An Offering

A pall of night descended over the woods, swifter than a barque plummeting over a waterfall. Unused to the ways of the sun in this land and finding himself suddenly benighted the woodsman cursed and began rummaging in his sack for a small lantern which he kept for such emergencies. With one match he was able to light the lantern, then he took up his sack and continued to trudge between trees that reared like beasts out of the darkness, seeking for a place to lay himself down to sleep. Soon he found a tight copse of alders and burrowed in beneath their low limbs. Yes, this would do nicely enough. He ate a few strips of dried rabbit though he was no longer hungry, and then tucked his sack beneath his head as a pillow. He hadn’t felt tired before, but he was soon asleep.

He slept fitfully. There were many stirrings in the night, to which he would awaken and sit motionless, listening, scarcely breathing. After the second of these he slept with the hilt of his knife in his hand and the sheathed blade below his head. Several hours before dawn a chill breeze kicked up, and he slept little after that. Finally, impatient of trying to fall back into slumber and judging the first brush of dawn not far off, he arose, set his pack on his shoulder and set off through the trees. At first he groped about, but soon enough light fell through the trees to at least enable him to thread between their shadowy bulks. By the time the sun had surfaced and was sitting on the eastern horizon, preparing to leap into the sky, he had made his way out from the dense trees and walking the crest of a hill that stretched along north for a ways.

The lake lay nestled somewhere in the hills to the north. He hadn’t been there since his father had brought him, once, as a child. The landscape stirred up the wisps of half-forgotten memories like silt from the base of a pond, but beyond that he could recall little. So he continued with the sun to his left all morning, filling his canteen at every creek he crossed, keeping an eye out for game and edible plants. He would sometimes kneel, slice several sprigs or leafs off of a plant, tuck them into his satchel and move swiftly on. A little after noon he rested beneath a lone tree in a meadow, broke his fast on the last strips of dried rabbit and a couple leafs of the wild lettuce he had gathered, and sipped his canteen. Then he was up and continuing on.

Two more days passed much like this one. He was able to snare another hare, and roasted it slowly over a bed of coals. He learned to stop earlier in the evening and make camp before the treacherous sun of these parts suddenly dove below the horizon. The land steadily rose as he reached the foothills of the mountains, began working his way up steep valleys between them. Finally, after he’d been trekking for over a week, and had begun to grow gaunt on nothing but rodents, hares, and wild herbs, he saw in a high valley far ahead of him a sparkle of gold lit by the setting sun. He knew with certainty it was his destination. He descended off the ridge and made camp in the trees as dusk set. He could scarcely sleep that night; he was many times tempted to rise and brave the dark woods, seeking out the lake. But he knew this would be foolish and dangerous, so he bided his time, bidding his excited mind let his exhausted body fall back into slumber. Finally, the trees were dimly visible in the pre-dawn dusk and he arose and set off almost at once. The way up to the lake, which was really a tarn that rested in the basin of several high peaks, was still far above him up a steep valley. He was winded and his limbs ached from days of strenuous use with little rest. All the same he pushed on, winding swiftly up the valley. He was following the creek that poured down from the rim of the lake now. He crested hill after hill, expecting to see the wide basin and the lake stretched before him. But each hill was false. Until finally he rose over a rocky ridge, and there was the lake before him. He uttered silent benedictions and stepped, slowly, gracefully to the lakeside, all hurry gone before the object of his trek. Just at the grassy edge of the lake he knelt down. He dipped his hands in the icy water, raised a palm full of it, and made the ritual gesture taught to him by his father many years past. This, he remembered.

"I beseech thee, oh Lady of the Lake, make my daughter well again who has fallen dreadful ill." From his pack he drew a pine-martin he had captured overnight, as he had known he would. He had bound it tightly in a roll of cloth secured by twine. It squirmed about in his hand.

"Accept this humble offering, oh Lady, and know it is a mere token of what my wishes would bring to you."

With a smooth swift motion he sliced the creature’s throat. He held it aloft above the water, and then cast it out into the lake. He then drew a bundle of herbs from his bag. Of these he sprinkled rosemary and myrrh into the waters of the lake. He bowed his head and again made the ritual gesture. There he knelt for many heartbeats, until a sudden wind kicked up over the surface of the lake. At this he rose, lighter of heart, knowing his offering had been accepted. He donned his pack and, without looking back, journeyed back down the long, steep valley, making good time despite aching knees.