THERE IS A MOMENT IN AN out-of-control situation when its utter wrongness becomes agonizingly apparent – and it’s the same moment that the experiencer realizes there’s not a damn thing to be done about it.
Such were Prosatio Silban’s thoughts as his galleywagon slid sideways off the ridge-girdling road and down the steep cliff he had been so carefully avoiding.
He barely had time to realize what was happening as he was thrown from the driver’s bench hard against a cliffside boulder. He bounced onto his back, head downward, near the cliff’s base. The sharp pain in his ribs made him want to cry out, but he couldn’t get his breath. All he could do was watch and listen to his portable home-cum-livelihood roll over twice and come to rest upright at the cliff’s bottom.
Sweet merciful All-Mother! he thought, gaping and gasping. What about my dray-beast?
The chatoyant animal looked lost and concerned all at once, and Prosatio Silban wished he could comfort it.
It was some time before he could focus his eyes, but when he looked up the hill he could see his beloved buopoth, Onward, looking down at him from many manheights above. It must have slipped out of its harness – an instinctive trick for a shapeshifter, he thought. The chatoyant animal looked lost and concerned all at once, and Prosatio Silban wished he could comfort it.
After a desperate span of heartbeats, the cook inhaled as much as the pain would let him, then exhaled in jagged puffs. “Onward,” he croaked. The quaint dray-beast cocked one of his ears. “Onward,” he repeated. “Please. Get. Help.”
Onward disappeared. They had passed through one of the Uulian Commonwell’s smaller villages a while ago, but the next was many miles ahead – and the road between was seldom traveled. Prosatio Silban tried not to think about the futility of rescue – or even whether Onward had sense enough to bring it.
* * *
I should have taken the forest road, the cook mused. It would have meant another day’s drive, yes, but then I wouldn’t be laying here at the bottom of this ravine. Or I should have been paying closer attention to the road instead of my nearly empty coin jar. Or perhaps –
Light hoofbeats sounded far over Prosatio Silban’s head, interrupting his self-castigation. With the noonday sun blinding him, he couldn’t be sure what was up by the road, but the sound was becoming louder by the second. The hoofbeats reached the spot where his galleywagon had taken its tumble, then stopped.
Onward? So soon? the cook wondered.
“Halloo? Halloo! Are you hurt?” cried a man’s voice from above.
Prosatio Silban squinted up, but in vain.
“Help me,” he moaned. “Chest hurts.”
“Hold on, mister. Help is coming.” A different voice. Was there more than one rescuer?
Two ropes uncoiled from above, their ends raising small dust clouds where they struck nearby. A pair of men slowly rappelled the cliff face; soon they were standing next to the unfortunate cook. The men wore the rough-cut kneebreeches and tunics of the Commonwell’s lower classes; their muscular arms and legs proclaimed them to be farmers or builders or laborers of some sort.
“That’s better,” said one. “Let’s get you set up.” He gently dragged Prosatio Silban until the cook was lying flat, then pillowed his head on a broad rock. The cook’s chest throbbed, but at least he could see and breathe a bit better.
“Thank you,” the cook whispered, relief warming him like a shot of ginger brandy.
“You’re something of a mess,” said the other man. “How’d this happen? That your wagon?”
“All right,” said the first. “Wait here. We’ll bring out everything you need.”
“In the wagon,” Prosatio Silban wheezed. “Helpful things. Medicinal spices. Bandages. In pantry. On the right. As you enter.”
The men exchanged glances. “All right,” said the first. “Wait here. We’ll bring out everything you need.”
The cook closed his eyes, then opened them. “Thank you,” he breathed.
The men climbed up into his galleywagon, riffled about inside. Soon, they emerged bearing spices, bandages, food, drink, clothing, and a hasty assortment of other desirables. One was holding Prosatio Silban’s heavy – but largely empty – coin-jar. They were smiling cats-caught-the-bird smiles.
Prosatio Silban’s stomach went cold. “You’re,” he said. “Robbing? Me?”
“That’s. Right,” the first man said with a grin, settling a broad-brimmed hat on Prosatio Silban’s head. “To keep the sun off your face. Thank. You.”
They bound their ill-gotten treasures into two of the cook’s plundered robes, the tied the bundles to the ropes and took firm hold. “Harrio!” the second man called up the cliff. “Haul away!”
The thieves’ steady ascent was punctuated by laughter and whooping. Soon, Prosatio Silban was alone again.
* * *
There are many ways to die in the wild, Prosatio Silban reflected. Exposure. Snake or voonith bite. Dehydration. Demon fodder. Rockslide. Sadistic highwaymen. And those are just the slow methods. He closed bloodshot eyes and took a deep breath.
“O Thykol, God of Unloooked-For Grace; Marella, Goddess of Sudden-Lit Obscurity; and Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None Is Felt; hear my plea and grant my boon,” he whispered. “You have done me innumerable kindnesses in my travels to serve Your children in the Commonwell and surrounding Exilic Lands. Please – help me do so again. All I ask is for You to restore my strength so that I may climb out of my present circumstance and into the next one. In return, I will make happy as many of Your children as I can with the skills You have given me. This I affirm.”
The cook waited, expecting some vision or transformation, but nothing came save a still, small sense that he had somehow been heard. Sometimes, all the gods can do is help us to feel a bit less alone and abandoned, he thought, and sighed. I’ll take it.
Some minutes later, heavy footfalls sounded from far overhead, then stopped.
I don’t have anything left to rob! Prosatio Silban thought. By the All-Mother, whatever it is, please let it be quick.
A rattling hoot came drifting toward him, as a familiar face peered over the edge of the cliff.
“Hello,” said the small child.
ONWARD! the cook almost shouted. He broke into a large smile. “Good. Boy,” he breathed.
As he watched, the dray-beast’s outlines flowed and became a great silver bird circling down the cliff. The bird landed, and as it retook its former shape Prosatio Silban noticed it wasn’t alone.
“Hello,” said the small child.
Oh, no, Prosatio Silban thought. Oh, Onward – what have you done?
The child was of indeterminate gender, perhaps nine or ten years of age and of olive complexion. It was wearing nondescript clothing, and its bright green eyes pierced the cook’s from under a curly tangle of night-black hair as it climbed down from Onward’s back. Its voice was musical, but the sort of music that evoked melancholy contemplation rather than uplifting joy.
Now hear and know, O Patient Reader: There are times when time itself expands; when the slow heartbeats stop, leaving nothing left but intent perception. At such times it is vitally important to speak the truth, because everything pivots on what you say next – where the words you use are as eternal as iron-graven granite.
This, Prosatio Silban thought, is one of those times.
“Hello,” he replied.
“Gravity getting the better of you?” asked the child, with no trace of a smile.
“Yes. Through. No fault. Of my own.”
“That can happen. Let me see your heart,” said the child, kneeling down beside the injured cook and placing a hand on his chest. Prosatio Silban winced reflexively. But to his surprise, the child’s touch warmed him. The child closed its eyes, and the warmth grew hot.
What is happening? thought the cook, as the heat on his chest faded – along with the pain.
There was a pause.
“Better?” asked the child.
“Yes,” Prosatio Silban replied, though with some confusion at how easily he could now speak. “Thank you.” He tried to rise, but the child put a finger to its lips.
“You do have a good heart, but it needs a moment’s rest,” the child said. “Tell me, what is your greatest wish?”
Again came the expanded-time sensation. “To make a quiet living serving the hungry souls I encounter,” Prosatio Silban said. “But right now, my greatest wish is that I had taken the forest road – instead of becoming distracted by money woes.”
“You do not wish for more money?”
“Yes, of course. But if I had paid closer attention to where I was going, I would now be on my way to earn more money. That is the game, and it is one that I enjoy.”
“I see,” said the child gravely, and gestured. “I must go.”
“Wait!” said the cook, as the landscape began to melt…
* * *
Prosatio Silban pulled up on his buopoth’s plaited yak-hair reins, halting his galleywagon’s forward progress. “The ridge road is tempting, I admit,” he told his dray-beast. “But I think we’ll take the forest road instead. It will take a day longer, but what of it? One never knows whom one might meet…”
(Story idea by the formidable Ann Clark.)