. The shale of my memory shifts.

Through the connection of her hand on the wolf-skull, I speak to her, the words moving between us in a place deeper than spoken word: “Rowena found me because the wolf led her to me, we three kindred souls.” We had planned this together, until the Elder Range found me out, and the wolf came limping back to my side, mortally wounded from an encounter with a wyrm gone mad with rust. And Rowena was left alone, carrying on our work as best she could.

Then the memory is gone, turned over in my mind.

It is only now that I realize that Rowena, as her kind knew her, had died in my cave, long ago.

I do not understand the urge I have to mourn Rowena the same way Fuller’s grandmother did. It is not fitting of a wyrm, and yet I cannot deny it.

“Thank you,” Fuller says, eventually. “For letting me fulfill Rowena’s last request.”

Surely I am the one who should thank Fuller, who honored a woman who had been strange and cold to her, and in so doing became the last piece of the chain that carried a desperate plan to completion. How many other hands must there have been, among folk, among wyrms and wolves, aiding us in this task and now entirely forgotten to me?

She lets the last handful of earth fall over the wolf-skull, burying it completely. We are left to sing to the buried metal, and awaken them.

“Why,” I ask the wolf, in between measures of the hymn. “Why give your life, and your death, too, to this?”

“Wolf, wyrm, and mountain folk. We have a balance to keep between us. Although the old wyrms will never know that wolf and mountain folk fulfilled our sworn oath, their death does not erase our obligations.

The wolf’s thoughts fade from me, focused on the lives waiting to awaken.

We would none of us see the results of this work that took all our lives. It may be work that comes to nothing, if the metal does not wake. And yet, I know that in the years of my life undone by the Elder Range, I have never regretted giving Rowena and the wolf my stone-secrets.

Time passes, moments slip away, and I fall helplessly into deeper and deeper sleep. My incarceration is smeared impressions, suggestions of stone creeping through me, and the echo of silence. I am almost corroded out, so very little of me left.

“They said you should be returned to stone by now.” I hear a voice that resonates through the stone. “But that the secrets you shared with mortals has kept you alive past the point of death.”

My eyes are sealed over, but I can recognize the sound of youth. A wyrmling, not yet harder than sandstone.

I ache at being woken. I do not know why the wyrmling’s presence makes me want to shatter.

I can hear the wyrmling scraping eir claws through the floor of my cavern. Rude, but I am too tired to care.

I have words only through the faint echoes of my mountain’s hymn. It takes me enough time to remember how to make use of the hymn to speak through the stone, that I can sense the wyrmling turning, leaving.

“What range are you formed from?” I speak, and sense the wyrmling stop.

The words are slow in coming, like the wyrmling is weighing what to tell me. “I have no mountain. I grew out of metal buried in a garden. They buried the bones of the wolf-friend there, and the secrets in them turned into mountain-hymns, sunk back into the stone, and raised us.”

Relief. I do not know why or where, but I feel relief.

In the silence while more words wait to rise between us, I hear old, sickly bats murmur and shiver in the darkness far above me. The wyrmling continues, softly. “The Elder Range is gone. The plague took them, in the end. But we rose from the ground, our veins run with alloyed metal that is resistant to the plague. We are not quite formed true. We dream of the wolves howling and the folk’s hammers more often than not. The mountains do not quite accept us.”

My attention is waning, crushed under the exhaustion of being awake and this onslaught of words, and the world around me seems to be only slivers and pieces that are hard to catch. What can I say to these words that carry so little meaning to me?

“I came because I wanted to see this mountain that haunts the edge of the hymn in my head, this mountain that I sometimes dream of. Now that I am here, I would rather go back and run with the wolves.”

   “Oh,” I say, not really following. “Well, bring my mountain’s greetings to yours.”

It is only polite, after one wyrm visits another. I am sure I have a range-cousin who insists on it.

My mind falls back inside myself, and I hear the wyrmling speak as if from a great distance. “I…had hoped to speak with you, rather than rely on the echoes of your guidance in the hymn that raised us. I know why you did this, why I live. I do not know if I can thank you for it.”

Another pause, and then, so very quietly. “It is time for you to sleep. It is not right that you’ve been left this way for so long, punished far beyond the measure of the transgression.”

The wyrmling starts singing, something sweet and soft that draws me into it.

Deep inside this song, an old mountain hymn echoes, known only in the nascent moments before my kind rises from the stone, and forgotten during the weight of living. The world, my mountain, the wyrmling, all of them fall away as I sink into the hymn.

A final thought surfaces, a memory of a woman standing in my cave. A memory made free after everything else is carved away.

“Your spiders are larger than I am, but I think I’ve frightened them off,” Rowena says, and laughs. The sound nestles comfortably into the shape of my hymn. It is good to see her again.

She carries a jar with her, full of a red-gold liquid.

“It’s gold,” she says, “dissolved. I can reconstitute it, bring gold back from the dead, but I cannot solve rust in the same manner, or this slow corrosion that now plagues even the Elder Range, and you as well. How can it be that the air which lets the wolves and the folk live strong is the same slow fire that burns away all metal, and brings you as low as time does us?”

The mountains are empty around us, and grow emptier. My cousins to the south were an iron range, my cousins to the east were copper. The nickel in my range has died out, leaving only me as the last. The mountains are not calling new wyrms up to replenish the fallen. Rowena suspects a plague was set upon us by the plains folk, to eliminate we wyrms who guard and nourish and protect our mountains and its metal.

We three, wyrm, mountain folk, and wolves, carry a careful balance between us. We keep out those who would rip all of the metal in the mountains away, or hunt the wolves down to the last, or replace the current folk with new folk.

“You have a plan?” I say.

“I need to know the secrets of your metals and stone. I will fashion new metals in my forge, ones that are as long-lived as tungsten or titanium, if I dare to aspire so high. I will sink them back into the earth, and if you sing them awake, maybe new wyrms can rise that are resistant to this corrosion that seeps up from the plains.”

It is treason for a wyrm to pass on our secrets to mortals. We keep a balance. Our secrets can become a weapon against us.

But I sat with my range-siblings as they died. What is treason against my kind, if there are no more wyrms to trespass against? Rowena asks for much, and I must trust that she will give back even more.

I give her the secrets. After, my wolf-friend trots in from his woods, and I give him the secrets too, for we must keep a balance between wyrm, folk, and wolf.

Wyrms do not change like mortals do over the course of a life. I did not think my stone-secrets could change a mortal so deeply, and Rowena surely did not expect how differently wyrms thought. Nor did I think that mortal feelings would crawl inside me in the exchange. The secrets turned the wolf away from the call of her pack, and maybe–

Maybe the Elder Range were not entirely wrong to forbid us from spinning our mountain hymns into secrets that mortal minds could understand. But we have all changed together, and perhaps a new balance will hold.

I follow the thought into a final sleep.

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Natalie Ritter is a writer and sometimes reviewer of speculative fiction, and her work has also appeared in Lackington’s. She lives in Minnesota..

“Hymn for a Slow Fire” (© Natalie Ritter) was published in Issue 10 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.