Copyright 2019 Douglas Daniel.
On a certain summer’s day, in the fourth year of the War of the Kingdoms, Topaz drowsed on a bench before his cottage. The sun shone through the cedars; it was good to sit there and soak up the warmth. At his age, Topaz always appreciated a sunny day.
“Master!” It was Orphan, running up the trail toward the cottage. “Master!”
“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said, opening his eyes. “I heard you coming minutes ago. What’s the trouble?”
Orphan stopped, panting. “General…Foxglove…he’s coming. With a…lot of his…soldiers.”
“Of course,” Topaz said. He sighed; he never seemed to get to enjoy the sunshine very long. He stood, leaning on his cane, his knees creaking. “Orphan, listen to me. Go find Cassia– she’s out by the pond. Take her up to the hut by the falls. A young girl like her will be a temptation to soldiers.” Especially, perhaps, these soldiers, but Topaz did not speak the thought aloud. “Both of you hide until…well, until you’re sure it’s safe.”
Orphan stared at him. “What about you, master? Will you be safe?”
“Well, maybe,” Topaz said. “I mean, I don’t think very many of the soldiers will be interested in me– I’m rather past my best days, you know….”
“Master!” Orphan sputtered, exasperated.
“We shall see,” Topaz said firmly. “If I am wrong, well, death is always sitting by the hearth anyway, at my age. But both you youngsters are in danger. Get Cassia up to the falls.” Topaz started to turn away, but stopped. “You know,” he told Orphan, “it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name. I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown. Dahlia used to tell me it wasn’t proper and she was right.”
Orphan blinked in surprise. “Is this the time, master…?”
“There might not be a chance later,” Topaz said. He studied the younger man for a moment. “I name you Arrow– for surely you are as swift and true as a good arrow. Yes, you are Arrow.”
The younger man looked close to tears. “Master, can’t you come with us?”
“Oh, no, no,” Topaz said. “Someone has to greet our guests. Now go.”
Arrow stared at Topaz for another moment, and then ran.
Topaz stepped forward a few yards, so no one coming into the clearing in front of his hut could miss him. He leaned on his cane and waited. The sun shifted and warmed him again and he was thankful.
The jingle of harness, the tread of boots– through the trees Topaz glimpsed the riders first and then the foot soldiers coming behind. The company, perhaps fifty men all told, wound their way up the trail. Topaz waited, despite his foot starting to ache. He wished Dahlia were here.
The column entered the clearing. The riders pulled up short at the sight of him. At their head was a big man. He wore armor and carried two swords, as if he had ridden to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage. Suspicious eyes looked Topaz over, out of a scarred face.
Topaz bowed over his cane. “I greet you, Lord Foxglove, General of the Five Lands, conqueror of Darran and Sarmania. You do honor to my humble house.”
If anything, Foxglove looked all the more suspicious. “Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” he asked, his voice rough.
Topaz bowed again. “Some call me that. My name is Topaz.”
“You know my name,” Foxglove said. “So you probably know how I became Lord General of the Five Lands.”
“Indeed,” Topaz said. “The fame, and dread, of your name has long preceded you, my lord. But I greet you in peace, as a guest. If it please you, there is tea and bread within.”
Foxglove squinted at Topaz. One of the general’s officers, a thin, sharp man with a livid scar across his forehead, turned in his saddle and gestured. Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried forward, past Topaz and into the cottage. Topaz waited.
The two re-emerged in a moment. “It’s empty, my Lord General,” one of them said. “Just a poor hut.”
Foxglove grunted and dismounted. So did his officers. The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the house– a movement precisely executed, although no order had been given. Topaz turned and led the way into the cottage.
He was thankful Arrow had built a fire this morning– the kettle was hot and the tea steeping. Foxglove and his officers crowded in, but no one sat in the two chairs. Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze immediately falling on the small silver casket on the table, close by the plate of bread. The casket was old and battered, but it was easily the brightest object in the room.
“I heard you were a man of wisdom,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea for them into chipped cups. Two of the officers took cups, but Foxglove did not. Topaz thought that a shame; it was very good tea. “I heard you live simply. Yet you have that.” He pointed to the casket.
“An heirloom of only sentimental value,” Topaz said. “Believe me, it contains nothing of worth.”
Foxglove loomed up. A big man outside the house, he seemed even bigger inside. “They say that no man becomes Emperor of the Five Lands without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”
“People do say that,” Topaz said. “Considering there has been no Emperor in two hundred years, it’s not really been put to the test lately, has it? Do you wish to be Emperor?”
Foxglove smiled. Topaz shuddered. “I shall be Emperor. The throne is mine by right of conquest. There is no other beside me. I want the Empire and I will take it. I take everything I want.”
“I have heard that,” Topaz said.
Foxglove stood even taller, drawing himself up. Topaz began to wonder if they were going to run out of space in the little room. “You heard right. I conquered Cisman in a day and burned it to the ground. I overran Karsara and all the nobility came crawling on their knees to beg for mercy. I threw down and slew the steward of Venaland and took his rod of office from his bloody hand. Yes, old man, I take what I want.”
“So it seems,” Topaz said, with a solemn face.
“So, old man,” Foxglove said. “I am here, speaking to you. What wisdom do you have that will make me Emperor? I will reward you well.”
Topaz sighed. “My lord, I am sorry, but if I have wisdom, it is merely the sort that comes from living a very long time. I’ve seen folly and pain. I’ve even caused some of both myself. If I were to try to impart any wisdom to you, I would say be careful what you want– and to remember that just because we want something, doesn’t mean it is good to have.”
Foxglove glowered at him, half-angry, half-confused. “What is this? Why shouldn’t I take what I want? If I’m strong enough….”
“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”
Foxglove said nothing for a moment. His officers stirred uneasily. Topaz merely watched the general and waited.
“This is a waste of my time,” Foxglove said. “I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful.”
“I have no secrets that would aid conquest,” Topaz said.
“Is there a spell or enchantment…?” Foxglove said.
“None that will give a man that sort of power,” Topaz said.
Foxglove snorted, his face dark. “You’re nothing but a weak, old man.”
“I am certainly weak and old,” Topaz said. “Some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”
“Enough,” Foxglove said. “I have a mind to gut you, hermit, but that would probably set the peasants down in the valley to revolt. This has been a waste of my time.” He glanced at the casket, then leaned over, scooped it up, and tucked it under one arm. He sneered at Topaz. “A little recompense. You have anything to say about it, old man?”
Topaz spread his hands. “You may take anything you want, my lord. I am not attached enough to anything here to make much of a fuss. I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace. But,” he raised a finger, “while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”
“Opening it?” Foxglove said. “Why shouldn’t I open it?”
“I don’t think you would be very pleased with the contents.”
Foxglove growled. “I should kill you just for insolence. Come, let’s leave this old fool.”
He and his officers stepped out, back into the sunshine. The soldiers, with precise movements, folded their perimeter back into a column for marching. A soldier held the bridal of Foxglove’s horse; some of the officers mounted their own animals.
Topaz stayed where he was, waiting. Through the open door he watched as Foxglove, still on the ground, stopped. He fumbled with the latch of the casket and threw it open.
The sun disappeared; ink-thick blackness swirled all around. Topaz could see nothing, but he could hear screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh. He felt it— the ravening hunger. The human screams faded. Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.
He stood straight. His walking stick glowed in the darkness, forcing the hunger back. You have fed, he told it. Now, back to your prison, thing. Leave the world of the living to the living.
The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light. The light grew and grew, while the hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.
The sun shone; the birds sang in the tops of the pines. Topaz breathed a deep breath. Leaning on his cane, he went outside. He stooped, creaking, and picked up the casket. He shut the lid against the swirling darkness constrained within and snapped the latch shut. In the clearing there was no sign of Foxglove, nor of his men, nor of their horses, save their footprints.
“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said, sighing. He went back inside to his tea.
Three years later, just days after Cassia and Arrow married– a quiet joining, with a few people come up from the village, at which Topaz had a little too much punch and a few too many almond-cakes– another party came riding up the trail. These travellers were fifteen splendidly dressed men, splendidly mounted on strong, big horses. The man who rode at their head was tall, proud and clear-eyed. He wore a coronet on his brow and rode straight-backed, controlling his mount with nearly negligent movements of the reins.
They rode into the yard. Sunlight sparkled off the leader’s coronet and the gold thread woven into his robes and those of his companions. As the leader reined his horse to a stop, one of his followers leapt from his horse to hold the reins of the leader’s mount. Another hastened to come forward and throw himself down on all fours. Dismounting, the leader stepped down to the ground, using his follower as a stepstool. Topaz watched from his doorway; the only change in his expression was his raised eyebrows.
“Old man,” the leader said, looking down his nose at Topaz, “where is the Hermit of Blackfalls? I have come to receive his blessing, for I am Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands.”
“Oh, I see,” Topaz said. He bowed. “Your pardon, lord, for not greeting you with more ceremony. I am the Hermit of Blackfalls. Welcome to my home.”
“You?” Birch said, haughtily surprised. “Surely not.”
“Surely not?” Topaz echoed. He considered this. “Well, nobody’s ever said surely not. I mean, I usually don’t call myself that, certainly, but everybody else does, so I just assumed everybody knew what they were talking about….”
“Are you Topaz the Wise?” Birch demanded, glaring.
“Oh, yes, yes,” Topaz said, “that’s what my mother always called me, and I suppose she would have known. Maybe not the Wise part, but Topaz, yes, indeed.”
Birch looked as if he were restraining a gathering anger. “I have come,” he said, measuring out his words with great precision, “to seek your blessing on my ascension.”
“Have you indeed?” Topaz said, looking impressed. “That’s quite an honor. But, since I am not a priest, and even less a god, I cannot bless you, my lord.”
Birch turned purple. Topaz, in all his long life, had never seen anyone turn that particular shade. He found it fascinating.
“They told me,” Birch snarled, “that no man becomes Emperor without the blessing of the Hermit of Blackfalls!”
Topaz sighed. “‘Blessing’ is the wrong word, my lord. It is tradition that the prospective Emperor of the Five Lands seek out the Hermit of Blackfalls—whoever that happens to be at the moment—but it is not for a blessing, or even less, validation of their rule. You rule because you command hosts and the loyalty of powerful lords who bend the knee to you. You earned that loyalty by winning battles in the War. You don’t need the approval of some old fellow in the hills of Daran for that.”
If anything, Birch looked more haughtily offended. “Then I’ve wasted my time!”
“I’m sorry if you think so, my lord,” Topaz said. “The tradition is that the Emperor-to-be comes seeking the wisdom of the Hermit. Such wisdom as I have is yours.”
“Wisdom?” Birch said, towering over Topaz. “What sort of wisdom could you give me?”
“You might be surprised, my lord,” Topaz said. He hesitated. “If I may ask, do you usually dismount from your horse in that manner?”
“What do you…Sir Belfore?” Birch said. He glanced back at the young noble, who stood beside Birch’s horse with a bowed head. “Ah—his father dared offend me, earning my enmity. As a lesson to others, I have degraded him and his family in every way and will do so until it pleases me to stop.”
“I see, my lord,” Topaz said. “And degradation of another human being aids you, how?”
Birch started to turn purple again. “I am the supreme lord of the Five Lands—I will not allow anyone to forget that!”
“There are better ways to remind people of who you are, my lord,” Topaz said. “And an honor that touchy is often offended.”
“How dare you!” Birch snarled.
“It is my office to offer such advice to anyone who wishes to be Emperor,” Topaz said. “You cannot sustain a state by assuaging your hurt feelings, my lord.”
“You dodderer!” Birch said. “I’ve killed men for less!”.
“You may do as you please here, my lord,” Topaz said. He waited. The moment stretched.
“You’re not worth the effort,” Birch said at last, freezing the air between himself and Topaz with his disdain. “This has been a fool’s errand.”
“I am sorry you feel that way, my lord,” Topaz said. “But before you go,” he reached into his robes, “I would like to give you a parting gift.”
Birch, already turning away, stopped. Topaz pulled his hand from his robes and held out to him a trinket— a small, red stone, intricately carved into the shape of a pomegranate, on a silver chain. It gleamed in the sunshine.
“What is this?” Birch demanded.
“A small charm,” Topaz said. “Its power is quite subtle, but it will help you to speak the truth and sway multitudes.”
“Hm!” Birch said. “As if I cannot do that on my own! Still…” He turned and snatched the stone and chain from Topaz’s palm. “A small enough reward for my trouble, old man.”
He turned and strode away. Remounting his horse with the renewed aid of Sir Belfore, Birch rode away from Topaz’s cottage, with all his splendid followers in tow. Topaz never saw him again.
Months later, however, Topaz did hear of Birch, one more time. Apparently it came to pass that, after a victorious battle, Birch had cause to address the citizens of the city of White Cloud in their great square; and because he happened that day to be carrying the stone pomegranate in his purse, he told the citizens everything he actually thought about them, in the most honest and forthright terms. He kept on telling them, despite trying to stuff his mouth with his own gloves and to choke off his voice with his own hands, until the citizens rose up in a mass and stormed the dais on which he stood. When the mob receded, or so Topaz was told, all that was left of Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands, was a stain on the stone.
“Hm,” Topaz said to Arrow and Cassia. “You have to be careful with the truth. Should have mentioned that, I suppose.”
Four more years passed. Even in the valley the people heard the tales of the wider world and how the War went on and on. With each passing month the tales grew darker. The distant suffering seemed to echo along the valley itself.
One sunny morning a man came riding up the hill. He came unarmed, with but one companion, a young man with haunted eyes. Neither wore armor– just old uniforms of the Venaland Guards. The leader was as dark-haired as Foxglove had been, but lean and tall.
Topaz was seated beside the cottage’s front door when the man rode into the yard. He had taken to dozing in the sun more and more lately; Arrow, who had built a hut for himself and Cassia behind Topaz’, had hired a hand from the village to help with the chores. He and Cassia themselves kept busy with their own child.
Topaz woke with a start when the man’s horse clopped to a stop. He looked up and met a gaze that seemed at once weary and curious and frightened. It was so many emotions tied up in one bundle that Topaz was worried the fellow might split open. “I’m sorry, grandfather, but– are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” the man asked.
“Well, people call me that,” Topaz said. “Considering that I am the only hermit in the neighborhood of Blackfalls, I suppose that qualifies me.”
The man smiled. “Oh, good. I was worried.”
“You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid,” Topaz said, arching his eyebrows.
“Ah– your pardon.” The man dismounted. “I am Hart. This is Galagan.” The young man with the haunted eyes bowed, hesitantly, over his saddlebow.
“Oh, yes,” Topaz said. “I’ve been expecting you, my lord. You are both welcome.”
He tried to stand, but had trouble getting up. That was happening more and more these days. Hart quickly stepped forward and took Topaz by the elbow and helped him stand. “Oh, thank you,” Topaz said. “Not quite as quick on my feet as I was seventy years ago, so it’s good to have a little help now and then.”
“Don’t you have anyone here to help you?” Hart asked
“Oh, yes,” Topaz said. “They’re around, but busy with other things, I suppose.”
He led them into the cottage. Once again there was tea and bread ready. Topaz and the two soldiers sat at the table. Topaz served them with his own hands. Galagan, at first, seemed suspicious and fearful. He peered about, as if expecting to spy ambushers in every corner of the cottage. “You needn’t worry, young fellow,” Topaz told him. “You and your master are quite safe here.”
“Yes, please stop, Galagan,” Hart said, irritated. “You’re embarrassing me and offending our host.”
Topaz held up a hand. “I am not offended, my lord. I understand the young man’s caution. You have both been through some hard times.”
“It’s nothing,” Hart said, “to what the Five Lands have suffered.”
“Yes,” Topaz said, “although this valley is a sanctuary, even here we have heard of all the troubles.”
“Forgive me, grandfather,” Galagan said, “but it’s not just that. We know what happened to Foxglove and Birch when they came calling.”
“Nothing happened to them they didn’t bring on themselves,” Topaz said. He meant it as a reassurance, but Galagan turned pale, his eyes wide.
“Galagan,” Hart said, “please stop making faces, or I’ll have you go out and stand by the horses.”
“Sorry, my lord,” Galagan said, hanging his head.
“Forgive him,” Hart told Topaz. “We have seen a lot. We both have to learn to trust people again.”
Topaz studied Hart. “If I were to ask you why it was important to trust people, what would you say?”
Hart gave him a sharp look. “How else can you build a society, except on trust? This war has gone on so long no one trusts anyone anymore.”
“Ah,” Topaz said.
A shriek; both soldiers sat up straight with surprise. Galagan half rose from his chair, almost as if he were about to fling himself between Hart and whatever danger was about to appear.
Instead of a monster or a horde of assassins, however, what appeared was Cassia’s daughter, Cowslip, bursting into the cottage through the back door. “No, no!” she cried, making Topaz’ ears ring, “I don’t wanna take a bath!” She tried to flee through the front door, with her grubby shift, muddy feet and begrimed face all unaltered– but her mother, wise to her tricks, had circled around the cottage and caught her in the doorway. Cassia scooped the struggling child up in her arms.
“Nooo!” the child wailed, as if facing her ultimate doom.
Topaz glanced at Hart and Galagan. The younger soldier looked relieved beyond words. Hart, though, wore a smile, first of relief, but then of genuine pleasure. Something in his look told Topaz Hart was more than a little sympathetic to the little girl’s plight.
Cassia, holding the squirming child, looked chagrined. “Master, my lord, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed. “We didn’t mean to interrupt!”
“It’s alright,” Hart said, still smiling.
Topaz looked from him to Cowslip. “Cowslip,” he said, “listen to me.”
“Gran Topaz, I don’t wanna a bath!” the girl cried.
“Listen to me, sweetling,” Topaz persisted.
The little girl stopped struggling in her mother’s arms. Instead, she regarded Topaz with suddenly solemn eyes, although her mouth was still threatening a pout.
“Be good for your mother,” he said, “and accept your bath without complaining. Even I have to take baths.”
“But you’re old,” Cowslip said.
“Cowslip!” Cassia cried.
Topaz merely smiled; and, in the corner of his eye, he caught Hart’s smile broadening. “Young or old, dear little girl,” he told Cowslip, “we all have to do things we don’t like sometimes. Now, be good for your mother and we’ll see if there aren’t sparklies after dinner.”
“Yes, sparklies, yes!” Cowslip cried, her mood changed in a moment. Cassia bowed to Hart and carried her mollified daughter away.
Topaz faced his guests with a bemused look. “I probably shouldn’t bribe her like that,” he said.
“Sometimes,” Hart said, “you can’t avoid it. It takes some coaxing to get my son Brand to do his lessons, at times.”
Topaz, pleased, hid his pleasure with a sip of tea. “So, my lord,” he said, “you want to be Emperor?”
Hart looked startled. “No,” he said at once. “Who would?”
“You’d be surprised,” Topaz murmured. “So why are you here?”
Hart did not answer immediately. He seemed to be studying some internal map only he could see. “Everyone tells me,” he said slowly, “that I’m the only hope for the Five Lands. The one person who can unite all the factions and end the War. I have the loyalty of the Army and I have the right blood, although I was raised the son of a glassblower, and had to earn everything. It’s just…it’s so much, much more than leading an army. Where do I begin?”
“Here,” Topaz said, “at the beginning. Or a new beginning, perhaps. As I told that little girl,” he smiled at Hart, “sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do.”
They talked through supper and into the night. They talked after everyone else, even Galagan, had fallen asleep. They talked of many things, of rulership and peace, of hunger and harvests, of fears and hopes. By morning Topaz was satisfied.
“I have a parting gift for you, my lord,” Topaz told Hart, as he and Galagan prepared to leave in the middle morning. “Three, in fact, if you will have them from my hand.”
“What are they, sir?” Hart asked.
Topaz stepped into the cottage and led Arrow, Cassia and Cowslip, in Cassia’s arms, out into the sunshine. All three were dressed for traveling and Arrow carried a backpack.
Hart looked at them with interest, and then at Topaz. “Gifts?”
Topaz placed his hand on Arrow’s shoulder. “This is my apprentice, Arrow, who has studied under me for many years. His knowledge and powers are yours to command.”
Topaz took Cassia’s hand. “You’ve met his wife, Cassia. She has made her own studies and is deep into the lore of the Maranonians. This is only proper, as she descends directly from the ancient priestesses of that race.”
“Ah!” Hart said in surprise, for the Maranonians were widely supposed to be extinct.
“You’ve also met Cowslip,” Topaz said. He laid a hand on the little girl’s head and she giggled. “It is yet to be revealed what her skills may be, except in the accumulation of mud on her feet.” Cowslip giggled again. “But I sense in her great potentialities.” He faced Hart. “They stand ready to serve you, my lord, in your great labor.”
“They…they are welcome, if they wish to serve,” Hart said. He sounded a little overwhelmed. “But…”
“What troubles my lord?” Topaz said.
“I had thought…I mean, to come here from time to time….”
Topaz stepped close. “My lord,” he whispered to Hart, “I am nearly a hundred years old. My time is very short. I waited a long time for a new Emperor and had to go through some notable scrubs to get to you. Please the gods, may the years be long before your son needs the wisdom of the Hermit of Blackfalls, but, long or short as the time may be, I will not be here. There will doubtless be some other hermit by then. In the interim, my lord,” Topaz took a breath, “you’re going to need all the help you can get.”
Topaz said farewell to Arrow and Cassia and kissed Cowslip goodbye. He bowed to Hart and watched them all go down the trail. Somehow, leaning on his walking stick, he managed the trick of feeling all at once the loss of his young friends and the consolation of having completed an important task. It was an odd sensation.
“I think he’ll do,” said the elderly woman beside him.
“I think so, too,” Topaz said. He turned toward her, smiling. “I was hoping you would come, Dahlia.”
“Beloved, how could I not?” Dahlia said. “Are you ready?”
“Almost,” Topaz said. “One good cup of tea for the journey and we can be off.”
They took one another’s hand and walked to the cottage.