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A Gift of Silk

By Gerrit Stainer

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3480 (old reckoning), Ryke of Tyban

Pausing in the meager shade of a scrub oak, his head throbbing, the man reminded himself why he was making this sacrifice.

The mountain Snow-wall is named for its winter coat, but in high summer the snow disappears from the western face. There was no path to the peak on this side: the trail led to the hermit’s hut. In the canyon to the south there was a road to a more desirable destination, a summer palace built among the forests of the flats a little ways under the pass. The road there was hard too, but the royalty, courtiers and clergy who spent their summer days in that place had porters and beasts to carry them and their baggage.
If the hermit would give this man the blessing he sought, he would be among the number of those carried up that canyon road next year.

Where the maples meet the aspens – he had been laboring uphill between dry grass and scrub oak, and now he came to where he could see no more trail. Surely the visitors up here were frequent enough to keep a path through all these thickets?

Close eyes, breathe, then take a fresh look.

Down the slope a gap in the scrub oak caught his eye. Why hadn't he seen it from down there? It was a long way. He sighed, hoisted his pack, and stomped back down the trail.

Back at the thicket of scrub oak, it was clear: a little way in, a little squeeze and grab and catch on branches, tugging clothes and scratching, and then there it was: a neat little path through, under the snaky trunks that rose to a roof of leaves: welcome shade.

He laughed in spite of his headache and set off again.

In time he came to the maples and his headache decreased somewhat. The day dragged on as he huffed and puffed up the slope. He was not an active man and his heart had broken quite early on with an apprehension of how sorely he had underestimated the distance. As the sun lit the green canopy from eye level he felt he had passed beyond heartbreak, beyond awareness of who or what he was. The world was breath, and the throb of blood, the scent of plants, and dust.

The whistle brought him up short. He looked to the right to where it had come from, and caught movement. A hand? He shook himself, planted his feet and waved back, still breathing hard.

Without doubt it was a woman who made her way through the undergrowth toward him. Her long braids were streaked with gray; the sun had browned her limbs and maybe wrinkled her face more, or maybe it was the smile that turned into a laugh as she closed the distance.

“What a large pack you carry! It looks heavy. Have you brought me something?”

“Yes.”

“Then follow me. Don't open it yet! I'll lead you to my house. It's not far.”

It was far, to him. Through maples, through aspens, along a path where ferns brushed his legs, then to a clearing where a small house sat on a patch of ground that was not as steep as the rest. It was no palace, but it was also considerably larger than a hut.

“I don't remember seeing you before,” said the hermit, as she opened the front door. “I have lived up here for 20 years and if I judge aright you aren't much older than that.”

“I'm 23,” said the man, stepping inside.

“Welcome, and may you find what you seek. Please, have a seat, and while you rest, open your pack and present your gifts.”

Out came the packages: dried fruit, spices, shelled pistachios and almonds (they had taken him hours), fine flour, a cheese and finally, most precious of all, a few tablets of chocolate and a bolt of crimson wool. It was not a hermit's color, but it was warm, and expensive. Everyone he had talked to had suggested he bring money, not showing any sign of recognizing how foolish that was: what could a hermit spend money on? Nobody he knew had ever visited her before, and his tavern-mates had looked at him very oddly at the mention of his plan.

She smiled. “All that for me? I thank you. And now what is your name?”

“Azodju.”

“Know-peace. You may call me Ethjrr. I chose the name when I took this office. So, one who knows peace yet seeks a benison of the lover of the woods. Perhaps you wish to take full claim of your own name?”

“I want to marry.”

“Well, good for you. Let us prepare and share a meal, and you can tell me about her.” She gestured. “Can you cook any of this?”

The sun was down when, by the light of two candelabras (he should have brought candles) they sat down to flatbread, cheese and stewed fruit. It was then that Azodju found himself able to talk most clearly.

The object of his ambition was the daughter of a courtier, a wealthy one. He had been admitted to her house, he had been visiting the family for months, and was working up the courage to ask for her hand.

He was an artisan, but if he brought a worthy offering to her family he could be granted their favor, and hers, and be included in her mother's house. They followed the southern order.

“You must be a pious man?”

“My friends say superstitious in fact. They said it was foolish of me to spend for this offering what I should have spent on the offering for her and her family.” A visit to the hermit was a time for confession, was it not?

“And how much did you spend on this?”

“Everything I had. I trust in Providence, through your intercession.” He bowed. By sacrificing what he had he opened himself to the blessing of having what he gave restored and increased. So he had been taught, and so he believed, unlike his friends.

“That is good,” she said. They finished the meal in silence, and then cleaned up, sang the evening hymn, and she was still murmuring her songs or prayers behind her screen as he stretched out on the bench by the stove.

When he awoke the next morning she was not in the cottage. He got up, saw to necessities and started putting some breakfast together. The cottage was well-furnished. Time went on and he felt uneasy, like an intruder. He sat at the table with his eyes closed, trying to clear his mind. It was something he had never been good at.

The door opened and he opened his eyes, saw her smiling in her tattered rags.

“I’m glad to see you passing the morning in contemplation,” she said, coming to the table and sitting. “So have I, in order to answer your petition. This breakfast looks good, thank you. Let’s pray and eat, and then I will bless you and tell you your doom.”

He found it hard to sit still while they ate. She looked at him in a way that looked pitying and it made him uneasy. He was glad she finished eating soon.

“I was married once,” she said. “My husband and I had four children, the youngest not too much older than you. When my husband died I felt like my life was over too. Our marriage was arranged. It was moderated, we were prepared for it, and we were happy. And I had no intention of becoming a hermit, until I visited the one who lived here at the time. He was near death when I showed up at this door. We talked all day and half the night. I went down and told my children what I had to do, and they helped me pack. They come see me sometimes. I'm not lonely up here. I'm as happy as I can be. Have you finished? Then let’s clean up.”

He didn’t protest. He helped clear the table and wash. Halfway through drying, she put down a cup and looked him in the eye.

“If you would marry well, then this is the charge I lay on you: quit your design to marry the courtier's daughter. That will not restore what you have spent. Furthermore, though I welcome your gift of crimson cloth, and I bless it to your good, it is not the color for me. I beg you bring another offering: a bolt of undyed linen and another of undyed wool. And in addition to this I offer you the hospitality of the mountain for a season. You seek to refine your soul, that is good. That is necessary before you are ready to present yourself to another worthily, and for that you need time.

“I tell you this too. I know you're disappointed, so hear me now. Within the month you will see a change in the rule of this kingdom. A new king will take the throne and bring new laws, new commands. He will also carry West Tyban into war with East Tyban in an attempt to reunite the two kingdoms. I expect he will succeed in this. I offer you the hospitality of the mountain: when you hear the news of war, come back here and be safe from conscription, if you would avoid having to take part in the fighting.”

“You want me to come and be your apprentice?”

“If you would learn, I would teach.”

Azodju put the last plate away and replaced the towel, breathing hard. One did not show disrespect to a hermit, but...

“You are angry.”

“I came up here as an act of faith.” He glared at her hands.

She did not flinch, nor speak.

He struggled for words but everything he might say felt stale and insufficient. Finally he stammered out:

“I made a sacrifice in order to gain a blessing. And you have denied me that.” He shook his head, feeling tongue-tied, confused, furious. “I'm leaving.”

Ethjrr sighed. “I regret your anger.”

“Not as much as I regret my foolishness in making this visit.” He strode to the corner where his pack was.

“Don’t forget your crimson.”

Fuming, he stuffed the precious cloth into the pack, then slung it on his shoulders – now much lighter.

“Do you have enough water for the way down?”

He waved his hand angrily and walked to the door. She did not stop him. He left the cottage, went back down the path muttering and, after covering some distance, shouting. He shouted at the mute useless trees, scaring birds, about betrayal and frustration and faith and credulity and betrayal. He stumbled once and skinned his palm stopping his fall.
He had not packed enough water. He was weak and dizzy by the time he got to the trailhead with its modest hostelry. In a fit of hopeless generosity he gave the innkeepers the crimson, took credit for two nights there and spent them and the day between sleeping, drinking and telling anyone who came in that they should leave the hermit alone and not bother trying to visit her. One middle-aged woman listened to his tirade with an indulgent expression on her face that sent him back up to his room where he fumed, watching her from his window as she walked up the trail. Poor fool.

On the third day he left the hostelry and walked the long way back home, back to where his work awaited him, with only a handful of coins to his name. A letter from the house of his intended awaited him: it looked like an invitation of some kind. He tore it up and threw it in the stove.

He never saw her again.

A couple of weeks later he was pulled out of the absorption in his work that now consumed his days, by the news that the king had died suddenly and the next heir was on his way in from his island estate on the Inland Sea to claim the throne.

After hearing this news Azodju stayed in the shop while others went out to exchange news, or take part in the festivities after the new king was crowned: Shözbefa, Gray-cloud, the third king to bear that name. It was a name for an ambitious king; the second had conquered.

It was in the late autumn that the new king set out to conquer also, declaring himself the rightful ruler of a unified kingdom of Tyban, sending troops eastward and calling for more. Young men all around the city thronged to enlist. Azodju ground his teeth as he did his work and tried to forget the hermit's invitation. He did not allow himself to dwell on thoughts of going up into the mountain.

Snow fell on the heights of Snow-wall, the news from the front told of advance and retreat and uncertainty (the citizens of Tyban have long prided themselves on their newspapers; correspondents from a dozen traveled with Shözbefa's army at his invitation). The winter passed with news of victories, the spring brought news of defeats and conscription. Azodju should have listened: a week after the new year he was on a parade ground with pike and arquebus. He had the wits and resource to show his mathematical aptitude to the commanding officers and was chosen for a gunnery squadron, wearing a crimson coat with an eagle embroidered on the front. The dangers he faced were not from enemy blades, arrows or balls but from explosions of the terrible iron beasts he commanded – or getting his teeth and brains rattled out of his head from their pounding.

The summer of that year for Azodju was one of hot, thirsty, dusty roads. First they went through the long canyon, then up onto the plateau, and for his company it was a constant pursuit of a battle that they never managed to join.

Then, in the autumn, they laid siege to a fortress that had been hastily built in a distant and desolate place, and all winter long was the noise and shaking of Ope, Iatsha and Dhrrzka and the ceaseless swabbing of their bores. Azodju had never been so miserable.

The siege was broken in the spring and the artillery unit disbanded as the enemy had taken to fighting in small mobile groups that would disappear into the wilderness just as suddenly as they had appeared. Thus it was that Azodju found himself in a small squadron of men following a guide around the high desert and mountains of East Tyban, learning to fight in this perplexing way that had been the strength of the outlying kingdoms, and which Shözbefa and his generals now adopted whole-heartedly as the way to finally triumph over these stubborn backwards rebels.

Three years after the war began, the commanders of the eastern kingdom sued for peace. Azodju did not witness the ceremony that ended the war: he was up in a remote mountain village learning how to operate long-distance signals, now wearing a white coat instead of crimson: a Mountain Goat. One day a signal brought news of the end of the war, and that evening he and his comrades drank and danced with their former enemies in the village square, in a mix of three languages. He had picked up some of the language of the half-wild mountain-dwellers, but none of the pale people from the valleys of the kingdom to the east who had joined the fighting within the last few months.

After a long journey home, he returned to his shop with a slight but constant ringing in his ears, the embraces and smiles of his family and fellow workers, and spent the winter working as he had, feeling like he was watching it all from a distance, and no longer shutting out the memories of the mountain.

In the spring he bought bolts of the finest and sturdiest undyed linen and wool that he could, and added one of blue silk, and set out on the trail again. When he came upon the cottage no one answered at the door, so he waited on the porch in the chill wind, his mind empty, his ears ringing, until he heard a song on the breeze and, opening his eyes, saw her approach through the bare trees.

She was dressed better, in undyed wool like she had asked him for. Her hair was grayer but her face was the same. When she reached the porch she stopped and leaned on her stick, studying him with a knowing expression. “Well, and how was the war then?”

He shook his head and gestured to his pack. “I brought the offering you bade.”

“Did you bring blue silk too?” She laughed, stepped forward and took his hand. “Come inside, scarred one. We will feast together.”

A full pot was simmering on the stove. At her direction he added to it, set the table for three, did not question.

Then she told him to wait outside while she went and brought the other pilgrim in.
“It's her first time, and I think she might get lost like you did.” She smiled at him. “Maybe you two will like each other.”

“Have you planned this?”

“No. It’s not for me to make plans, but to help realize them.”

So he sat in the cool spring breeze, the sun on his face glowing red-gold through his eyelids, letting go of time, quiet and content. As the sun lowered he heard voices.

They were singing. He looked and saw movement through the bare branches, and then there they were, coming into the meadow. Ethjrr was leading a younger woman, striding at a self-assured pace. She called out and lifted a hand. Her voice was strong.

The man who would know peace took up the song too, as they drew closer.

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About Gerrit Stainer

This professional archivist lives in the land of his pioneer forebears, tending a garden and fruit trees and writing love letters to the land in the form of fiction.

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