By Jeff Chapman
Elihu’s eyes darted from the blanket hanging across the cave’s entrance to the hearth. That groan didn’t sound like the wind. He sat perfectly still, holding his breath, listening. He knew he should grab his spear and prepare to fight whatever might be coming, but after finding some comfort from the storm, the last thing he wanted to do was fight. The struggle to keep his family alive weighed on his soul and the addition of his congregation’s troubles nearly crushed it. He’d stumbled into a black pit with no bottom and no rope. Every day he fought the good fight and every time he coughed and saw the ash in his phlegm, the circle of light at the top of the pit contracted, but somehow he held everyone up.
Strength swelled in his core, as it always did, thank God. His fingers curled around his spear.
The pile of blankets stirred, a faint ripple, but enough to trip his tightly strung senses. Another groan. He saw it now--the feet, the bent knees, the torso--a human form curled beneath the blankets. He folded back the top edge of the covers. White hair streaked with gray crowned an old man’s head and brushed his shoulders. A white beard covered his face and neck, trailing down to his chest. Something hard and cylindrical rolled beneath Elihu’s knee, the old man’s spear. Of course, he would sleep with it, thought Elihu. There was no more need to worry if someone would come back.
Elihu gently shook the man’s shoulder. The old man groaned. Some kind of hermit, Elihu thought.
“Hello? Are you sick?”
The old man’s forehead felt hot and dry. Elihu poured some water from his canteen into a bowl. Cradling the hermit’s head in the crook of his arm, he dripped water on the man’s cracked lips. The hermit licked the moisture. Elihu persisted in dripping water until the old man opened his mouth enough to drink in short sips.
“I don’t have much water,” said Elihu, “but you’re welcome to what I have.”
The hermit’s eyelids fluttered across steel-gray irises. He nodded then sank back into sleep.
Elihu sighed. He possessed the will to help without the means. He decided to make a travois with the two spears and the blankets and drag the hermit to Tube Hill when the storm passed. Not that they could do much for him there, but he couldn’t leave him here. Elihu folded a blanket into a pillow and placed it underneath the wadded blanket on which the old man’s head rested.
Elihu’s eyebrows knitted in surprise when his fingers brushed a bag of metal pieces that moved and clinked under his touch, coins. “What’s this,” he whispered. He pulled two items out from beneath the old man’s pillow. A drawstring cinched the pouch whose bottom bulged with the coin’s weight. He pulled it open. Gold, silver, and platinum coins--more money than he had ever seen, more than would pass through his hands in a lifetime--winked at him in the lamp’s dancing light.
He glanced at the old man whose chest rose and fell with the shallowest of breaths. Was this the cache of a lonely bug hunter? His gaze passed over the glittering walls and what at first escaped his notice, the gouges of a chisel, shouted at him. “What have you found out here?” he said to the old man.
Elihu remembered Elsa begging for scraps at his doorstep. With these coins he could feed his family and Elsa’s family, his congregation, his entire village for years. He could move his family to Zirconia, buy his children hope, and rekindle the sparkle in his wife’s eyes.
What sort of man sleeps on a hoard like this in the midst of such suffering? Stories of dragons came to mind. If the old man died, he thought. And then he recalled what happened to those who coveted a dragon’s hoard and took the dragon’s place atop its pile of shiny things. Elihu cinched the pouch and flung it against the rock wall. It landed on the second item from beneath the old miser’s pillow.
He picked up a sheaf of stiffened bristle fabric cut into rectangles and knotted together with twine along the left edge, a homemade book. The beige cover, splotched with darker shades of brown was blank. Elihu turned back the cover. Small squiggles in a dark-yellow ink--bug blood, he well knew that stain--sprawled across the pages. Thumbing through the book, he found page after page of tightly packed markings. The last three pages were blank. He laid the open book on the cavern floor in front of the hearth and knelt over it, puzzling over the characters which flowed across the page in an unbroken stream, line after line. The script could be very ancient or very new, he thought, or nothing. Someone at the university or the monasteries might know.
Elihu studied the old man, wondering what sort of man creates a book that no one can read. One of the traveling ministers could arrange passage to the Abbey of Francis. And what would become of the rest of those coins, barring a miraculous recovery? He knew better than to hope for a windfall for Tube Hill. Brother Trollope might direct some back to Elihu’s congregation, but not the others. The whiskers on the old man’s lip trembled with his breathing.
Elihu bit his lip in anger. “Perhaps I should throw lots to see who gets your money and possessions?” Better to remove temptation than struggle to fight it. That’s what his father always used to say. He tucked the coin pouch under the hermit’s pillow, to remind himself of its owner.