The hermit woke up, to find himself lying in a strained position by the fire, with the strange remnants of that unearthly sound still hanging in the air. Upon the hearth the weakening fire still snapped and hissed. Across the room his watchbeast was standing up and whining softly, looking toward the bed.
Even before he looked, Gelimer knew that whatever event had awakened him was already over.
Sitting up, he turned his eyes toward the bed. And then he sprang to his feet.
His visitor, once more fully clothed or very nearly so, was now sprawled facedown and diagonally crosswise upon the narrow bed, with the toes of his wet boots still resting on the floor. Above the stranger’s inert back protruded half a meter and more of beautiful steel blade, broad and mottled and glinting faintly in the firelight, beneath that black hilt with its god-chosen symbol. The blade was as motionless as the shaft of a monument; the body it had struck down was no longer breathing.
A great disconsolate whine came from the crouching watchbeast, and Gelimer without thinking could interpret the outcry: This was bad, this was very bad indeed, but there had been no way for the animal to prevent this bad thing happening.
There would have been no way for a human being to stop it either, perhaps. Gelimer glanced toward the door, and saw that it was securely latched.
The wet boots, still delicately puddling the wooden floor, would seem to mean that the man had got up, had gone outside for whatever purpose, and had come back in before he met his death.
The hermit approached the bed. There was no doubt at all that his late patient was now certainly dead. Still the hermit turned him partway over, and saw a hand-breadth or more of pointed Swordblade protruding through what must be a neatly split breastbone. Death, of course, must have been instantaneous; there was only a very moderate amount of blood, staining the cloth that had wrapped this deadly weapon and was now lying crumpled beneath the body.
With the door latched on the inside, it seemed an impossible situation.
Not knowing what else to do, and moving in something of a state of shock, Gelimer wrenched the Sword out of the stranger’s body that task wasn’t easy, for the blade seemed to be held in a vise of bone and stood for a few moments with that black hilt in hand, looking about him suspiciously, ready to meet some further attack, an attack that never came.
“Geelong, I don’t suppose that you? But of course not. You don’t have any real hands, to grip a hilt, and . .. and of course you wouldn’t, anyway.”
The watchbeast looked at its master, trying to understand.
And certainly no man would ever be able to stab himself in such a way.
Eventually the hermit wiped the blade on the coarse cloth that had been its wrapping the steel came clean with magical ease and put it back into the sheath that he found lying discarded on the floor in the middle of the room. Then he went to arrange the body more neatly and decently on the bed, wadding the Sword wrapping cloth underneath in an effort to save his own blankets. There was not going to be that much more bleeding now.
Then he decided that the only practical thing to do was to go back to sleep again, after satisfying himself that his door and his window were indeed closed tightly, and latched as securely as he could latch them. Geelong continued his whimpering, until Gelimer spoke sharply to the beast, enjoining silence.
A few moments after that the hermit was asleep by the fireside as before. The silent presence of the occupant of the bed did not disturb his slumbers. All his life Gelimer had known that it was the living against whom one must always be on guard.
In the morning, before the sun was really up, the hermit went out to dig a grave, and to see to one or two other related matters. The snow had stopped an hour ago, and by now the sky was clear. He left the sled in its shed, but he took Geelong with him.
The fallen riding-beast, as Gelimer had expected, was dead by now, already stiffened. The saddle it bore was well made, and the beast itself had been well fed, he thought, before it had started out on its last journey. There were no saddlebags; most likely the journey had been short.
With considerable effort, and with the aid of his dumb companion, Gelimer tugged the dead animal to the edge of the next cliff down, and put it over the drop, and looked after it to see where it had landed. Not all the way into the river, unfortunately; that would certainly have been best. Instead the carcass was now wedged in a crevice between rocks on the lip of the next precipice. Good enough, thought Gelimer, quite good enough. In that place, the hermit thought, the carcass should be well exposed to flying scavengers, and at the same time out of sight and smell of any human travelers who might be taking the usual trails.
Having disposed of the dead beast, the hermit now went to dig a grave for the dead man.
He dug it in the stand of trees nearest his house, where many centuries of organic growth and deposit had built up a deep soil, supported by one of the largest ledges on this side of the mountain. As soon as the sun was well up, in a brilliant sky, last night’s snow began melting rapidly, and thus caused very little interference with his digging. Here the air never remained cold enough for long enough to freeze the ground solidly or to any considerable depth. Black dirt piled up swiftly atop melting snow as Gelimer plied his shovel.
When the grave had grown to be something more than a meter deep, Gelimer called it deep enough, and hiked back to his dwelling to evict its patient tenant. He noted hopefully as he walked that there was still enough snow on the ground in most places to allow him to use the sled for transport.
The trip back to the grave, with mournful Geelong pulling the burdened sled, was uneventful. Into the earth after the stranger went the bloodstained cloth that had once wrapped the Sword.
Gelimer said a devout prayer to Ardneh over the new grave just as soon as he had finished filling it in. When he opened his eyes afterward, he could see, at no great distance among the massive trunks, a place where some years ago he had laid another unlucky traveler to rest. And if he turned his head he could see, just over there, another. That grave, representing the saddest failure of all, held a young woman with her newborn babe.
After the passage of a few years these modest mounds had become all but indistinguishable from the surrounding floor of the grove, covered with dead leaves and fallen twigs under the melting snow. In a few years this new grave too would totally disappear. That is, if it was allowed to do so. That was something Gelimer was going to have to think about intensively. He still had no real clue to the identity of the man he had just buried.
Frowning, the hermit put his shovel into the sled and urged Geelong back to the hut. The Sword that awaited him there, he was beginning to think, might well pose a more difficult problem than any mere dead or dying traveler.
Now even in the shade the snow was melting rapidly, and in another hour or so all tracks made in it would be gone. That was all to the good.
Secure inside his dwelling place once more, the hermit drew the Sword out of its sheath, and looked at it even more carefully than he had before. Perhaps he should have put this treasure into the grave too, and tried his best to forget about it; he had come very near to doing just that. He foresaw that no good was likely to come of this acquisition. Yet there was no doubt that the thing was immensely valuable, and he supposed it must be the rightful property of someone. He had no right to lose the wealth of someone else.
Gelimer was still troubled by the face of the Sword’s last possessor handsome, haunted, but now finally at peace.
ALMOST a month passed after the stranger’s burial before the hermit looked upon another human face, living or dead. Then one day he was standing inside his house, almost lost in meditation, when Geelong suddenly lumbered to the door, sniffing and whining. A moment later a completely unexpected voice called from outside, hailing whoever might be in the house.
Awaiting the hermit in his front yard, regarding him when he came out with a look of fresh and youthful confidence, was a young man of about eighteen. Curly brown hair framed a broad and honest-looking face, above a strong and blocky body, not particularly tall. The youth was clad in the gray boots and tunic of a religious pilgrim, but he still wore a short sword belted to his side a reasonable and common precaution for any traveler in these parts.