The Hermit lived down the canyon along a narrow crease that broke the western wall. The distance took little more than an hour to walk. At Dareth’s pace he covered the space in half that time, nearly dashing his head on a rock when he slipped in the river at its shallow crossing. Once the defile where the hermit lived came into view, he moved with more caution.
People in the village thought that the hermit lived in a cave along the defile, and why shouldn’t they? Few of them ever ventured even this far from the village and those who did would never consider peeking behind the large stone that blocked most of the defile from view. Dareth had peeked, of course. He had seen the patchwork shack nestled under a shallow awning of rock on a number of occasions. He never bothered to correct his fellow villagers about the cave. To do so would only invite disapproving looks and he had enough of that already.
“So what does Lorvin know of the madman?” Dareth asked himself as he crept closer to the stone. He saw the old man now and again in his wanderings. There was never anything fascinating about the sightings. He’d seen the old man gathering fruit, collecting water from the river, carrying a trapped rabbit back to his secluded hovel. Once in a while he saw the hermit gazing down at the village from a hillside to the south. But the man never came closer than that. Dareth could feel his heart thrumming as he pressed himself against the cool shade of the stone. Mundane as his actions seemed, the man captivated Dareth. He had tried on several occasions to question his mother about the mysterious figure, but she would only smile and say, “He’s a harmless old fool who isn’t quite like the rest of us.”
But the man knew things, that was what Lorvin had said. What things? Where had he learned them? Dareth thought he knew the answer. The hermit came from somewhere up there, outside of the canyon. This idea alone mesmerized the young man. But even if Dareth could ever have mustered the temerity to approach the hermit before, the old man always disappeared as soon as he noticed company. The hermit’s message was clear. He did not like the villagers and he did not want to be disturbed.
“So what makes Lorvin think that he will help?” Dareth asked himself as he chanced a look around the edge of the boulder. The shack hunkered against the rock wall not more than a hundred paces up the defile, obscured even in plain sight. If a man wanted to remain secluded, this looked like the perfect place to be. The shack was a ragged affair. The roof missed small patches of it’s drooping thatch. The walls, built mostly of weaved branches over a log frame, showed disrepair as well. Patched holes did little to reveal any details of the dwelling’s interior. The canyon wind worked at a few strips of clothing that swung on a line between the side of the shack and the gnarled branch of a nearby tree.
Dareth inspected the area carefully. Nothing else moved about the shack and no sound other than wind carried to his ears. Nothing to be worried about. Still, he hesitated before revealing himself. The hermit was mad, everyone had always said so. And the thought of approaching a mad man hardly inspired confidence. But it had to be done. Dareth took a breath and was on the point of stepping into the open and marching up to the shack when a voice spun him around with a startled leap.
“What do you want?” The man Dareth had been looking for stood not five paces behind him, glaring down a long, crooked nose.
“I’m sorry. You frightened me.” Dareth tried to smile but the hermit’s thick brows remained tightly knit together.
“Serves you right. You haven’t got any business here. Do I come sneaking into your village?”
Dareth stared at the man, blinking furiously. He worked to remember the things he had planned to say.
“I’m sorry. But I had to come and see you. It’s my mother. She has fallen ill and no one knows what to do about it.”
“So why are you bothering me with this?” The hermit pushed past Dareth and trudged toward his shack, thumping a thick, wooden staff into the packed earth at each step. “Get out of here. I don’t have time to help you with your problems. Don’t I have enough of my own?”
Dareth allowed himself to be shoved aside and watched the old man’s back as he retreated. But suddenly a determination took hold of him. This man had to help his mother. If he did not, then she would probably die. The time for shyness and indecision would have to come later.
“Wait.” Dareth’s shout stopped the old man at his doorstep and he shot a look of irritation over his shoulder.
“I need your help. My mother is dying and Lorvin says you’re the only one who has any chance of helping her.”
The hermit turned about and looked closely at the young man for a moment. “Your mother?”
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Dareth. My mother is Daesha.”
“Daesha?” The man narrowed his eyes. “Daesha, Daesha, Daesha…” He leaned all of his weight on the stick in his hand and stared as if trying to make something out in the young man’s face. “You are her son?”
“Yes. She was hurt in the shake this morning. The medicine man says that he doesn’t even know what’s wrong with her. But he says that you know things, that you may be able to figure out a way to help her.”
The hermit continued to stare at Dareth well after he had finished speaking. He appeared to be considering the matter and Dareth felt a surge of hope work its way up into his throat. But the cold look that finally crept into the hermit’s eyes did more to answer the plea than his words could do.
“Get out of here, boy. I leave you people alone and you leave me alone. That’s how it has always been. No sense changing things. Now I’m going to go inside and you’re going to leave. And don’t come back here. I’m busy. I’m always busy.”
With that the hermit turned on his heel and stomped into his shack, yanking the curtain back in place once he was inside. The tap of his stick still thumped rhythmically from within.
Dareth froze in an instant of dread. Lorvin had been perfectly clear. There was nothing he could do. It was the hermit or no one. A tear collected in the corner of Dareth’s eye. He thought of trying to drag the old fool but, bent and frail as the man appeared to be, he frightened Dareth.
“Why won’t you help?” Dareth called out. “What have we done to you that you stay out here all by yourself?”
“I said get out of here,” came the reply from within.
“I’m not,” Dareth shouted, suddenly knowing the truth of his words. If this man was Daesha’s only hope then, by the wings of the seer, Dareth would not leave this place alone. “I’m staying right here.” He sat down on the ground and folded his arms stubbornly. “I have nowhere to go. If you’re not going to help my mother then I have no one to go to anyway.”
There was no response from the hut.
A few rapid thumps echoed out of the shack and the curtain was thrust aside. A rock, nearly the size of a man’s fist came whizzing out of the dark opening. The stone was well placed and would have struck Dareth full on the head if he hadn’t seen it coming and scrambled to one side.
“I said get out of here. I’m no medicine man. And I don’t want to have anything to do with any of you. If your medicine man can’t fix her then there is little that I could do for her anyway. Now I have more stones in here and I don’t think you’ll be able to dodge all of them. If she’s bleeding, bandage her up, if she has a broken bone, set it. That’s all the help I can give you. Now go home.”
“If only I knew what to bandage,” Dareth said. “But the medicine man can find nothing wrong with her. She lays in the hut and moans and moans but there is nothing to heal. She is burning up though and we have no idea what to do.”
There was no response from the hut at first. Then, slowly the curtain was drawn aside again and the hermit tottered back into view.
“You say there is no damage to her body?” Curiosity peaked his tone. Dareth did not know what to make of the sudden reversal, but he saw a glimmer of hope so he followed it.
“Nothing, she lies in fever and moans things that no one can understand.”
“When did this happen?”
“It was during the shake.”
The hermit hobbled back toward Dareth. There was a gleam in his eye and he moved as swiftly as his bent leg would carry him. “Where was this. Did anyone see?”
“I was there. I was herding some stray cattle up the canyon toward the village. My mother doesn’t like me to be up that way and she came after me. That’s when the shake hit. At first it was small, but then the earth shook violently. It was hard to stay on my feet. The ground broke apart between us. I was still far away but my mother was right there near the crack. She nearly fell in. There was so much dust and smoke in the air that it was hard to see her at first, but when I found her, she was lying on her back, staring up into the sky. I got her back to the village but nothing has changed.”
By the time Dareth finished explaining, the hermit stood beside him again. An odd light shone in his eyes where the angry indifference had been only moments before.
“The smoke you saw, it was red, was it not?”
“Yes, the smoke.” The man bent his eyes close to Dareth and he could smell the hermit’s stale breath in his face. “Was the smoke red?”
Dareth stammered. There had been so much dust in the air. He had been so worried for his mother. He remembered telling Lorvin of the smoke and he had indeed described it as red.
“Yes. Yes, I think it was red. What does that mean?”
The hermit did not answer. Instead he wheeled about and raced as quickly as he could back into the shack. This time Dareth had no intention of letting the man go. He followed close behind but didn’t even make the doorway before the hermit dashed through it again, an old leather pouch clutched tightly in his hand.
“You’re going to help?”
The hermit looked at the boy. His eyes now showed a measure of concern that had not been there before.
“I am going to try. I can promise you nothing.” He then turned and began to hobble toward the entrance to his little cleft. Dareth kept close on his heels.
“You know what’s wrong with her then?”
The old man did not offer any further explanation. Despite his limp, he moved swiftly. Dareth had difficulty keeping up.
“Well what is it, then?”
“Call it poison.”
Dareth wrinkled his brow. “What do you mean? Is it poison or isn’t it?”
“Not exactly, but you can call it that.”
The rest of the journey was spent in silence. Dareth did not quite know what else to ask and the hermit did not offer up any information himself. They moved quickly and the grass huts of the village came into view less than an hour later.
“Lorvin has her in his hut.” Dareth ran forward, leading the way through the collection of squat, dwellings, every one of which looked exactly the same. They reached the medicine man’s large hut but not before the hermit’s mysterious presence prompted a number of worried looks from passer’s by. Dareth pulled the leather flap from in front of the doorway and a meager bit of candlelight spilled out onto the grass at their feet. The hermit had to duck his head to enter the small opening.
Inside the air was very close. Lorvin crouched in front of a still form lying on a straw mat. The medicine man removed a dampened cloth from Daesha’s brow and dipped it into a bowl beside him, then looked up when Dareth entered.
“Did he come?” Lorvin asked, before seeing the scrawny frame of the hermit crowd in, behind the young man.
“I did.” The hermit gazed at the prostrate figure before him.
Dareth stepped aside to allow the old man room to pass but the hermit made no attempt to approach Daesha. The area within the hut was not cramped and, though Lorvin’s ample form took up much of the space beside the mat, there was more than enough room for the old man to inspect the patient.
“What are you going to do?” Dareth asked.
The hermit still did not say anything, though Lorvin too looked on him with the same questioning glance. At length he straightened his bent form and focused his eyes as if coming out of some reverie. He hurried forward and knelt down beside the still form, fumbling for the pouch he had brought.
“You two get out.”
Lorvin got up to go but Dareth protested.
“No. I want to be here.”
“Dareth,” Lorvin reached for the his arm. “Perhaps it would be best.”
“No.” Dareth snatched his arm away. “I want to know what’s wrong.”
“Headstrong boy.” Lorvin’s voice was thick with scolding. “Won’t you ever learn? Why did you have to be so near the canyon wall? She never would have gone after you if…”
“I have changed my mind.” the hermit’s voice rang with measured coolness. “The boy must stay with me. But you get out.” Without looking at Lorvin, the old man pointed a bony finger at the doorway.
Lorvin hesitated only a moment, then bowed his head and stepped out into the growing darkness.
A lone candle sputtered on the nearby table. Two others sat idly next to it. These the old man now lit from the first. He carried one back with him to the mat, knelt down and held it close to Daesha’s sweat-soaked brow. He turned and put his ear to her mouth listening and feeling for her breath. It came in fits and starts, at once shallow, and then almost panting.
“Keep up with the cloth, boy. It will help with the fever at least.”
Dareth took up the rag and dipped it into the cool water that sat in the bowl beside him. Gently he wiped his mother’s brow. She had a painful looking scrape on her left cheek and he dabbed at that too. Other abrasions covered her arms and legs, a bruise on her left thigh had turned purple, but none of it explained her condition.
“What is it? What has happened to her?”
The old man struggled to untie the leather strap that held his pouch closed. “You said that when the hole opened up, red smoke billowed up out of the ground.”
“It was hard to see. There was a lot of dust in the air and things were still moving about quite a bit… but yes, I’m sure of it.”
“Yes, yes.” The old man alternately nodded and then shook his head. “No doubt. But how strong? You see, that is the real question.”
Finally he managed to pull the strap free from the pouch. He tumbled it over onto the blanket covering Daesha’s stomach. The contents consisted of three small bits of dried plant, each about the length of Dareth’s pinky and of a pale purple in color.
“What is that?” Dareth asked
“Root, of course. It’s root. But will it be strong enough? That I don’t know.” The hermit plucked two of the roots up and put them back in his pouch. “We’ll save those. If one doesn’t do it then the rest won’t help. Get me a fresh cup of water.”
Dareth did as he was told, grabbing up a wooden cup and dipping it into the basin of water near the door. He carried it back to his mother’s side while the old man broke the remaining root into smaller pieces.
“Not the strongest, that’s for sure. Not bad but still, if it was deeproot we’d know. Of course that could kill her too.”
“Wait.” Dareth grabbed the man’s hand. “Is this stuff dangerous?” His voice sounded nearly frantic to his own ears.
The old man looked intently at Dareth for a moment. His creased face appeared to soften. He gently pulled his hand free of Dareth’s grasp and continued his work.
“Dareth,” the hermit said. “Your name is Dareth.”
“You know, Dareth, I am not from around here.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“And this root, you can’t find it around here either. This is all I have left.” He looked at the crumbled bits of plant matter in his palm almost lovingly.
“Not that I have much use for it around here. Still, sometimes..” He stared down at his open hand, lost again in his thoughts.
“But you said this could kill my mother?”
“Hmm? Oh, no. Nothing to worry about. It will either wake her or it won’t.”
“It will wake her? So she’s sleeping?”
“Sleeping? Well, yes you could say that. Alright, lift her head.”
Dareth slid his hand beneath his mother’s neck and raised her head as the hermit placed the tiny crumbs of plant between her lips. Dareth then put the cup to her lips. At first he thought she would not drink, but she did so from habit and the medicine went down with barely a cough. He watched, hoping that her eyes would flutter open immediately, but knowing that would probably not happen.
They both sat in silence for several minutes but Dareth could scarcely keep still.
“Would it help to go up to the Seer? People don’t go up to the statue much anymore, but if it could help.”
The old man chuckled and shook his head. “You can go if you like, but it’s the root or nothing. No amount of praying is going to help. either way it will be a while before we know.”
“I think I’ll go anyway.”
The hermit waved a hand dismissively. “Be my guest. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Dareth looked again for a long moment at his mother. Nothing had changed. Her head still rolled back and forth and occasionally a soft moan would pass her lips. He wondered briefly at the trust he was placing in this stranger, but there was no one else. Quickly he turned and brushed through the curtain. The night outside hit his cheeks with its chill. Fires dotted the village and kept the darkness at a comfortable distance. He walked alone toward the outskirts of the village, again toward that massive pile of earth that rose up a thousand feet into the sky.
He couldn’t remain in that small hut anymore. Lorvin’s words still scratched at his mind and he couldn’t help the guilt that flooded in along with them. If only he had kept clear of the outer path. Always reckless. That was the problem, and now look what he’d caused. Daesha had not been hit by a falling stone but perhaps something worse. And what did it matter? If he’d been where he should have then she would be alright.
He picked his way out past the last of the huts and strode up the path that ran along the wheat field toward the canyon wall. The cliff face swept back at this point and a pair of outcroppings protected the flat section of earth below from falling debris, even when the tremors knocked gravel loose from high above. Doubtless that was why the gods of the past had chosen that spot to place their Seer.
Dareth watched the statue loom larger before his eyes as he approached. Even in the darkness it was easy to pick out the tremendous height of the thing. Carved from the living rock of the canyon wall, the statue rose thirty feet into the air. A broad, round base took the place of legs and supported a torso that started thick and tapered toward the middle. The stone then broadened as it reached up to support a spherical stone, perfectly smooth. No face adorned the head of this mammoth figure. Its only other features were the broad, flat wings that jutted out at right angles from the shoulders where arms might otherwise have been.
Dareth climbed to the little plateau and knelt before the Seer. He placed his forehead in the dirt and begged his wish to the statue.
“Make it alright. Bring her spirit back.” His lips moved, though no sound escaped as he repeated his prayer over again.
The circle about the base of the statue, once kept meticulous, was now choked with weeds and dirt. People did not come here anymore. Lorvin came on occasion to seek for those messages of impending danger that once came from the totem. Things had been quiet for so many years. The one time that disaster had struck, the Seer had remained silent. Twenty three people died in the slide that killed Dareth’s father. That catastrophe ensured the old shrines fate. The Seer had failed to warn them.
Dareth’s eyes began to ache. Then tears spilled into the dust and a heavy sob wracked his frame. He rocked back onto his heels and wiped the dirty streaks off his face. He had spent his life without a father, was he doomed to live without a mother now as well?
“What will I do?” He spoke more to himself than to the totem. “I’ll never go near the cliffs again. That I swear.”
Even as he said this, Dareth knew that his oath was worthless. If only the world above didn’t tease at the edges of his imagination so. If only he didn’t feel so penned in there on the canyon floor. In places, groves of apple, ash and willow peppered the waving grasses. The river gurgled, gently down the middle of the gorge and animals of every kind gathered at its banks. This paradise stretched for miles and miles in both directions. Yet only a couple of miles separated the two piles of earth from one another. Those towering bluffs told a very long story, with their broad bands of varying hues. Each spoke a different tale of what had come before and they would always draw Dareth back. No one else shared his admiration. Kadnee sometimes feigned appreciation, but then Dareth would begin to wonder out loud about what lay at the top.
“The sky, you fool,” she would say. “It’s right there. Can’t you see?”
Dareth stared again at the bald face of the Seer and frowned. It would be easier, he had always thought, to glean an ounce of comfort from the idol if eyes looked back into his from that blank face, even though they be only cold stone. Whoever had crafted the statue so many ages ago had little more imagination than the canyon’s inhabitants today, though none of them would ever think of crafting anything that favored beauty over a utilitarian purpose.
As mundane as the carving was in appearance, there was much to wonder about it. Dareth often imagined taking the Seer’s call. It was not unheard of, though it had never happened as far as he could remember. Every child knew there was a chance that one day the cryptic message from the Seer would come bearing only his name. When that day came the child belonged to the Seer. He was left at the base of the statue and from there, whisked away forever to no one knew where. The tale frightened most children into behaving. But for Dareth, it only piqued his curiosity.
Dareth’s mind turned back to his mother. At one time the Seer protected the people of the canyon. It warned them of the flooding river. It warned them of fire and drought. The Seer told them when to fear the shakes but there had been no warning about today just as there had been none eighteen years ago. So how could Dareth draw even a meager bit of hope from the icy stone figure?
Dareth stood up and turned his steps back toward the village. He had gained little from his trip, save for a small distraction. He could not stay away from the hut any longer.
“Perhaps enough time has passed,” he said. “Perhaps the madman’s plants have done their work.” But the churning in his gut tried to convince him otherwise.