When you meet a stranger on the road
and he wants to call you friend,
look twice to see what blade he bears
and what he might intend.
Hunger lives within in the bones
in the valley of the menhir.
Pellan met the priest at the edge of the forest. He seemed to know his destination. He came out of the flat where a stream ran strong in the springtime, and turned up its icy valley.
There he stopped and stared. Pellan stood before him, wearing a cloak roughly sewn from the furs of many species. Some parts of it were old and threadbare; some seemed to be newly attached to replace furs which had rotted away.
The priest remembered an old story of a cloak that had served five generations, old furs falling off, new furs sewn in to replace them, until nothing remained of the original garment. It was told for humor. This cloak looked like the one in that story, but there was no humor in its wearer’s eyes.
Pellan’s face was skull tight. His eyes had retreated into twin caves. His mouth was drawn. He had an axe at his side, and a spear in both hands, pointing toward the priest.
The priest reached inside his cloak and withdrew a sack, extended it toward Pellan, and said, “You are starving. You must eat.”
To be strung out on hunger, and tuned to aggression, then to be met with open kindness was disconcerting. It was like walking down a familiar path in the darkness to find a pit beneath your feet. Pellan didn’t know how to react.
The priest rolled back the lip of the sack to show the food within, and gestured. Against his will, Pellan lowered his spear and reached out for a piece of dried bitter melon. Hot saliva flooded his mouth. The normally flavorless crust of melon tasted better than cakes.
The priest said, “My name is Taipai.”
He has fed me, and he has told me his name, Pellan thought, adding a silent obscenity. I can’t rob him now! And I certainly can’t kill him.
Pellan said, “You know what I am?”
“Of course. But I don’t know who you are.”
“And I am a priest of Hea Santala. She makes no differentiation between serfs and masters. Or runaway serfs starving in the hills.”
Pellan made no answer. Even if this Taipai were offering help, there was no help he could give. Taipai waited, then added, “I am responsible for many. Are you responsible for others beyond yourself?”
Pellan did not answer. Taipai pressed the issue. “Do you have a wife? Children?”
“I have a wife, and one child,” he said. More next Monday.