The residency of a hermit is always a matter of considerable local interest, and this occasion was no exception to the rule. Every week, it seemed, another curious child or wandering washerwoman crept about the edge of the woods at the base of the hills, staring open-mouthed at the brambly paths and fallen stones that marked the way to the great cave at the crest of the tallest of the mounds.
Cautiously, the braver of their kind would prod at the trail's defenses, and were it not for the wicked sharpness of the thorns (which, in those days, could grow to the length of a pianist's finger) and the disturbing proliferation of Death's Hood mushrooms, he would soon have lost his reputation as an ascetic. You weren't a proper recluse if just anyone could go and see you.
The day in question was pleasantly warm, at least until you realized that there was no breeze at all, and the mild sun still managed to bake your clothes onto your skin. The Hermit sat within his cave, ostensibly considering the Grand Mysteries. Actually, he was trying to remember the taste of good bacon.
With a sigh, he rose. The sight was odd, like a tree falling in reverse; an inevitability gone wrong. It could not have been stranger if Atlas had decided one day to release the sky, only to watch it actually fall.
Doubtfully, he fingered the tip of a long wooden stake, which he had sharpened through the use of much effort and more teeth than he'd like to admit. He thought he'd seen a pig a few days ago. He'd have to look into it. Far below, diluted by the birdsong, came the laughing calls of children, playing in the fields. Alone, the Hermit allowed the echo of a smile to drift across his face . . .
Which soon vanished. He blinked. What had that been? He knew every noise in these woods, from the creeping of the worm to the shrieking of the highest winds. So he knew that what he had heard was the errant arc of a dislodged pebble, some twenty paces down the road, but what this meant, momentarily eluded him.
The pig, he decided. It had to be. After all, there was not a man alive that could pierce the ironbranch thorns. He'd seen swords quite literally break against them, and not shoddy ones, either. His gaze wandered to a suggestive shadow in the corner of the cave . . . then snapped away. He grimaced. Hobbling quickly, he snatched up the sharpened branch and, half aiming it, half using it to support his creaking weight, he exited into the light of day.
Shielding his eyes from the cloudless sky, he blinked down the short, overgrown path, and started off under the trees. He was more comfortable in the shade, and crouched level with the brush. His knees creaked in protest, but he ignored the creeping agony. There was meat to be had.
Letting his ears guide his shuffling footsteps, he slunk behind a patch of Euonymus berries and followed the rustling of the stones and scattered leaves.
It was then that suspicion began to gnaw his mind. The steps were of the wrong rhythm, he mused. They weren't the rapid tik-tak-tik-tik of pig's feet, and besides -- who ever heard of a pig staying so long on the the beaten trail? For that was surely where the noise was coming from, and where his trajectory would take him. Adjusting for an angle of interception, he tightened his grip and looked worriedly at the shaking in his arm. Nothing for it, he thought. One, two, TH--
He burst bodily onto the trail, swung reflexively away, saw the glitter of steel and heard, with sudden fear, a sound he had tried so desperately and so long, to forget . . .
There came the noise of scraping iron, the grinding chill, as of a fork being dragged down a tin bucket a mile long. The sword left its sheath in a blaze of shattered sunlight, throwing contrary darkness through the gaps between the arms he had thrown over his eyes. He felt the blade rushing downward, shearing apart vast continents of the air, and suddenly he held not a spear, but instead a rather stumpy log. He threw it aside, and let loose a growl. From a nearby aspen came the fluttering of wings, and a chorus of sparrows took sudden flight.
"Who disturbs the tranquility of my wood?" boomed the Hermit. His voice went low, yet free from the quavering weakness of age. It boomed from tree to tree, and they shivered to sudden attention. "Who dares intrude upon the rest of the ancient, with no fear in their heart for that which deserves to be feared?" A crescendo left the lights in his eyes blazing as like flame.
"Oh," said the woman. "So it is you."
He blinked. Then, feeling something of the moment had been lost, he intoned gravely, "none alive now remember my name."
"Really? Because the Archivists seemed to have it down pat. They're the ones that told me, see. They also said," she stuck the sword deep into the scattered soil, and drew out a long scroll of fresh parchment. "That you'd be rather full of it. Also, you like radishes. I brought some, if you'd like."
The Hermit glowered with the heat of suns that suffer no worlds to live. His voice, in contrast, could have frozen the pyroclastic flow. "Did you, now?"
"Seasoning, too. Could we go in?"
He sighed, the fury fading from his veins. "Leave the sword," he grumbled. As an afterthought, he added, "It isn't the vinaigrette, by any chance? The one from Hgundabad?"
"The very same."
"Well, that's that. Hand the sack here, then -- the cave's a ways away, and I've been in the most peckish temper."
The cave had just come into sight when the questions began. At first, as with all things she did, the girl was extremely subtle.
"Have you always lived here?" she asked, eyeing the scattered bones around the cave-mouth. The hermit followed her eyes.
"Keeps away the goats," was all he said, and hobbled purposely into the deep shadows. The girl lingered, her nose wrinkled in distaste. "Were ye expecting roses?" he sneered. Hesitantly, she stepped in, and took a seat on one of the ledges, taking care to first sweep away the cluttered mass of discarded chestnut shells.
"You can't have been born here," she pressed. "Where are you really from?"
He squinted at her. His eyes had long ago adjusted for a lifestyle effused with the darker spectrums, and he saw clearly the loose-fitting style of her clothing, and the intense clarity of her rapier-esque nose. Had there been more light, there would have been a gleam in the eyes, which had blue irises behind the dilated pupils.
All this, he caught in a moment, but something else caught his full and bemused attention. For on the center of her shirt was the motif of the sun, arced at eight points by the tips of the Star. He knew that sign. What was that sign?
The girl noticed him staring at her chest, and folded her arms in a gesture that betrayed none of her building exasperation. She waited. Soon, the Hermit regained enough of his shabby composure to return his expression to one of enigmatic menace.
"From the depths of the coldest desert," he said, "and the dew which forms on the leaves of fatal truths."
"How . . . fascinating."
The man grabbed another radish in a rapid motion, and bit off a solid half of the vegetable before saying, "Do you know why I've brought you here? T'ain't the radishes, don't try that. No," he wiped his mouth with one bone-thin wrist. "No, you see, I'd like to know how you got past the vines. Was it magic?"
He pointed in the general direction of the township, judging by the way the bellowing oxen's voices carried on the wind. "They have tried to climb up for nigh on thirty years now," he said. "Not a single one of 'em's gotten past the ironbranches. Good reason, too: you can't. I've seen swords . . ."
"Yes, well, it's not so thick on the other side of the hill. I came from the east. The vines don't grow near running water."
He paused, thinking. He dipped another radish in the slimy pot of vinaigrette, and said, "too clever for a woman. Who sent you?" Chewing as he was, he didn't see her bridle. Perhaps he would have noticed anyway, though, if the girl didn't immediately arrange her features into a smile that her acquaintances would have braved the ironbranches to escape.
"What does that mean, the fatal truth?" she asked. "Near Dyrz, is it?"
" 'Tis an old magic," said the Hermit. "They call 'em metaphors."
"A shame," she said, and rose. From the back of her bodice she produced a long barrel of iron, which led to a complex series of mechanisms controlled by a single trigger. Held in her hand. "For the records name no such place, Ignold of Dyrz."
The birds once again fell quiet, and the dust became loud in the cave. Now the Hermit, too, began to stand, throwing aside his meal to ball up his gnarled fingers into fists.
"You go too far," he said softly. "Who told you that name?"
"There are others," she said. "The Archivists called you Jin-Volos. Heir of Maxwell." The Hermit took a step forward, but the girl shook her head, and motioned with the gun. "Don't. You were fast, in your day, but even you can't outrun the thunder of the Prythenian smiths."
"Know so much, do ye? Think it's so smart of you, coming up here with those blasted scrolls . . . after all, why not?" He stalked away, back turned to the gun, as the girl watched him with determined but curious eyes. "Peace is all I have, now. Why shouldn't the world take that, too?" He laughed mirthlessly, and the laugh ended in a cough which sounded dangerously deep. "Why not," he repeated, then said, "Well? You want something, I expect. Pirates on the coast of your village, perhaps. Or a lord had your father executed, and now you're on a great quest across all the lands, to find a man powerful enough to stand up to his army of salaried men who have families that get cut from ballads, is that it? Doubtless, there'll be a dragon somewhere, that's how this works."
But the girl didn't speak. Not for a long time. She stood and watched him look back at the gun, and then her chest again, where his brows creased with an expression she couldn't rightly name. She was thinking. At last, she said, "Why are you here?"
"You've killed whole cities," she said. "The histories say you've fought gods"-
"Killed a couple, too," he grinned.
-"and kings." She ignored the interruption with poise. "And now you're . . . here. They have songs about you."
"No. They don't."
"You're wrong," she insisted. "Why, there's the Teclad and the Iiromis and the"-
He raised a hand to silence her, catching her off guard. She hadn't expected that sort of gesture from a person like him. Queens did it, as did posh ministers fending off unwanted paperwork, but not lecherous old men who ate raw rat meat in backwater hills. She stopped.
"I'll tell you only once more," he said, and by now he had reached the mouth of the cave, and was looking only inward, a corona of scattering sunlight filling the delineation of his form. "You're wrong. Those songs . . . they're about chaps named Fornogeith the Unkillable, or, or Jin-Volos, He Who has Stolen the Ram of Erasmael the Prophet and Escaped the Clutches of Fate the Great Avenger, things like that."
"But that's you! That's what they call you."
"So?" he shrugged. "Look at me. Am I a slayer of gods?" Even in the great contrast of sun on darkness, his eyes were sunken and pale with the progenitors of cataracts. The skin was tight, the shoulders hunched, and what few teeth were left had sunken into disrepair and black, shriveled husks. Involuntarily, she shivered.
"People grow old," she muttered. "That doesn't mean they become someone else."
Again came the mirthless laugh. "You'd not understand, girl. Men who grow old . . . oh, they used to like books, they keep their books. You keep 'em in a ruddy cell, and likely they'll be looking for their books, or talking about some sap who got stranded on an island and had an affair. They used to like chass, they'll keep playing chass, 'til they go blind and ill and, before long, dead. Theory, practice, matches and get-togethers, but for me, well." His voice grew soft, like sandpaper that has been overused. "I've seen things Men were never meant to see," he said. "And I killed them. Years ago, I killed them just as they have doomed untold millions of our own kind. That's who I was. And now I could not rightly hold a sword."
Both pairs of eyes, by some undefined instinct, swiveled to a corner of the cave, where the shadows were somehow thicker, than even the most secluded of the nooks in the cavern walls.
"Is that"- her eyes widened. He looked away, either unable or unwilling to answer. Lowering the gun, she walked slowly to the corner, and reached into the bubbling darkness.
And the cavern filled with light. The sword spilled it forth, as if it had been storing all the brilliance of thirty years, which of course it had been. It was most prominent against the Star on her chest, which began to pulse a bright purple.
"Avalorin," she breathed. "It's real."
"More real than I am," said the Hermit. He eyes were now lost to shadow, and he sounded more lost than anyone the girl had ever met. "Understand," he said, as she lowered the sword, for its weight was considerable. "I have killed gods. That is not a feat accomplished by mortals. I slew Valgros, Dark Herald of the Black Mist, and his master. I have banished the Hungering Angels to the voids. I am a god."
The girl stared. The suspicion of insanity flickered across her mind. Poor thing, she thought. The years have not been kind to his feeble brain. But he went on.
"Thing is, gods are ideas," he told her. "They are not flesh. They are not blood. They're ichor, or some nonsense, see? Jin-Volos does not age. I'm not as lucky."
She leaned the sword against the wall, where it slowly faded to black. The setting sun glanced across the angle of the blade, and passed on.
"Who are you, really?" he asked. "I have been alone for thirty years . . . ."
"And the world has changed so much," she said. "You've no idea how much that's true." She shook her head. "Men who've seen you level armies aren't sure you ever really existed. I've met them, and it's true. One of them told me it was probably a lightning storm."
The Hermit was quiet. "That Star on your chest . . ."
"Aermun," she said. There were so very few names now remaining in the world, which held any vestige of power. This was one of them. It filled the air like fog, and pressed against the soul like music from a string bass. It went deeper than the ears or the heart, into the very substance of your bones. A shudder shook the base of the Hermit's spine, and he had to take a moment to regain his wits before saying:
"Ridiculous. A woman cannot become a wizard." He concentrated, trying to remember. "There are Tenets," he recalled. This received a smile.
"And indeed, I am no wizard. Why should I chase the path already taken," she added, in a tone of voice which suggested that the lines had been heavily rehearsed, "when there is the chance to forge my own?"
"The sun," he realized.
"The sun," she said.
"The witches have been dead for centuries," he said doubtfully, and the girl only shrugged.
"They say the same of the gods. Those who know, know."
"Aye. That's the truth."
For a long time, the silence stretched out like the arc of History, glimmering with the suggestion of hidden truths just waiting to be found. Then, the witch spoke once more, whispering into the twilight.
"It doesn't have to be the end, you know."
She took a moment, to arrange the ideas that had bloomed behind her tongue. "You might not be Jin-Volos," she said, "or . . . or Fornogeith the Mighty or any of those other names, but that doesn't mean you've reached the end of the road. You've had a hundred names."
"And all of them are dead." He paused, then laughed. "At least, dead to me. You waste your own time, girl. You think I wait to die. You're wrong." He repeated it. "You're wrong. I have lived so long . . . I'm sick of it. Of prophecies and old wizards that think themselves far wiser than they are; of dragons and brooding warriors and evil kings . . . I no longer own a name. I am the happier for it."
The girl watched him. The way his knees now bowed inward, his back hunching under the weight of a skull that in its day had shattered shields. And felt sorrow. Sorrow, and terrible guilt.
"I should not have come," she said. "I've caused you pain." She stood to her full height, and made to leave. Outside the cave, she paused. In the strong light of the summer moon, she stopped. "I hope never to become one such as you," she said. It was not meant in spite, and the Hermit only nodded.
"I fear perhaps I will. I feel . . . lost." Her hair, noticed, was a rare shade of true gold. In the moon, the locks were shaded silver where they flowed. Hair worthy of queens, and yet there was something more, and it gave him a shock of sudden alarm.
The girl was looking at him oddly. "Perhaps you could take another name, before the end," she said. "Free of prophecy. Your own, and yours only." She made a decision. "I shall stay in the village," she said, "for three nights. Things are happening in the world. It will need someone very soon, who works not for the light nor the dark, but for . . . humanity. For we are neither, aren't we?"
"That is true."
She nodded. "Perhaps I will see you again," she said, and departed. Soon she was a light amidst the shadows of the trees, and then only the faintest suggestion of a glow remained.
He refocused on the thing which had given him such a shock, the light which had floated about the suspiciously dramatic frame of her hair. And looked up. The heavens were clear, free of clouds or wind, and there . . .
He had once made the acquaintance of an astronomer, who had taught him not to simply hear the calling of the stars, who called very often, but to actually listen. So he knew the meaning of that glow. He'd worn it himself, many more times than he had liked.
"Bastard," he growled, at a constellation which gleamed blackly from behind the haunches of Trigo the two-pronged dragon, with stars that were not really stars at all, but instead the memory of them, held aloft by belief and gods. The Faeries called it Cal'grandafur, but men had a simpler name.
The mists of Prophecy were thick tonight, before the wintry Face of Fate.
I hope never to become one such as you . . .
He had never been one for passions, of any sort. He had seen men lost to madness, death, and things far worse. In the beginning, he had felt for these men the love of brothers, but the pain soon hardened his scars. But tonight . . .
The blood rushed loudly in his ears. Grimly, he swung around back into the cave, and stared at the sword which one he had called his own. Avalorin. The hum around it wasn't silence, but the ghosts of immortal screams.
He reached down, grasped the hilt with two hands, and closed his eyes. This weight went deeper than the arms. Tears formed at the edge of his eyes, and for a moment he wanted nothing more in the world, than to let go, to kick it back into the corner to rot in eternity. It passed. For the first time in thirty years, Avalorin rose in his master's own hand. The light, like a beacon, shone out for many lonely miles, blinding a hapless owl that streaked in the sky far above, and yet the Hermit felt no pain.
"One last song," he muttered. "After all, why not?" A voice filled his head. It sounded like the song of steel against steel, bright and dangerous and real.
And of whom shall they sing? asked the voice of Avalorin, and the Hermit's smile was long.
"Oh, I know. You wanted something like Urdikales, yes? Orovastion the Old!" He laughed, and felt stronger. "That's not the name of a man. That's the name of a star, and I'll not waste my last life, as another star."
Very well. And whereforth shall we travel . . . John?
"An easy one," he grinned. "A madman and a witch must walk to the village square." There was a pause. "You know," he said, "I think I'm quite ready."
And he stepped out, into the glory of a night that was ever and only his own.