He hooked a stubby battle hatchet to his belt there were dangerous beasts to be encountered on the mountainside sometimes and grabbed up the backpack, kept always in readiness, filled with items likely to be useful in the rescuing of stranded travelers.
Then, before Gelimer went out the door, he paused momentarily to build up the fire. Warmth and light were both likely to be needed when he got back.
The small house from which Gelimer presently emerged, with torch in hand, had been carved out of the interior of the stump of an enormous tree, easily five meters in diameter at head height above ground level. From just in front of the house, the tremendous fallen trunk was still partially in view, lying with what had been its crown downslope. So that log had lain since it was felled decades ago by a great storm, and so it would probably lie, the splintered remnants of its upper branches sticking out over the gorge of the Tungri itself, until another windstorm came strong enough to send it crashing the rest of the way down.
What he had last seen as freezing rain, a few hours ago, was now definitely snow, and had already produced a heavy accumulation. Gelimer grimaced under the hood of his anorak, and turned to a small lean to shed built against the outer surface of the huge stump. From this shelter he pulled out a sled about the size of a bathtub. After lighting ready torches that were affixed one on each side of this vehicle, he harnessed Geelong to it. All this was quickly accomplished despite the wind and snow. A moment later the powerful watchbeast sprang away, and the hermit clinging to the rear of the sled by its handgrips had to run to keep up.
The beast ignored the thin path by which the rare intentional visitor ordinarily reached the dwelling of the hermit. Instead it struck off climbing across the rock-strewn slope above the house. Here and there along the slope grew more big trees, dimly visible now through swirling snow, rooted in pockets of soil on one broad ledge or another. Some of these trees were of the same species as that which formed the hermit’s house, though none of these still-living specimens had attained the same size.
The vigorous watchbeast, anxious to do the duty it had been trained for, lumbered on, snow flying from its splayed paws.
In this direction, very nearly directly south of the hermitage, one seldom used trail came over the mountains. It was on this slope that travelers were most likely to encounter difficulties, particularly when the weather and visibility were poor.
A few hundred meters above the hermit’s dwelling, the path from the south split into two routes, one going east and the other descending in a treacherous fashion to the west. The eastern path rejoined the riverside one a few kilometers east of and above the gorge, the two paths uniting at that point to form a better-defined way that could almost be called a road. Meanwhile the western fork came down eventually to a village on the shore of Lake Abzu, where the Tungri calmed itself after the turmoil of the gorge.
The reality of the trails was much more complex than their simple goals would indicate, for in conformity with the rugged mountainside they all wound back and forth, up small slopes and down, around many boulders and the occasional tree or grove. And all of the trails were poorly marked, if marked at all, steep and treacherous at best. At night, and in a snowstorm
The hermit’s feet, accustomed better than anyone else’s to these particular rocks, slipped out from under him, and he would have fallen painfully but for his tight grip on the handles of the sled. Muttering a prayer to Ardneh to grant him speed, he pressed on, crossing a small stream upon a newly formed bridge of ice and snow.
Without the aid of his beast, Gelimer could never have found the fallen man, nor, perhaps, would he have had much chance of saving him when found. But with Geelong to show the way the search, at least, was soon successful.
The body lay motionless under a new coat of snow, in moonless, starless darkness. Gelimer turned it over with a mittened hand. The fallen stranger was of slight build, his handsome face smooth-shaven, pale in the night. His forehead was marked by a little dried if not absolutely frozen blood. Even in the wind the hermit could hear that the man was still breathing, but he was not conscious at the moment. His fine coat, trimmed in light fur, and his well made boots indicated that he was no peasant. Whoever he was, having fallen on a night like tonight, he was lucky to be still alive.
Another and larger mound of snow, a little way downslope, stirred when the light of the sled’s torches fell upon it. That illumination, faint at the distance, now revealed the head and upraised neck of a fallen riding-beast, and a faint whinny came through the wind. Most likely a slip on ice, thought Gelimer, and a broken leg. Well, it was too bad, but beasts were only beasts, whereas men were men, and freezing to death would doubtless be as kind a death for a beast as having its throat slit in mercy. The hermit was going to have all he could handle trying to save one human life tonight.
The fallen man lay surrounded by sizable rocks, and it was impossible to maneuver the sled any closer to him than three or four meters. When Gelimer lifted the hurt one, he woke up. He was still too weak to stand unaided, or even to talk to any purpose. His mouth seemed to be forming stray syllables, but the wind whipped them away, whether there was any sense in them or not.
The man’s eyes were open, and as soon as he realized that he was in a stranger’s grip they widened briefly as if in terror. As if, thought the hermit, he had more fear of being caught than expectation of being rescued. But now, of course, was not the time to worry about that.
Weak and confused as the fellow was, still he was able to cling with a terrible strength to a strange pack or bundle, long as a man’s leg, that he must have been carrying with him when he fell. It came up out of the snow with him, clamped in the crook of his right arm, and when Gelimer would have put the bundle aside, if only for a moment, to get the man into the sled, the object of his charity snarled weakly and gripped his treasure all the harder.
“All right, all right, we’ll bring it along.” And Gelimer somehow bundled the package along with its owner into the sled, and pulled up furs around them both. “Any other treasures that are worth your life to save? Evidently not. Geelong, take us home!”
In a moment the sled was moving again, first back to what with normal footing would have been a trail, and then taking a generally downhill direction, switchbacking through the altered and darkened landscape toward the hermit’s house. On the return trip Geelong moved less frantically, testing with his forefeet for treacherous drifts, nosing out the limits of the trail.
Once during the ride back to the house, the man who was bundled into the sled began to thrash about. He moved his arms wildly until he again managed to locate his package, which had somehow slipped momentarily from his grip.
“Poor fellow! That bang on the head may have made you crazy. But take it easy now, you’re in good hands.” It was doubtful at best that the man would be able to hear him in the wind, but Gelimer talked to him anyway. He hated to miss a chance to talk when one presented itself. “We’ll see you through. You’re going to make it now.”
Even with Geelong guiding the sled and pulling it, regaining the house was a tough struggle into the wind. The firelight within offered some guidance to the seeker, shining out in feeble chinks around the edges of the single shuttered and curtained window.
Hardly a routine night’s work for Gelimer, but not an unheard of adventure, either. This was far from being the first time he had taken in a fallen or stranded traveler, and a good many of those he’d tried to save had lived to bless him for his aid.
When they reached the hut, Geelong remained outside at first the watchbeast was capable of unharnessing himself from the sled. Gelimer hoisted and wrestled his client, and of course the omnipresent package, out of the sled and through the small entry hall, doored and curtained at both ends for winter, that pierced the thickness of his house’s circular wooden wall. Once safely inside, Gelimer let his new patient down upon the single bed, and moved quickly to build up the fire again. Indeed, both light and heat were wanted now.