There were no thoughts, there was only sounds. There was the sharp chirping of a small bird in a nearby tree. There was the metal clang of hammer and anvil at the forge. A loud buzzing that came and went spoke of an insect whipping around somewhere near his head. A pair of footsteps crunched in rhythm as two people walked together down a gravel path. There was a poking of needle through leather that brought to his attention to a humming so soft and gentle it could barely be heard.
The man laying on the bed opened his eyes and immediately the humming stopped. He started to turn his head in the direction from which he’d heard the humming. Pain washed out all sound. Triggered by the movement, agony screamed out from every pore in his body. Mercifully, consciousness retreated.
“Will he live?”
“Yes, the specter of death has passed from him.”
The older man looked at the healer with a fixed stare then turned back towards her patient.
“Will he wake?”
“He has already tried, but his body is not ready for that.”
The older man’s forehead wrinkled.
“He is so white. Is he diseased?”
The healer’s lips curled in a smile.
“I’ve found no cause to think so. Strange as it sounds, I think he was born that way.”
“Just so it isn’t catching.”
The healer’s smile grew.
“The messenger will return in two days, Sagwi. If your patient is not ready to ride, when we march to war, we leave him to the fates.”
Sagwi watched the steady rise and fall of her patient’s chest long after the older man had left the tent.
“I’m sorry, my friend, the gods have played a cruel trick in bringing you to us.”
“Are you sure about this?”
“It’s barely sixty feet and it’s really more of a steep hill than a cliff. We can scale that no problem.”
“Climb, Devon. You climb hills and scale cliffs. That we will be scaling for over a hundred feet.”
Devon halfheartedly punched the other hiker in the arm.
“Quit being such a chicken, Matt. We can climb this easy and it would take just as long to go around it anyways.”
With that Devon started making his way up and Matt had little choice but to follow. Despite his protestations, Matt was easily Devon’s equal in the climb. Devon was a little taller and had a longer reach but Matt was stronger and had greater control of his body. Their different strengths caused them to take slightly different routes on the way up. Devon was ahead and slightly to the right of Matt when his left foot kicked up some loose gravel. Immediately, Matt pulled his body close to the rock face and turned his head away. The precaution was not enough. As the gravel skittered down a small piece managed to lodge itself in his eye. Matt dropped his head lower and was blinking rapidly when Devon called to him from above.
“Sorry. You OK?”
Matt opened his mouth to respond but he never did. The gravel in his eye, the shifted position, the question expecting answer, it was all enough for just enough climbing discipline to be lost that the right foot slipped its grip. The jerk caused other contact points to be lost and Matt quickly slid down about a foot. His left foot jarred against a stone outcropping but the quick downward momentum now pushed him away from the cliff face. He was reaching outward as his body went airborn. About fifteen feet lower he crashed against the cliff and rolled head over heels about three rotations before going airborn again. His body continued to spin in the air and he was just coming to face the ground again when he was going to make impact.
Matt awoke with a shout. Sagwi was immediately right by his side. Her hand at his chest gently but firmly pushed him back down on the bed. Pain still tore through his body but it wasn’t the excruciating, mind-numbing torture he had experienced just over a day before.
The strange woman standing over him did not look natural. She had dark gray skin with a slight brownish tint and raven black hair with a hint of orange running through it. She said something he couldn’t understand. The lilting intonations in her voice did not sound like any language he knew or even recognized but it did spark a connection to the humming he had heard earlier. Sagwi spoke again but the language remained completely foreign to him. It seemed as though she was waiting for a response.
Sagwi looked down at him in confusion. She said something more but again he looked up at her without comprehension. Remembering the pain from last time, Matt turned his head as slowly as possible to examine his unfamiliar surroundings. There did not seem to be any noticeable change in the throbbing pain that covered every inch of his body. The memory, the nightmare, that woke him flooded his mind.
He looked around again.
“This isn’t heaven but I sure do feel like hell.”
The sound and feel of Matt’s words was gravel. From the look on her face it was clear that the healer understood him as little as he understood her. Matt looked right her and spoke as slowly and as clearly as he could.
Just above his head a thin mist appeared. It grew in size and density as more and more moisture was pulled from the air. This steam then began to pull in on itself. Slowly it gathered together until all that remained was a ball of crystal clear water, about an inch in diameter, floating three inches above his chin.
Matt and Sagwi both stared at the floating water in shock and disbelief. Both looked at the other wondering what they had done and how. Slowly Matt reached a finger up towards the ball of water. He tentatively touched its surface. Upon contact the water fell and drenched his neck and face. Sagwi gave a brief yelp in alarm and fled the tent.
“Up, up! The god is awake!”
Sagwi’s words burst into the tent a brief instant before her presence followed. She quickly averted her eyes when she saw the elderly man and his wife, naked, waking on the pallet. The man sat up while the woman reached for covers that were not there. The man instinctively scooted forward as she reached behind him to recover the thin blanket from where it had fallen on the floor.
“What is this nonsense you speak?”
“The god is awake. He is up.”
“God? He is no god.”
“He is, Shontu, I saw him call water right out of the air.”
Shontu endured the brief tale of what Sagwi had seen.
“Give me a hew heartbeats and then we’ll go see about this god of yours.”
Sagwi fled from the tent almost as quickly as she had entered. Her embarrassment turned to shame as she pretended not to hear the murmuring inside.
“That girl is too excitable yet. She needs to find another husband.”
“What man would have her?”
“Are you men all so afraid of misfortune?”
“I fear nothing, Mozzi, that’s why I marries you.”
There was a slap and a giggle, followed by a sultry comment.
“But you’re already mine.”
Outside Sagwi burned with jealousy as she heard the banter of a couple still clearly in love. After a moment the conversation resumed.
“The loss of one man is a misfortune. The loss of two, in less than three seasons… That girl is cursed.”
There was a grunt of agreement.
“She’s not even a good healer.”
“Sagwi is young yet to take up the widow’s lore. Time and experience will grow her skill.”
“With this war of yours, there will be plenty of others to take it up with her.”
“That is tomorrow’s worry. Tonight… I go see this pale god.”
Sagwi started to move away from the tent but she was not quick enough. She and Shontu mirrored each other’s embarrassment as he caught her eavesdropping while remembering the conversation she must have overheard. Without a word, he turned to walk towards her tent. She ducked and scurried to quickly reach his side and then match his pace. A young boy, perhaps six, ducked out of a neighboring tent and tried to sneakily follow, in the twilight, from a distance.
The two arrived at Sagwi’s tent and Shontu waited for her to pull back the entrance before striding through first. The stranger was sitting on the side of his pallet, leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees. He turned his gaze toward the tent opening as Shontu greeted him.
“I see you are finally awake. Welcome to my camp. Be at peace.”
Shontu waited for a reply while the pale man just stared back at him with a blank look. The older man looked toward Sagwi.
“Can he hear? Is his mind damaged?”
“I don’t think so.”
He looked back toward their guest speaking louder and slowly.
“Are you injured? How do you feel?”
A red flush covered the stranger’s cheeks. He raised his shoulders and exposed open hands. Then he put a hand to his chest and spoke.
Shontu was confused as the stranger gestured toward him. He looked questioningly at Sagwi.
“I think he is telling us his name.”
“Nonsense. His mind is clearly damaged.”
The stranger waited for a moment for some response before repeating his gestures and statement a bit more emphatically. Sagwi nudged Shontu.
“Tell him your name.”
“This is nonsense. I will not be made a fool by this mind addled freak. If he will not perform your miracles, I am returning to my sleep.”
Sagwi stared at the tent entrance in his wake for a moment before turning back to her patient. She pointed at him.
He nodded vigorously. She put a hand to her own chest.
The stranger pointed to her then back to himself.
He pointed a circle around the room and looked at her questioningly. She studied him for a moment biting her lower lip. Her response was more to herself than to him.
“You don’t speak with words, do you?”