Shrine of Ancients Part One
I sigh and turn to the town elder, wishing I could have escaped town to go berry picking like I typically do every other Thursday.
“Ember, I’m grateful I caught you before you left.”
I purse my lips, not wanting to give away that I found his presence a burden. Well, not necessarily his presence, but I know he wants me to stray from my task at hand. Whatever task he has in mind would not lend me the freedom that berry picking could give me.
“It is time for Steval to visit the Shrine of Ancients,” he pauses dramatically, as if expecting me to ooh and awe over his horrid grandson. “But I fear the boy cannot go alone. He’d probably… lose his way.”
That’s putting it mildly, I think to myself, but I keep my face fixed as my position as passive serf dictates.
“You are to accompany him.”
My mouth drops open. The thought of spending a week with that arrogant, bloviated, nitwit creates a searing hot rage inside, but I can’t deny the elder. “Surely there is someone more qualified to accompany Steval on his important journey,” I choke out the best I can.
“He requested you. I think he might be fond of you.”
My face grows hot with frustration and anxiety. A full week with him and he requested me? How can I get out of this?
“You’ll leave within the hour. Go pack your things for travel and come to the corral. We have a splendid horse for you to ride.”
He turns and shuffles away, the dull thud of his cane marking his every other step. I watch him move down the path before finally willing my feet to turn back to my shack. At least I had the sense to wash my clothes the night before. Otherwise Steval would have had to smell a companion in a week-old tunic by the time we returned.
Kind old Rosalina watched me come up our shared path. She somehow knew what had taken place up the road even if she hadn’t been able to hobble out that way in some time. Her ankle had taken longer to heal than the elder thought it would. She had likely broken it, but the village elder’s wisdom decided that rest and ice should fix it. I nearly snort at the idea of his ‘wisdom’. We would all perish from his poor decision-making before he passed from old age.
“I have a sack packed for you, dear. Even the clothes you hung out back last night.”
“Did the elder come speak to you before me?”
“He tried to find you at your house, dear. He seems quite eager to get Steval out today, though I don’t know why. Here, take this.” She pulls a magnificent jewel-encrusted dagger from her shawl.
“Rosalina, where did you get this? It’s beautiful,” I murmur.
“I used to be a knight before my body broke down.” Her thumb rubs the inlaid lapis lazuli affectionately. “But on a journey like this, I would feel better if you wield it. It will protect you, Ember.”
At that utterance I suddenly feel complete trust in the small weapon. I string it through my belt behind my back, making sure my cloak would cover it at all times. Steval might claim it for himself, knowing his greed. “Thank you, Rosalina.”
She smiles. “I’ll see you in a week, but you better hasten to the corral. You wouldn’t want to keep them waiting.”
I nod before turning to jog down our path, suddenly seeing the possibilities of traveling outside our village. This might be the one time that I’d have the privilege to do so, and maybe something out there waits for me. Something that would give me a better life.
Steval sits atop his horse, looking smug as I approach. Something about being able to choose who would stop their life’s happenings in a second to do what he bids has swelled his ego this morning. I wonder about the possibility of ditching him. Perhaps in the middle of the night tonight. Surely, he would sleep soundly, thinking nothing could ever harm him.
“Ah, Ember. I knew you would agree to keep me company.”
I bow in an effort to keep the sneer from my face, at least from him seeing the sneer that crosses my face. What a pompous ass. As if I had a choice.
“Come now, we don’t need any more displays of deference. We must hurry. The full moon will occur in three days’ time, and I should be at the ascension of the Shrine of Ancients when it fills the night sky,” he waxes poetic as he stares straight at the sun. “Damn, the moon is much gentler to look at.”
The elder clears his throat. “It’s generally thought a bad idea to look directly at the sun, Steval.”
“You worry too much, old man! Come, Ember, get on your horse and let’s go.”
“I’m already on my horse.” I pause, knowing I should address him by title, but it proves so difficult sometimes.
“Right, right. Do you mind leading the way? I’ve suddenly gotten quite the headache.”
I concentrate hard so as to not roll my eyes at the stupid man’s dramatics as I turn my horse to walk out of the corral. If we trot then he might talk less, and I would find that useful in regards to keeping my sanity.
“Hey, this pace isn’t helping my headache.”
“We’ve got a long way to travel. Trotting will conserve our horses’ energy while getting us going,” I reply, trying to keep my tone as even as possible.
“You listen to her, Steval. She speaks sense,” the elder calls out behind us. His grandson sighs loudly, but doesn’t protest in front of his grandfather.
I brace myself. I’d hear from him soon enough. As soon as we rode out of earshot, in fact.
“Are you sure we should be trotting? A pleasant walk would be nice.”
“It’s hot in the afternoon heat.”
“We should stop for lunch.”
“I wish we stopped for lunch. There was some shade back there.”
“Are you getting sunburned? I should have brought a hat.”
“How much water do you think we’ll find out here? I’ve almost emptied my first canteen.”
His yammering doesn’t stop even when we pull into a small clearing at dusk to set up camp. My patience wears thin, but the thought of getting away after he falls asleep keeps me going. As long as I mumble, “mhmm,” every so often he seemed satisfied.
I gather the wood for our fire while he rifles through his pack, and I wonder what bromidic observation he’ll have about what has been packed for him.
“Mom only sent things I have to cook. What’d you bring in your bag? Can I have it?”
I sit back on my haunches in a huff and arch an eyebrow. “You don’t know how to cook?”
“No, it’s always been done for me.”
I bite my lip. He sounds pitiful, if not enabled his entire life. In a moment of weakness I ask, “What would you like from there? Did she send a cookpot?”
“I don’t know. Here!” He throws his pack at me. I grab it just before it smashes into my face, but the damage has been done.
“Looks like it’s a good time for you to learn.” I drop the pack at my feet and move to where I had set mine at the edge of the clearing.
“Are you getting your food?”
“I don’t eat at night,” I reply, lying through my teeth. My hollow stomach growls in response, but my hands feel right past my food to my sleeping pad and blanket. When I pull them out, Steval growls in frustration before stomping over to his pack. I refuse to look at him, instead unrolling my pad and blanket and setting them on the flattest, softest ground possible. Only when I pull my blanket up to my shoulders does he quiet down as he roots through his bag.
“Can’t believe I’m going to sleep hungry,” he mutters.
I scrunch my face to keep from laughing. Does he really not have the wherewithal to try to take care of his own needs? I slowly wriggle my legs to get more comfortable. Waiting for Steval to fall asleep might be a while. I slow my breath, meditating on all the possible places that wait for me out in the wide world once I leave the prodigal grandson of the village elder. If the gods have truly chosen him, he can find his own way to the Shrine of Ancients.
Big Creek, Montana 2017