He did not know what to make of this woman. When first they met, she had spoken gibberish like some barbarian, though her clothes were of Hellas. Then she seemed to learn how to hear and speak Greek as fluently as a native...in a matter of seconds.
Was she some goddess in human guise, attempting to seduce him in some joke of Olympus for the amusement of the gods? It was so strange. Her way of speaking, her unfamiliarity with things, these were strange omens indeed. Yet he perceived no malice or deception in her, as if all she said were true, bizarre as that seemed. Perhaps Cheiron could explain her to him.
She was right, though. They were on Pelion. Even with bushes and trees sprung up in unfamiliar places, he recognized it. How could he not? But how could he be here, now? It was a thousand stadia from where he had treated Hippolytus. Inconceivable that he could have traveled that far without clothing or sandals.
“What do you mean, that Cheiron meant the message for you?” she asked him now. “Do you know him?”
She was as full of questions as Epione. His wife must be worried sick about him. For all she knew he could be dead, murdered by brigands or eaten by wild beasts. He must find his way back to her without delay!
“He raised me,” he said, abstractedly, watching a lizard climbing a chestnut tree as he passed it. “I grew up on Mount Pelion,” he added, as he stepped off the path on the uphill side. “This way.”
It was not far, but it was all uphill. The sun was low and he was warm and panting nonetheless by the time they reached the cave. It was just as he remembered it from his childhood. There, the flat rock outside with its bowl-like indentation, where he had ground up herbs for the old centaur's potions. And there, the boulder Iason had rolled closer to hide the cave's entrance, and the old oaken stump as tall as a man, that had served Achilles as his first archery target.
He led her around the boulder and into the cave, showing her to duck under the low overhang, the same that he had once been small enough to walk under without stooping.
The cave was empty. Had she spoken falsely, and Cheiron was no more? He saw no traces of the old centaur. But he also saw no signs that wild animals had colonized the cave in his absence. The cave was not large, hardly more room than the smallest of houses of any poor village. But it was rich in memories for him.
The woman, Darla, was looking around the chamber doubtfully. “This is all hard rock,” she commented. “Where does he sleep?”
“Centaurs sleep standing up, as horses do,” he informed her. “When I was living here I used to bring in rushes and straw to make the rock softer for myself.”
“Well, where is he?” she demanded. “it's getting dark. Do centaurs hunt at night?”
“No more than horses run at night. Neither like to travel in dimness. Their limbs are powerful, but their leg bones are their greatest vulnerability. One bad stumble and either would be food for the lions, so they prefer to walk where they can see their footing.”
She yawned. “Well, I'm afraid I can't wait much longer, Ace. I don't know about you but I'm on East Coast time and I have to help my dad in the morning, which is probably in about a half hour.”
Again, her speech was strange. He understood each word, but the sentences they created made no sense to him. What was East Coast time? He could not extract any meaning from it. It was like trying to shake dice out of an empty cup. “Almost everything you say is a mystery to me,” he commented. “Where is your father? How can you possibly help him while we are out here, far from wherever he lives?”
She yawned again, sitting down with her back to a wall. “Never mind,” she said. “I have just one question for you. Are you a healer? Cheiron said he taught healing.”
“I have healed many,” he told her. “Just before you found me, I was in another place, and I raised a man from the dead.”
“Perfect,” she mumbled, her eyelids drooping. “We need a rezzer like air, the way our tank behaves. He has self-control issues.”
He moved closer. “Every word you just said was clear except one. But without that one word, your sentence is meaningless. What is a 'rezzer'?”
Her eyelids flickered open for a moment. “A healer who can resurrect fallen heroes. Rez is an abbreviation for 'resurrect'. Listen, Ace, I know you are serious about your roleplay. I'm sorry about stepping out of character, but I am pooped. When I fall asleep the link bed will log me out, but I'll be back as soon as I can.” Her eyes closed again.
Gods! Her speaking was fascinating. He could not decide whether he wanted to hear more, or if silence would be preferable to the endless confusion of trying to understand her.
And then she faded away like a lamp whose oil had run out. One moment he was looking right at her, and the next he was staring at an empty bit of cave wall. He felt dizzy from the impossibility of it.
For a moment he entertained the thought maybe she was a fantasy, a delusion of a disturbed mind. But as he stood up, he heard the tiny sound that linen makes sliding to a new position, and looked down. He still had his makeshift chiton made from the himation she had loaned him. He touched it apprehensively, lest it vanish like a popped bubble, but the fabric felt real beneath his fingertips.
He turned and walked out of the cave and looked up. The stars were beginning to appear, as remote and mysterious as the woman's speaking had been. As he gazed up at them, he felt himself begin to shiver, but not from the evening air.
The constellations were in wrong positions. He should have realized it from the butterflies, which agreed with the silent stars. According to them, it was late Spring.
But he had healed Hippolytus earlier today. And it had been Fall for him. Not Spring. Fall. What in the name of the Gods had happened to him?
He shivered again. Was Darla real? He remembered what she looked like, how her voice sounded. But was any of it real? He could have imagined their meeting, their conversation. Maybe he was imagining that he still wore her piece of cloth. Maybe he had suffered a stroke and was not on Pelion at all, but, instead, tossing feverishly on his own bed.
Another mosquito bit him. The pain and itching settled it: whatever was happening, he was not asleep. Like the mosquitoes, he would have to deal with this as if it were real, unless and until he learned otherwise. Another thought occurred to him: was Darla a goddess? Was that fading-out what it looked like to observers when gods were recalled suddenly to their home on Olympus? He knew the Olympians could (and did) appear to mortals in the guise of mortals. And what did he actually know about this woman? Apart from her enigmatic way of talking, he knew only her name.
He shivered again, but this time it was from the temperature. It was getting colder. At least that was a problem he could solve. With one last glance at the empty wall, he abruptly turned and strode out of the cave in search of firewood.
* * * * *
Finding dry dead wood was the easy part. After he had brought in larger branches and smaller branches, he fetched some dry leaves, grass and twigs for kindling. Setting them down inside the cave, he tried to remember what Cheiron had done on those occasions when the last coal in the fire had gone out.
Why is it, he mused, that when we are young we cannot wait to be adults, and then, when we are grown, we spend the rest of our lives having moments when we wished we were just children again? Is that what life is? Always wishing we were somewhere else, or were someone else, unable to accept what and who and where we are?
He selected the straightest branch he could find that was no thicker than his finger, and laid it to one side. Next, he made a small wad of crushed dry leaves and grass and put it on a little pile of small twigs. Picking up the straightest twig from where he had set it, he pressed the end against the wad of kindling, put his palms together with the stick between them, and began sliding his hands as if rubbing them together for warmth, spinning the tip of the twig against the kindling as he drilled for fire.
When a ribbon of smoke curled up from the kindling he suddenly remembered why he had never seen a fire inside the cave. Belatedly he snatched up the burning kindling and branches and set them just outside the cave entrance so that the chamber would not fill up with smoke. It went out, of course, but he didn't care, now that he knew he could get it going again.
With Cheiron gone off somewhere he needed a fire to keep beasts away. But that wasn't the real reason he did it. If Darla reappeared before morning she might get chilled, once the heat of the day had bled out of the rock. If she was a goddess, he wanted to stay on her good side.
He found half a dozen rocks the size of his head and piled them around in a makeshift hearth around the little fire as he added larger sticks to the kindling. Before long he had a decent fire blazing and carefully took the hottest rocks into the cave interior, settling himself on the ground with his back against the edge of the opening.
The fire would last a while. He could probably risk a nap while he waited for her to return. Now that he had seen Darla close her eyes, he found that he could manage the trick.
Yet sleep eluded him. Not because he was wound up like a catapult from the events of the day. It had been a bizarre afternoon, to be sure, but that was not it at all. He just wasn't tired. Under better circumstances he could fallen asleep by drinking the dried juice of poppies in wine. Or, just enough wine. But he wasn't about to go off in search of poppies, and he had no wine anyway. It looked to be a long night.
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