Chapter Eleven

Darkness fell while the men struggled southward through the Elbe Mountains. Rolf had suggested making camp, but Columba gently urged them onward. Jordanes’ will to continue hardened even as his meager stores of energy and body heat drained. Toward the end Rolf himself could do little more than trudge forward supporting one arm of Jordanes with his shoulders. Columba guided them unerringly to the refuge.

The hermitage was as Rolf expected; not much. After stumbling through snow, occasionally knee deep, for a day—Rolf and Columba almost carrying Jordanes toward the end—any shelter and food seemed heaven sent. The dwelling was an angled stick and mud wall set against a hollow where two sandstone stacks abutted. A snow-covered thicket of brambles protected and hid the entrance. 

Columba pounded on the door post and hailed Silvester by name. After a short time the hunched-over hermit welcomed the three into his shelter. To Rolf it seemed little warmer inside than out, but their host set wood to the banked coals and soon the room filled with smoke, then light, then heat. The space itself was so small that all four could not stand at once. Jordanes lay along the slanting back wall while the hermit crawled deeper into the cave to retrieve food and drink.

Rolf eventually doffed his glazed capuche and jerkin and sat with his back against the wall farthest from the fire while Columba told Silvester why they were in his woods and what they needed from him. Silvester had not yet uttered a word. Perhaps he’d taken a vow of silence. Or he was simply mute.

Rolf examined his host. Standing straight, which he never did, Silvester would have barely reached the men’s shoulders. He was light framed. His head was narrow with feathery wisps of hair glowing like a halo in the fire light. His eyes were so deep set that Rolf never saw them other than the occasional sparkle of reflected fire light. Both his nose and his chin were pointed, the latter with a few grey wisps fastened by a knot of string. The sureness of his actions with so many strange men and objects invading his tiny home satisfied Rolf that the hermit was not blind. Silvester held his spidery fingers in front of himself, tips lightly touching, like a squirrel or a raccoon.

The hermit’s clothes or habit were little more than rags. He obviously lived on the floor and had to crawl to reach the inner portion of his cell. The food which he brought forth was of the simplest kind: one small pot with ground nuts and one with honey. His single iron pot, which he moved close to the now-blazing fire, was half-full of water. By the time herbs brewed, the interior glowed with light and heat. The hermit bobbed his head happily when Rolf offered him his small bag of rolled oats.

They woke Jordanes to force a little tea and nut meal into him before letting him drift back to sleep. The baron seemed to know and trust the little hermit. Other meal was mixed with water upon the sides of the now-inverted iron pot to bake.

Rolf sniffed and separated the nut meal in his hand, wondering what nuts were in it. He knew that some nuts were unsafe to eat.

“You can trust our host not to poison us,” Columba said, having apparently read Rolf’s mind. He was shaking the meal in his hand and popping small quantities into his mouth, before chewing vigorously. “He knows what’s safe. Most of this which he stores for winter eating he toasted as well.”

Rolf tried some. The nut meal was delicious, though tough to chew. 

Silvester reappeared from his storeroom with a bag of uncracked acorns which he placed in front of Rolf. When he next brought two flat rocks, Rolf understood that he was to break them open and pound them into meal. The four of them would quickly consume whatever food the hermit had stored. These nuts had dried long enough that the fruit wall on most had cracked, making it easy for Rolf to peel off the hard coating and separate the nut meat with his skinning blade. He recognized the acorns as being white oak. Those could be eaten with just a light toasting. Mother soaked red oak acorns several times to reduce the tannin. Rolf crushed the nut meat into a coarse meal.

“Is this good enough?” he asked. “At home we grind it coarse like this, then finer after roasting.”

Silvester pinched the nut meal and patted Rolf on the shoulder. He pried the toasted cakes off his pot, reversed it and set it back near the fire. He poured the meal Rolf had prepared into the pot. As Rolf and Columba ate the cakes, Silvester stirred the meal occasionally.

Rolf assumed they would stay only the one night then proceed to Burg Altz. Sun peaked through the woven eastern wall of the hermitage when he woke the next morning. He felt an urgent need to go outside. It was bitterly cold, and the sun was filtered by high, thin clouds but at least the wind had diminished.

Back inside Columba discussed several possible courses of action with Jordanes, who hadn’t moved from the hermit’s pallet. The baron finally seemed satisfied that his condition and the presence of a hostile claimant would not allow him to march to his home and pound on the gate with the pommel of his sword, demanding justice. 

Silvester listened but took no part in the discussion. He brewed more tea, this from a different mix of herbs. The hermit had spread the roasted meal on the pounding stone, and Rolf used the smaller stone to grind it. Silvester waved a finger and nodded in a manner which Will took to be approval.

“Well, I can’t just lie here while that monster abuses my family and people,” Jordanes declared. His voice boomed in the small space.

“No,” Columba answered. “But you will do them no good by getting yourself killed before you even know what’s going on. I don’t know what happens inside those walls either, but I can promise it will not admit to such a rash solution. Silvester confirms the Dragon is building a small army. Not nearly enough men to cause major trouble yet, but certainly more than he needs to defend himself or respond to his required levy, not that he would come if the king called.”

“My fealty is owed to Count Emmet down the Wiesse Elster,” Jordanes said. “He answered to Louis of Bavaria when all this started. I have no idea who owes fealty to whom now.”

“Emmet died several years ago. Godfrey is the new count. During your absence, your little corner of the world seems to have rolled under the table. No one currently asserts sovereignty over the upper Altz in general and Burg Altz in particular. Konrad is a law unto himself. Or no law. I suppose we could wait for the greater lords to work this out, but the Dragon’s domain has the potential to grow explosively. Burg Altz sits in a vacuum between Saxony, Bavaria and Bohemia. If—”

“What’s a vacuum?” Will asked.

Columba smiled and continued, “If he’s not stopped, this whole region will descend into ruin—literal as well as spiritual.”

“Then I was wrong to come here. I should have sought out Count Godfrey at Hohen Elstergau.”

“You did what you did,” said Columba. “Nothing is wasted. If it’s not part of God’s plan, be assured he can use it anyway. I believe the good count has been alerted to the fox in his rookery. Our best course will be to join him. But, since we’re here, it’d be constructive to get a peek inside those walls.”

“Couldn’t you go?” Rolf asked.

“Heavens, no,” Columba said. “The Dragon would spot me in a glance. He’d snuff me out like a candle.” Columba’s shoulders bounced. “Well, he’d try, but revealing myself to him would not benefit either of your goals. I was sent to help remove the Dragon, not to dabble in local politics.”

“But helping me of necessity will concern the local powers,” said Jordanes.

“Of course, but my kind works quietly. Not for us the flaming swords or blaring trumpets. These things must be done with a modicum of discretion. Delicately, you know.”

“Then send me,” Rolf said. No one reacted at first. Rolf wondered whether they had heard. Then all three others looked at him. Jordanes and Silvester studied him with curious expressions; Columba looked subdued. Sad.

“No, lad,” the portly monk said. “It is not for you to dabble in the affairs of the great and powerful. You’d get squashed like a grub. You’d best hang back, as you said before, and pick up your father’s sword when the dust has settled.”

“But I could at least pop in and out—maybe for some other reason—and at least determine how the baron’s family is and maybe what the Dragon’s planning.”

“That’s right. He could,” Jordanes said.

“You might, but the Dragon knows by now that he has aroused outside interest. He’ll be wary of spies.”

“But my brother’s in there. He should know something. If I could speak to him maybe I’d find out what we need to know. I wouldn’t even have to see the Dragon.” By now Rolf was convinced that he didn’t want to see the Dragon.

“Be that as it may,” Columba said, “I hesitate to allow you close to the Dragon without protection and training. I will pray about it tonight. In the meantime, Baron Jordanes needs more than nuts and grains. If you would set your snares again, I will inquire of Silvester if meat might be available.”

Rolf felt like arguing. It seemed to him that the older men were ignoring his mission for his father. This would be a good opportunity to advance both efforts, but he had given his word to obey. He shook out his dried clothes and redressed. 

Despite the overcast, the brightness of the day hurt his eyes. Rabbit scat along likely runs simplified setting the snares on approaches to the nearest spring. Before returning to Silvester’s hermitage, Rolf stood in a copse of beech looking down the valley. In his imagination he could see the bulk of Burg Altz darken the woods downstream. It felt evil.

Rolf shivered in the cold.

He started to turn away but stopped. His duty lay ahead. He needed to go to the castle and face that evil. He must not only retrieve that old sword but save his brother. If he started immediately, he could be there before dark. If his brother would come away with him … No, Will won’t come just like that. He’d need to be persuaded, and that’d take time. Rolf needed to think this through. If his brother came home, he’d be the heir again. And Rolf could continue being Rolf. Just when he had started to think that he might become the next Willard. 

His head hurt.

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