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Heart of Gold

I was following the wind that day. It usually swirled me around deeper into the mountains, but that day it rolled off them and swept me down to the meadow. I must have passed the house a hundred times before I ever knew it was there.

The blue mountains loomed large to his left as the wind receded and he glided back toward the earth. He opened his grass-green eyes and soon narrowed them curiously. He had never been to this part of the mountains before and always thought that there was nothing to see. The riches the miners dug for hid beneath the southern peaks and west of the mountains from here was nothing but cliffs and sea. There were no roads nor trails and the pine forest grew thickly here.

But some trees had been cleared away, and in the middle of a lush meadow on top of a hill stood a wooden house. A garden grew beside the southern wall, next to a coop inside which a number of chickens clucked to themselves. A stone well was placed at the end of the hill where it sloped down into the forest. There was a path near it, he discerned, but it was a hunting trail at best. There were no stables nor stys and no living thing to be found aside from the chickens. It was unlikely to be some lord’s hunting shack, as none would come here if not on horseback, and the house was too small for even a modest servant’s quarters inside. It was not unoccupied, however. A thin plume of smoke rose up from the chimney towards him.

It was likely some hermit’s hovel, he decided. He began to spiral down toward the front door of the house. A grin worked its way onto his face. It was almost too easy. One hermit, unlikely any more, and who knew what kind of stores he had?

His thin boots landed lightly on the grass near the well. They were getting old. Perhaps if he was lucky, the hermit might have boots his size he could take as well.

The shutters were open, he discovered as he approached the house, but he could see no one. Maybe he was exceptionally lucky today and the inhabitant wasn’t even home. He almost chuckled at the thought.

The hinges of the front door groaned in protest as he stepped inside, but only the low flames in the hearth stirred in the common room. It was a small room, and plain, much like the house appeared from the outside. The furnishings were surprisingly elegant, but faded with age and modest. A small, round dining table with three chairs, a chest, an old sofa, a cushioned rocking chair, a shelf of books. The last gave him pause, as he wondered why anyone who lived in this remote part of the land would be able to read, but he shrugged it off. The kitchen attached directly to the common room and the pantry to that. He walked straight toward it.

Cupping his hand before him, he summoned flames over his gloved palm to light the room. His eyebrows peaked in interest. The shelves were crowded with salted meat; pork, boar, rabbit, cod, trout, pigeon, all sorts of fowl, even some beef. Floor to ceiling the pantry was stocked with meat, cheese, vegetables, baskets and baskets of bread, cakes, honey, butter, casks of wine and ale and mead and milk, dried herbs, spices, barley sacks of cornmeal and flour, and just in front of the door was a knee-high basket of brown eggs. He picked one up and sniffed at it. Fresh, undoubtedly from his own birds. The grin snaked across his face again. He would eat well tonight.

“You’re well stocked up, old man,” he called out. He turned to surprise the man that meant to surprise him, but the hermit stood still in the common room, unarmed, and simply gazed at him. He was old and grey, with long, but well-trimmed white hair and beard, and wore only a simple woolen robe. He looked thin almost to the point of famished and stood over a head shorter than the young man did.

“A hermit needs to keep his pantry full,” the old man replied. “Visitors to replenish my supplies are few and far between.” There was no fear or reproach in his voice, nor his posture. He spoke as if it was a neighbor he addressed. The younger man hefted a large slab of bacon and tossed it from hand to hand as he considered the hermit.

“Just you here, I’d say you have enough food to last through the winter,” he remarked. “Or halfway through for two.” He grinned darkly at the hermit.

But the hermit only answered, “That’s true.”

He set the bacon back on the shelf and returned the common room. Circling the old man, he stated, “You know, I could just kill you right here and take all your food. I’d hardly have to lift a finger and there isn’t anything you can do to stop me.”

“So you can,” the hermit responded, “and so you might. You must be pretty desperate to steal from an old hermit.” The young man let out a laugh.

“Desperate nothing. There’s plenty of game out there, this is just easier.”

“So it is,” the hermit agreed. The young man stopped, frowning. The old man was not afraid of him, and it wasn’t that he was hiding it, either. No one had ever remained so calm on first glimpse, let alone someone so much weaker than him. The hermit’s solid milky white eyes made him uneasy as well.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” he asked. The hermit spread his hands helplessly.

“I grew old and they gave out,” he explained. He raised an eyebrow at the hermit curiously.

“You mean you can’t see anything?” he wondered. The hermit nodded.

“Only darkness,” he confirmed. A bark of laughter escaped from the younger man.

“Consider yourself lucky, then,” he stated. The hermit said nothing in response. He grabbed an apple from the kitchen counter and took a large, juicy bite. The hermit didn’t react. “So why do you live here by yourself, anyway?” The old man murmured as he turned and approached the rocking chair.

“The kingdom has no use for an old, blind man like myself,” he told as he sat himself in the chair.

“I guess we have something in common, then,” the young man replied. He tossed his apple core out the open window. “That, and we’ll both be eating well tonight.” He turned back toward the pantry.

“Why don’t you eat here tonight?” the hermit offered, stopping him. He shot the old man an odd glance over his shoulder. “It’s much easier to fry that bacon over a hearth fire.” He hesitated for a moment, then laughed again.

“Why not, old man? It’s been a while since I’ve had company for dinner.”

It was an entirely chance encounter. I could have just taken the food and left and no one would have been the wiser. I meant to do it, too. Instead, a few short words and I stayed for dinner. I’m not even sure anymore if it was the pantry that brought me back.

The hermit walked with a cane as he carried a wooden bucket toward the well. He prodded the grass with his cane when he turned off the trail leading away from his house. When the butt hit the stone well, he leaned his wooden cane against it and hefted the bucket. He grunted softly as he tied the bucket to the rope mechanism and began to lower it into the darkness.

“Come back for more bacon, have you?” he greeted with a wrinkled smile. The younger man returned it as he glanced over his shoulder from the lip of the well.

“Now, that’s interesting,” he commented. “Not even an elf can tell when I’m nearby, yet you seem to know right away.”

“When the eyes go, the ears become stronger,” the hermit stated. “I heard you arrive an hour ago and I hadn’t heard you leave.” The rusted pulley squealed as he pulled at the rope. “I’m thinking of making stew tonight.”

“That sounds delightful,” the younger man remarked with a grin. He hopped off the edge of the well as the hermit removed the bucket, now spilling over with fresh water, and followed him toward the house.

I never suspected I’d stay. It’s not like I ever had anything better to do, but there was no reason I should’ve stayed, either. I didn’t care, I just felt comfortable.

“Tell me this, old man,” he began. “Why would a blind old hermit have books in his house?”

“I wasn’t always blind,” the old man replied. “Nor was I always old, or a hermit.”

“So how is it you knew how to read?” The hermit grunted as he pulled himelf out of the rocking chair and shuffled over to the dining table.

“Orren, young one,” he answered. “I was once Lord Orren, an earl over these lands. Even the smallest of nobles need know how to read and draft letters.”

“Why keep them, though?” the young man wondered as he flipped through one of the leather-bound tomes. “You can’t read them anymore.”

“No,” Orren admitted, “but I know those by heart. I read them over and over again as my eyes started going, so I would remember them when I couldn’t any longer. I can still run my fingers over the pages and touch the engravings, though, and remember what they look like.” The young man traced an illustration in gold leaf and vibrant paint with a gloved hand. He had never paid much attention to books when he had the chance to see any, but these seemed magical somehow.

“I still write,” Orren added as he opened up the chest beside the table. The young man replaced the book on the shelf and approached as the old hermit retrieved a handful of loose pages from the chest. “Though I’m sure my penmanship has suffered, since I can’t see what I’ve written.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the young man commented. “It all looks like chicken scrawl to me.” Orren looked deeply at him with his empty eyes.

“Do you want to learn to read it?”

“Why?” he asked sarcastically. “What good will it do me, who can’t even walk into a town?”

Orren paused.

“May I look at you?”

“You are looking at me, though I thought you couldn’t see anything.”

“Yes,” Orren murmured. “A blind man does a different kind of looking.” He held up a pale, bony hand, dotted with liver spots. The young man frowned, but he didn’t move as the hermit stood. To his surprise, the hands didn’t fumble. They reached up and laid straight on his shoulders and patted the shape of them beneath his shirt and long, blank tabard. Orren’s fingers were dry and flaky, but gentle as they worked up his neck and stroked his face. He grew uneasy at the touch, especially when the old man’s thumbs passed over his lips. But the hermit’s examination was stoic as a physician’s. The bony fingers traced his high cheekbones and pointed chin, his long nose and longer ears. Orren hesitated there.

“Your ears are unusual.”

“It’s not the only part that is,” the young man replied. The hands traveled back down his head and neck. As they reached his shoulders again, he carefully turned himself aside. Orren’s face betrayed no confusion or fear when his hands met the torn cloth and strange shapes on his back. Up the hands followed them, groping at the curious softness. Donning a sinister grin, the young man twitched them, feathers rustling at the movement. Orren gasped and halted his inspection as he realized what he touched.

“That’s right,” the young man stated with a savage smile, “a demon stands before you.”

“Funny,” Orren responded as he pulled his hands back. “I don’t see one. I just see an elf with wings before me.” The young man stepped back and frowned at him.

“Why are you so kind to me?” he snapped suspiciously. Orren’s joints creaked as he lowered himself back onto the chair.

“It would seem I don’t have a choice,” he answered. The young man looked away uncomfortably.

“What if you did have a choice?” he continued, softer.

“I don’t know,” Orren replied and fixed him with his gaze. “What if I did?”

I really enjoyed being here. It was quiet and calm and you accepted me. You never judged me and you gave me so much.

He could see them darting between the trees through the wooden shutters.

“Outlaws,” Orren stated. “Honest men wouldn’t sneak about through the forest like that.” The young man nodded. He approached the window.

“You’re bold men to come tramping around here,” he yelled out as he threw open the shutters. “Best turn back now, though.”

“You don’t stand a chance, boy!” one of them called back. “We’re a hundred miles from nowhere and we’ve got ten against you. Give up now!”

“Actually, we’re only fifty miles from somewhere,” he replied, “and for your sake, I hope you can fight better than you can count. I only see six.”

“Still too many for you!” the leader answered. “You come out nice and slow and we won’t have no trouble with you.” The young man glanced over his shoulder at Orren with a grin.

“Well,” he commented, “I’d hate to disappoint.” Closing the shutters, he strode to the front door and opened it. The outlaws hung back and watched, armed with swords, staves, and daggers, and two held bows with arrows aimed at him.

“This is your last chance,” he warned. Even the sight of his ears should have swayed the outlaws, but they only laughed. His dark grin returned. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He stepped outside and spread his wings. The outlaws became as pale as milk and a few of them swore. They stared unmoving at him as he raised his hands, enveloped in flames.

In a moment, the meadow transformed into an inferno. He flung fire and bolts of magical energy with lethal force at the outlaws, reveling in their screams. They scattered instantly and he stepped forward to chase after them.

“That’s enough,” Orren’s voice came calmly from behind him. “They won’t be bothering us again.” The young man shrugged and swept his arm around before him. All the fires in the grass and trees guttered out.

You taught me how to read and write. You showed me how to cook food with flavors I had never dreamed of before, how to tend for chickens and store meat safely. How to dress wounds and mend clothes and appreciate the beauty of the world. But most of all, you restored my faith in humanity.

He had sat outside beneath the window while the visitors were calling and heard every word they spoke through the open shutters. They never knew he was there. He stood in the doorway now, gazing into what had become his room, and at his mattress lying on the floor. It was a bare mattress, Orren’s old one, with no four-poster bed to support it nor canopy to cover it like the old hermit had down the hall, but it was his bed. A feather bed, far softer than his own plumes and more comfortable than he could ever have dreamed in all the years he spent sleeping on the ground.

It was too good. It couldn’t belong to him.

“I still don’t understand why you’re so kind to me,” he stated.

“You chop my wood, tend my garden, and lift those heavy buckets that my poor back can’t handle,” Orren replied. “And you’ve been the companion I’ve wanted for years for a while now. It’s only fitting I make you at home here.”

“I was going to rob you,” the young man growled. “I still could. You shouldn’t be so nice to me.” The hermit remained calm, as always.

“It would have helped me none to be cruel to you instead,” he answered. “The surest way to vanquish a foe is to turn him into a friend.”

“That doesn’t work!” the winged man shot back, angry tears gathering beneath his eyes. “People aren’t kind! They’re heartless and traitorous and they won’t let you befriend them!” The past betrayals flashed through his mind and he wanted to throttle the old man for resurrecting the kindness he had given up on years past.

“Hatred eats away at you inside,” Orren commented softly, laying a hand over his breast. “Let those who would hold on to so much anger suffer it themselves. You need not take it upon yourself.”

“It’s easier to hate! That way you can’t be hurt or betrayed by anyone!” His voice began to break and the tears threatened to break free of his eyes.

“Except by yourself,” the hermit remarked. The young man spun and slammed his fist against the door frame. “You know you hold your hatred deep within. You may try to hide it, but you only bury it alive.” Orren laid a hand on a wing. “Let go of your anger, young one. It doesn’t help you and it doesn’t hurt the ones who’ve betrayed you.” He curled his hand still leaning against the wall into a tight fist, but he felt the energy drain out of him with the old man’s words.

“How can I do that?” he asked weakly. “How can I let go when it’s the only thing that gave me strength? That protected me?”

“Shield yourself in calmness. Find strength in your own being. You have reason to mistrust, but that is not the same thing as hate. Be wary and remember that you are all the strength you need.” The young man let out a deep sigh, his shoulders drooping.

“Strength,” he repeated faintly.

You were the greatest mentor and friend I could ever have asked for. I don’t think I could’ve withstood my lonely existence if you hadn’t taught me how to live with it. My life would have been so different without you. I wish we could have had more time together. I wish…

The autumn chill had brought a fever, and nothing he did could help the old man fight it.

“You know, you’re the first person I’ve met who left me by dying,” he told. “All the others became afraid or betrayed me. They all walked away from me.” He looked away, remembering all the people he had once called friends.

“Does it sadden you, young one?” Orren croaked. He reached a hand up feebly from his bed.

“Derek,” he answered as he took the papery thin hand. “My name is Derek.” The hermit smiled.

“Derek,” he repeated. “I’m glad to know.”

“No, it doesn’t sadden me,” Derek replied. “It gladdens me. I’ll never have a poor memory of you.” The old man smiled even as his breath grew weak.

“I’m glad to have made a difference.” He coughed, a deep, throaty hack that sounded as if he was about to expel all the fluid out of him. “Thank you, Derek. My time is done. You’ve given an old man joy for the last years of his life.”

“I can’t tell you all you’ve given me,” Derek stated. He cast his eyes down at Orren’s body, long unmoved beneath the covers.

“Then don’t say it,” Orren responded. Even though his eyelids were weak and he could see nothing, he gazed deeply at Derek. “Live it.” Derek gave his hand a gentle squeeze. For the first time, he felt an ache in his heart with the thought that Orren was leaving him.

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure,” the hermit continued, “than knowing that I made an impression on you.” He coughed violently again. “I’m glad to have known you.” So am I, Derek thought. So am I.

It was hours still while the old man lingered, shivering and sweating at once, but by the time the sun set on the day, so it had on the old hermit. Derek dug in the rain, his hole washing into mud even as he continued deepening it. The chill didn’t bother him and neither did the work.

I’ll never forget you. You helped me in a way that no one else ever has. I truly feel like a better person for having known you. The world may not be ready to accept me, but now I’m ready to accept the world. And I owe it all to you.

He quickly found a chisel and hammer, a large, flat stone, and chalk to write his message first, to make certain he didn’t fumble the words as he was chipping them. But he puzzled over the message to write for days. His first thought was a summary of Orren’s life, but mere dates and names weren’t worth his legacy. It had to be something timeless, something that would inspire and touch the heart of any man who read it. He spent long hours reliving the past years he had spent with Orren, trying to find some tidbit that would be as eternal as his perished soul.

Finally, he decided.

Thank you.

“Within every heart lies the power to change.”

 

© Catherine Fitzsimmons

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