Were the Singularians in just that one particular village, or were they all through these mountains? Any fanatics were annoying, but these guys seemed like they could be dangerous. However, I had already determined that the road I was on was the best way around Don Reymundo’s lands, so I would have to take my chances with the Singularians and keep an eye out for their weird symbols.
I spent the morning following a steep road into the mountains.
It curved and twisted around, becoming so narrow in spots as to be almost impassable due to rockslides and the steady erosion of the soil underneath the road bed. But the views were stunning, and I was happy to come across a little picnic area right about the same time I was thinking I couldn’t bear to go another hour without lunch.
It had once been a very nice campsite, with a place where you could look out over the valley and see a chain of mountains in the distance.
There was a stone pit that still held old charcoal and bits of half-burned branches, making it easy to build a fire and warm up. The site was so pleasant I was even thinking of making camp early and enjoying a little peace and solitude, when I went into the woods to relieve myself and found the bodies.
There were several of them, lying just off the path and half-covered in snow. I couldn’t tell anything about them in the short time I stood there, other than that they were dead and there was a Singularian emblem etched in a nearby tree trunk.
I went back to my picnic site, covered my fire and got back on my horse.
For about another hour I continued to find signs of the Singularians scratched into tree trunks, nailed to old posts and even drawn in a snow bank and melting in the sun. That one frightened me more than any of the others, since it meant someone had been this way recently.
Toward mid-afternoon, the symbols stopped. I saw no indication that I was in a safe area, but there were no clear signs of danger, either. The road gradually opened up and I finally saw a few scattered buildings ahead. After yesterday’s experience I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into town, so I tugged on the reins and stopped to think.
There had been a path a little ways back which might prove a better alternative than the main road into town, but I had no way of knowing. Going off the primary road presented its own hazards, since if something happened to me, it was unlikely anyone would ever find out. But after that last weird village. . . I looked toward the town again. “What do you think, Flechita?”
She shook her head, which could’ve meant anything, but it seemed as good a sign as any. “Okay. We’ll give it a try.” I turned her around and we went back to the path I had seen.
The trail wound through the trees, slightly overgrown and snow-dusted, but not too hard to follow. It terminated in a clearing overlooking the valley. Here was a log hut nearly dwarfed by a big wooden cross.
I could see from the smoke coming out of the stovepipe that the place was inhabited, and since the occupant was obviously not Singularian, I felt optimistic that I could get work and shelter for the night, or at least some advice about the nearby town. I dismounted and knocked on the door.
I heard a bumping and shuffling from inside, and finally a hunched, white-haired man came to the door. His skin was brown and the lines in his face made him look as old as the mountains themselves. He looked me up and down. “¿Qué quieres? No hablo ingles.”
“Está bien,” I said. “Quiero saber si usted tiene un poco empleo para mi, o si puede decirme—"
“Oh, shut up.”
I took a step back. “But you said—“
“I know what I said, but if you’re going to stand there and ramble on anyhow, you might as well do it in a language I know more than five words of. And do it inside, while you’re at it. You’re letting in the cold.”
I stepped inside the smoky cabin and looked around. It wasn’t much—just one small room with a floor of packed earth and some crude furniture made out of tree stumps and woven branches. One corner of the room was set up like an altar, with a wooden santo and lots of little candles, beads and crosses.
“What do you want?” the man asked, standing over the stove where he flexed his fingers in the heat.
“I thought maybe I could do some work in exchange for food and a place to sleep.” I looked around skeptically as I said this. There was no work that needed doing here, and little evidence that this man had food or anything more than a bit of floor space to share.
“There’s nothing I need done, but if you have nothing to eat, I suppose I can give you something before you head on your way, since it’s the Christian thing to do.”
“It’s pretty late in the day,” I pointed out. “Couldn’t I stay here tonight? I’ll be no trouble.”
“You’re already trouble.” He gestured toward his altar. “You interrupted me at my prayers. I’m a hermit. I’m supposed to be praying for the salvation of the world, damn it.”
He seemed a pretty poor hermit to me, but of course I wasn’t going to say so. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I had known. But now that I’m here and it’s getting dark. . .”
“No. Warm yourself up over the stove, if you need to, then go away.”
I walked over and held my hands out to the heat. “Could you at least tell me about the town up ahead? I encountered some Singularians last night, and—”
“Singularians?” He spat on the floor. “They’re a nasty bunch. Crazier than a drug runner on mescal. What were you getting mixed up with them for?”
“I didn’t know any better. I was passing through and stopped to ask for work, food and shelter, like I am with you.”
“Well, you’re better off with me than them, that’s for sure.”
“But you said I can’t stay.” When he didn't answer, I added, “I don’t mind going into town. It’s just I wasn’t sure if they were Singularians, too.”
“No, they aren’t Singularians, but they’ve got their own problems, that’s for sure.” He sighed. “If I let you stay the night, can you be quiet and mind your own business?”
“I have a book to read, and I’m tired. If you could just give me a few feet of floor space, I’ve got my own gear. I’ve even got my own food. I only tried to barter with you because I don’t know what’s up the road.”
He sullenly assigned me a spot of floor to call my own, and I said I would go bring in my things. “Take your time,” he said. “And be quiet when you come back. I’ve got some prayers to finish.”
I went outside and found a place where I could build Flecha a shelter. There was a well near the house, so I drew some water for her and tethered her on a long lead so she could forage.
When I went back inside, the old man was still kneeling at his prayers, so I made up my bed as quietly as I could and sat down with my lantern and my book. By the time he was done praying, I was almost too sleepy for supper, but we pooled our food and ended up with a passable dinner of beans, squash, and rehydrated venison.
After we cleaned our few dishes, the hermit went back to his altar where he has been reading and praying by turns ever since.
I’m not sure what to make of this man. Are hermits always so surly? I thought all that praying was supposed to bring inner peace and happiness, but apparently not. At least not for this guy. He still hasn’t told me anything about the town. I know he says he's a hermit, but he must go to town at least sometimes, because how else would he get food, blankets, and batteries?
But I seem to be in a safe place for the night, and that’s what matters. Maybe in the morning my hermit will give me the information I need so I can continue.
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