Astra walked the floor of the valley, staying to the forest this time,
where grass would not obscure her view of the ground. Only soft, mossy
earth greeted the soles of her feet on yet another fine, sunny day. She
almost smiled, in spite of the urgency. Above, at its zenith, the sun
dappled through the treetops. Of all the places she'd had to spend time in
the nude, she definitely preferred this to the caverns.
Just as she was nearing the ridge again, she heard a voice.
"Why, saints preserve! What in the seven wails of Sheol is a woman doing out in the wilds with nothing more on her than God graced her with at birth?"
Astra stiffened in alarm, falling back into a defensive stance. Then, cautiously, she looked up at the source of the call, up atop the ridge. She squinted, straining to see in the bright sunlight.
It was a grey-bearded man, old and wizened, but spry, clad in rags, striding the length of the ridge as if he was born there. Nimble as a spriggan, he nearly sprung down the side of the ridge to meet her.
It only took her a few moments for her well-honed battle sense to tell her that though the old man wasn't as infirm as some, he was no threat to her.
"See now, lass," he said once he had reached her, "that's no way to be goin' about. Now why be ye traipsin' about here? 'S been almost ten years since someone last entered the valley!"
"I...I thought this place was uninhabited," she stammered defensively.
"Well, lass, it is, well and truly, but where are my manners? I'm Simon the Anchorite. That's fancy talk for Eremite, which in turn is fancy talk for what you might call a Hermit. I live just beyond the head of the valley there, where ye seemed to be headed, in the hills. Now, humour an old man. What are ye doing out here naked as the beasts of the forest?"
Astra flushed as she realized how ironically true that was. There was something oddly decent and dignified about this old man. He carried himself well, with a sort of nobility, even though he was wearing dingy rags. She felt almost as if she were a child around him, and so she surprised herself as she was embarrassed by her state.
"I...I lost my clothes while bathing," she said, which was more or less true.
"That still doesn't tell me why you're here," he said, grinning amiably.
"I had to get away from something...far, far away," she answered, sighing.
"Well then, ye can come with me to my hut. I'm done my rounds now that I've checked Dagger Ridge here, and it doesn't look like the Sicarii are going to try my patience today. Then again, the asassins ain't had a go at me in fifteen years, I don't expect they'll be havin' a change of heart today. It's just a few hours walk to Hermitage Pass, but then again, I'd suppose ye knew that."
1/22/2000 7:17:00 PM
The Never Ending Quest Home
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