A Keeper would come to our farm once a day, usually accompanied by a young boy who would carry for him the food that we offered. The boy would usually be inattentive and bored. It was not much of a job after all - wandering around the village with the blue robed Keeper, lugging his bread and fruit and vegetables. But Keepers were worthy of respect and the head man would always ensure that there were boys to accompany them. The Keepers that came to our village were very junior in the scheme of things but they were after all, Keepers.
My mother had, since I could remember, wanted me to become a "worm" as apprentice Keepers were called. Funny that men who were so solemn and revered should start their adult lives with such a lowly name. I'd asked my father once why they were called worms but he had shaken his head and lilted "only the Keepers know the answers" as if that was all i would ever need to know about that subject. I knew why they wore blue robes - that was easy enough - the mountain retreats where most Keeps were located were home to the Indigo plant which when shredded, soaked, fermented and mixed with lye produced the blue dye.
Four days before the end of the rains I came home from the fields where I had been working all day with my father to find that three Keepers were standing in front of our house talking with my mother and grandmother. Focusing on them i was inattentive to my feet and accidentally kicked a small rock which careened off the gate-post with a whack and landed at the foot of a tall and elderly Keeper. He bent down and retrieved the stone and examined it for a moment while the others gazed in my direction. The look on my mother's face was something i had not experienced. I felt a little nervous.
"Hello Pit. Thank you for the gift."
He smiled and held out his hand to show the rock in his palm.
"Do you know what this rock is called?"
I wondered for a moment what he might mean - after all it was called "rock" or stone", not a pebble i could see that.
"No sir, i do not know" I answered.
He looked at me for a moment then said "it is called basalt and it has come from within the earth. Once it was not a rock but was like hot mud flowing on the ground".
One of the other Keepers was younger and as I looked his way he smiled as if to say "I know this too".
"Sir, may I ask a question?" I ventured. He raised an eyebrow and waited.
"Sir, if we know that this rock has a special name and was once like flowing mud, what might we do with that knowledge?"
The old Keeper smiled and returned "ah young man, the question is not what we might do with that knowledge but what might we do if we knew the name and nature of all things and how each relates to each".
He looked at me as if expecting something more.
"Sir, to that question, ‘only the Keepers know the answers’".
That seemed to satisfy him and he turned back to talk with my mother.
"He is ready now Mea, he should come after the rains. I will send someone to fetch him."
He turned to leave, the other two Keepers following. At that point my father came into sight walking along the dirt road towards the gate. He stopped and greeted the elder Keeper by name.
"Jordus, welcome. What brings you to our village?"
"Hello Brom, as I have just been discussing with Mea, the boy is ready. He should come to the Keep and begin his training as soon as the rains have ended for the year."
My father did not seem surprised at all at this by which I gathered that everyone had known about this arrangement - everyone that is except me. I held my tongue. I knew that a boy does not speak with a senior Keeper unless invited. The Keepers moved off, moving unhurriedly the way Keepers always do. Taking their time, talking about the rocks I guessed.
As soon as they were far enough away not to hear me I begged "mother, I do not want to go to the Keep. I want to stay here with you and father and help with the planting." I had other things on my mind that I would prefer to do than spend the next two years in a Keep as a worm.
"Pit, it is better for you than working here. Later, if you find the Keep can not keep you after your time then you can return and help to run the farm. We can manage without you for a while."
I knew how generous of heart she was being. Managing a farm, even a small one like ours, took a lot of work. Everyone worked. There was no time for play or for day dreaming. Even if everyone worked hard it still did not mean that things would be easy. So many things could go wrong. Disease could wipe out whole crops right across the village and beyond. The rains could come at the wrong time and either wash away days of work or leave young plants withering in the fields. Marauders could come through and take most of what had been saved. Life was hard and everyone had to pitch in if everyone was going to get by. Going to the Keep was not going to be a holiday either. The main task of a worm was to do all the menial tasks around the Keep - washing, cooking, gardening and preparing the indigo dye. On top of that a worm had to study. Long verses of lore had to be memorized with perfection. There were verses of planting and harvesting for each of the different crops that were the mainstay of the local diet. There were verses for law and behavior. There were verses for marriage and the raising of children. All of these had to be learned and learned well if a boy was to leave the Keep no longer as a worm but as man worthy of being accepted as a full citizen. And it was only as a full citizen that a man had the right to speak in the council and had the right to vote.
"Ah well, two years is not so bad. OK mum. I'll be ready to go."
I spent the last of my days on the farm trying to complete all those tasks I had put aside when I had thought I had more time. There were tools to be fixed or sharpened, trees to be pruned, fences to be repaired. I could not complete them all but at least I could make things a little easier for my father. There was one other task I had to face that was not going to be easy. I had to somehow say goodbye to my little sisters. Gim and Gem were twins, six years my junior and as full of energy as any six year olds. Every night for years I had talked them to sleep with the stories I made up for them. It had started one night when they were too excited and frightened to sleep after marauders had come through the village and set one of the neighbor’s sheds on fire as a distraction while they made off with pigs from another farm. Father had gone with the village men to help with the fire and when the pilfering had been discovered there was much shouting and crying. Pigs were valuable. To lose all your pigs was a disaster that could take years to recover from. So, there were the girls as crazy as a couple of loons and Mea wanting to go off and console the neighbors with promises of help and support.
"Pit - get the girls to sleep. I don't care how you do it but if they don't sleep they'll be up all night."
I had watched my mother and grandmother go off with a bag of squealing piglets. The girls were in bed but wide awake - their eyes like saucers as they sat there clutching each other. I had had no idea what to do until Gim had begged "tell us a story Pit" to which Gem had joined with "a story about the marauders". I had thought on that for a bit but decided that that might just be like adding alcohol to a fire so instead I had made up a story about candles. The story was simple enough - there were a lot of candles of different colors all happily glowing until a darkness had come and sewed discord and unhappiness amongst them till one by one they had started to go out. Then a brave candle had blazed away the darkness and rekindled all the candles. The girls had loved it. As soon as I had finished they wanted me to tell it again, and so I had, embellishing the story until it had become an epic. I'd not finished it though - the girls had lasted 'til the second round of “darkness” and then fallen asleep. Mea had been pleased with me when she got home long after midnight. It’s funny how a small success can breed a whole new beginning. From then on I had made up new stories for the twins every night. Each day, while I was working, I would ponder on what the night’s story might be and each night I'd receive the reward of little girls asleep with smiles on their faces. After a while the whole family had taken to sitting and listening to the stories and some days in the fields my father would ask me "what will you tell tonight?" I had loved it. Telling my sisters that there would be no more stories for a while was not going to be easy.
The day the rains stopped I was packed - some spare clothes and a few treasures I'd not want to leave behind. The Keepers came early - too early. The family gathered around me and there were some tears. My mother hugged me hard and the girls clung to me. My grandmother, as was her way, stood silently watching and showed little sign of emotion. My father held out a small bundle wrapped in linen.
"Pit, here are my wormings from my time at the Keep. They were my father's before me and his before him. I hope they serve you well though I suspect that you will surpass your ancestors."
With much waving and cries of "luck and work" they let me go. The two young Keepers who had come to fetch me made off slowly at first knowing that such partings were not easy but their pace increased as they drew further away.
We walked in silence for a while. I studied my companions. One of them was the boy who had smiled at me the day Jordus had come. He was much like me only maybe two years older and a little shorter. Noticing me studying him he spoke.
"Welcome Pit, my name is Con and this worm is Jot.”
Jot smiled and the expression on his face suggested he was struggling with wanting to talk but all he managed was "welcome worm". The two young Keepers were as all Keepers are - robbed in blue and their heads shaved. In the past, new worms had had their heads shaved in a ceremony that had been the finale of a great party thrown by the family to celebrate the very special time in a boy’s life when he would don the blue robes and go into study. The tradition had fallen away after it had become the habit of marauders to target the unattended farms of families gone to celebrate. The shaving was now an un-ceremonial part of entry into the Keep. I ventured a question.
“How long have you been a Keeper Con?”
“This is my third year. I became a receiver before the last rains.”
“My family is large and they have less need of me than if there were fewer of us” he added when he saw the look on my face which was plain enough to read.
We walked for about an hour before we came to the village hold. A hold is where village Keepers lived. Village Keepers provide services to the local villagers. They know the verses of growing and harvesting of all the crops that would grow in the area. They also know the verses of calendar – the days when the sun is at its highest or lowest, the time of the rains for our area. This knowledge they used to ensure that the village knew when the times to do things did not pass without appropriate action. Mostly all the people in the village knew by heart when each of these things would occur but from time to time the Keepers would introduce new stanzas in the versings and share the new knowledge with the village. The rest of their tasks were those that served our social needs – marriages, funerals. Birthings were left to the Midwives who were the keepers of all medical lore.
The hold was a small compound with a washing block, an eating hall, a sleeping hut for each Keeper, a large garden and a small ornately decorated hall where the Keepers would spend much of their time in meditation. Keepers spent each morning walking through the village, each going a different route, with their begging bowls ready to receive the offerings of the villagers. This way, every family was visited every day by a Keeper and in this way the bond between the people and the Keepers was maintained. A village Keeper could tell you the goings on of the whole village but that was not their way. A Keeper’s life was not to sew discord but to help maintain the harmony of the village and to provide the core versings that kept village life in sync with the nature of the world.
Keepers only ate before midday so each Keeper’s path through the village would be timed to see them return to the hold with some time left to prepare the only meal of the day. Whatever had been offered by the villagers was augmented from the hold garden which would be tended in the early morning and evening of each day by the Keepers. The rest of the time was spent in the versing hall where the Keeper’s would mediate for hours on their versings.
Once a year, the Keepers would hold public versing. This would start on the birthday of one of the great ancestors – Bhut. Bhut Day it was sometimes called but most villagers called it Hold Day. On Hold Day the Keepers did not eat at all. They each would sit in meditation posture and starting with the rising sun would verse in harmony. They would verse all of the public verses until all of them had been versed. This took two days and nights and though many villagers would be there for the day verses, only the most dedicated followers would sit through the night versings with the Keepers. I had sat through the night versings with my father since I was seven. Very tedious it was. During the versings Keepers would take turns to break – to go to the toilet or to drink. They were permitted to drink and if they were weak they could take small sustenance in juices but they did not eat until the versings were complete. The dawn of third day marked the beginning of the Celebration of the Verses which was the
of our calendar and the only day of the year that Keepers were permitted to eat after noon. They would sleep for the morning having spent all their energies in versing for two days and then in the afternoon they would rise and instead of their blue robes they would wear normal clothes and mix with the villagers as just men. They could eat then those things that Keepers do not normally eat – meat, or they could drink alcohol and they could talk with girls without “watching their words”. This was the time that a man could choose to leave the Keeping and return to village life if he wished. Many did. The life of a Keeper was not an easy life and living without women can be very hard for a man. If a Keeper was to leave the Keeping he would simply leave on that day. Usually, though not always, their leaving would be known well in advance for hold Keepers are well monitored from the Keep and elders like Jordus would visit the holds on regular occasions to monitor the hold Keepers and help them deal with their feelings on such things. high point
We entered the hold before noon and about the same time the village Keepers were returning from their rounds. Denret, the Head Keeper greeted us.
“Welcome Con and Jot and welcome Pit. It is good to see you entering the hold as a new worm. Well done. I wish you great versing. Come Keepers, let us eat. Pit you shall go first with Grom who will deal to your head and robes.”
I felt a bit strange and quite uncomfortable as I followed the bobbling old Keeper who came forward when his name was called with “this way boy, come on, don’t hang about.”
He led me to the washing block and made me sit on a stone bench that was worn smooth by countless Keepers sitting to have their heads shaved or re-shaved. He was very deft – he washed and lathered my hair and then he gathered his tools. He used the shears quickly and then while he stropped the razor he started to talk.
“I’ve seen you often lad, though we have never talked. I knew your grandfather he was a great friend to me and a great Keeper.”
I was taken aback. I had seen Grom many times in the past when I had come to Hold Days but my father had never discussed him as I’d imagine he might of someone who knew his father. But then, we had never really discussed my grandfather very much. I knew that he had been a senior Keeper and had left the village after raising my father to return to the Keep where he spent the rest of his life but there was little more that I knew.
“You knew my grandfather at the Keep?”
“Yes Pit.” He said as he started to shave my head. “It was he who sent me to be a Keeper at this hold many years ago. He was a really good man and an exceptional verser. Your father has told us that you are also a natural verser. I have heard that you have already memorized the village versings and that you make up verses for your sisters and family almost every day.”
“Oh. I’ve never considered this to be such a big thing. My father knows all the versings and there’s not much else to do when working in the fields alone but play with words.”
“Ah Pit. Little do you know of people then. Very few men can master the versings. Some of us have the mind for it and not the heart and many have the heart yet not the mind. Those who have both are few and far between and those who have the gift to make new verses at will are very rare. We have waited a long time for you to come. There will be much opportunity for you at the Keep if you can keep up with what they throw at you.”
He laughed and with a flourished flick of the last of my lathered hair he said “there, we are done. Go quickly now into that washroom and shower and put on the new robe I have set there for you. We will all eat as soon as you are done.”
I showered quickly and put on the blue robe. I was a worm. I was smiling to myself as I gathered my clothes. A worm. A lowly creature at the bottom of the Keep. As I came out of the washroom Grom was there with a string bag.
“Here lad, these are for your clothes. Hang them there. You must wash them after eating and this evening I will pack them so that I can send them home to your mother.”
He led me then to the eating hall. A dozen Keepers were there and the food was ready but they had not started eating. They were waiting for us. Denret was seated on a raised platform at the end of the line of likewise seated Keepers. He stood up and the others followed him to the tables. Grom said “you’re last lad” and joined the queue. Con and Jot joined the end of the queue both looking to me to follow. The food was simple. Much the same as anyone in the village would eat though there was no meat and no fish other than set aside there were those offerings of meat or fish that were made by the villagers. These would be used to feed the dogs and cats that lived with the Keepers in the hold. Killing was not permitted within a Hold nor were Keeper’s permitted to kill so it was not uncommon for those villagers with unwanted animals they did not have the heart to kill to quietly dump them at the gate of the hold knowing that they would be cared for.
I took a large plate and filled it. This would be my last meal until morning. I’d never gone a whole day without eating. You couldn’t work a farm and not eat. I considered taking a second plate with me but somehow Con guessed my thoughts and shook his head with a smile.
“You can come back for more as you need. Take your time, eat slowly and chew everything well. Do not drink anything. Approach it as a task you must be very mindful of.”
I thanked him and found a place to sit on the floor.
“No lad. You must sit here on the platform.” That was Grom, bobbing up and down and gesturing for me to sit at the end of the platform the Keepers had been sitting on when we came in. I stepped up and sat. And ate. While I ate I watched. They were very focused on their eating. Not rushed. Not like hungry men. They all ate in silence and they ate very carefully. The task was clear – you must stuff yourself but you had to do it as you might carefully pack a crate – ensuring that every little space was filled.
I noticed that the Denret was an exception. He spoke as if to nobody in particular “Ah Keepers know this. That when your teeth are getting loose and your mind starts to wander you will not be able to eat as you eat now. So make the most of it.”
After we ate we cleaned up and I was tasked with the washing by Grom. Con and Jot joined me and while we were working he outlined the next few days of our journey to the Keep.
“Pit, it will be hard for you but we have to start on our way immediately after midday. We have a long way to walk before we get to the next Hold and we must arrive before noon or we will arrive too late to eat. You would not like that and nor would we. Maybe we will be lucky and someone will be taking a cart in the same direction but we can’t count on it and usually we can walk faster than a cart.”
Our departure from the Hold and from the only village I have ever known in my life was a non-event. There was only Grom to see us off as the other Keepers had gone to their versings. Grom held out a string bag with some bamboo bongs stopped with bungs.
“Here’s some water for your journey lads. Mark. The bong with the cross is a little more than water for our new worm – just in case the grumblings of his stomach are too loud for you others to sleep.”
With that we were off. We walked not too vigorously at first letting our stomachs adjust to the outrage of not having a chance to rest after so much food. After a time we fell into a strong gait and covered many miles with few words other than the occasional comment on the farmlands we were walking through. I was staring off into the haze at something I could not make out.
“What is that there to the west of the road ahead?”
“That worm is the Keep. Or rather it is the Mountain upon which the Keep is built and it is very old for it sits on ground that has not been disturbed since so long before humans walked the earth that not even were there insects or worms. Like You.” He threw back a smile and pressed on. I thought on his words for a while.
“How could it be that the world was devoid of insects? Did something happen to them?”
“No Pit, but there were times when there were no living creatures in all the world and only after eons did life emerge and only long long after that did insects come into being and even longer after did people come. Pit, you will learn all this at the Keep but the thing you will struggle with most is time and the age of things. The readers can tell you more and the writers even more than they. Maybe, if you are a good enough student, you can even put your questions to a poet.
“A poet? What’s a poet?”
“Poets are the Keepers who make all the versings. All the versings you have ever heard have all come from poets. We all aspire to become poets if we can though it is not so easy to rise so high. One needs a lot of talent and years of work.”
It was getting close to sunset when we could see that we were approaching another village. It was obviously the local market day so there were people on the road with us – some heading in the same direction and some returning from the markets carrying bags of goods. A few carts also passed us going the other way with children and livestock and market goods all packed into their trays.
As we were passed, each person would nod or bring their hands together in reverence. The children would wave. It was strange to be walking clad in blue with nothing but our begging bowls and a few oddments in our string bags. It was even stranger to be treated so differently to how we would have been treated had we not been so attired. Strangers were usually questioned and pressed for news. The former because people were always wary of marauders and the later because news was something usually limited to the immediate village and its surroundings.
“There is no hold in this village. We shall have to either walk through the night to the next village or we can sleep here a bit and then rise early and head off again.” This was Jot, speaking for the first time in many hours.
Con replied. “If we sleep we will have to rise too early to ask food from the villagers. It is better that we walk as far as we can and then find sleep later. It will shorten our journey.”
And so it was that we walked for many hours more. There was some moon and the road was easy enough to follow but we were very tired by the time we stopped and found a suitable place to lay down. I fell asleep clutching my robes.
We were awakened by cries and screams. They were not far off. We leapt to our feet and ran to the road. Such a ruckus could only mean one thing – marauders. It was just on dawn and there were people up ahead on the road. As we hurried towards them we could see that they were all hurrying our way.
“Keepers. Go back the way you have come.” We were told by a man half dressed but lugging a large pack strung on his back. “Marauders - but not of our lands. They are strangers and they are very many and they are killing.”
I could see with the gaining light that these people were fleeing in a hurry for many of them were hardly dressed. Looking into their faces I could see something I had never seen on the face of a people before. Terror. It was frightening just to recognize it and I felt its infectious power on myself almost before I was aware of it. This was not something that had happened to our people for a long time. Marauders were usually small bands of young men roaming the countryside doing nothing much more than stealing and moving on. Occasionally there might be bigger bands that might steal more but it was very uncommon for them to kill. The risks were too great.
“Sir, how many do you think there were?” asked Con.
“I do not know but one of my sons here had gone off at the first sound of trouble to see what was amiss and he says there are hundreds of them and that they are all carrying weapons and many are on horses. You had best not linger here.”
With that he and his family and the rest of them were off back the way we had come. We stood and wondered what we should do for our road led onwards to the Keep.
“We’d best be careful but we must go on” said Con. We agreed and moved off, carefully, constantly staring ahead for signs of trouble. We met a few other villagers fleeing. One of these was a young man sporting a hunting bow.
“Keepers. I’d not be going on if you have any sense about you. It is not a pretty sight. There are people dead at the cross road ahead and there are strangers holding the road.” He made to hurry off but Con held up his hand.
“Stop sir, what is your name?”
“I am Tol.”
“Tol, the marauders are at the cross road ahead?”
“No Keeper, only about fifty are ahead. The rest of them have taken the west road.”
“The west road? To the Keep?”
“Yes Keeper. They have taken the Keep road and you know there are no exits from that road unless they leave it to go cross country or take the side roads that lead only to farms.”
Con looked shocked and worried.
“Tol, I must beg a favour of you. I suppose that you know these lands well?”
“That’s for sure Keeper. I have hunted all over these lands from here all the way to
. What favour do you ask?” Keep Mountain
“Tol I must make for the Keep across country and I must try and get to the Keep before the marauders do.” He turned to Jot and I and added “you two need not come. You may stay here and if the strangers leave you can wait for me at the Hold.”
At that Tol spoke again. “I’m sorry Keeper but the village Hold was burned to the ground last night and the Keepers were murdered or taken. I was there this morning long enough to see and to shoot one of those strange looking marauders with my bow. I don’t think I killed him but I bet he’s not going to be able to sit down for a while. Your companions should either come with us, for sure I would be happy to take you, or they should head back the other way.”
Something inside me was screaming “go home Pit” but instead somehow my voice lied and the words that came out were “I’ll go with you”.
Jot added “Me too. I’m not frightened of anyone that I can outrun.” His grin was enough to suggest he could indeed run.
Tol did not wait for any more. He headed west off the road where we had been standing and we had to hurry to catch up. We were walking along the verge of a very large paddy field still full of water. Soon we were winding our way between fields. We walked for some time before Tol stopped and turned to us.
“We are about four thousand strides from the west road here and safe enough I guess. I assume you three have not eaten since yesterday. There are plenty of fruit trees about a thousand strides to the north, towards the west road. Unless you want to eat meat that’s the only place we will be able to find food for a while.”
“We have no time to waste Tol. The vows do not prevent us eating meat at need even if the meat has been killed for us and Pit here has yet to even take his vows.”
Tol smiled at that and moved off again to the west. He moved at a steady pace, almost a run and it was hard work to keep up. He led us to a small dam where we drank from a cistern while he waded in the damn using his hands to look for giant snails. He soon had a fair few in his string bag.
“We can stop for a feed up ahead. I can cook these snails and they will be enough for us to keep going this afternoon.”
Not long after we came to a small stand of trees where wood cutters had taken some of the stand but had left enough dried branches for us to make a fire. Tol was deft with the flint and soon had a hot little fire going over which he draped the snails to roast. Fresh water snails are not the greatest food but they are edible and our stomachs were not complaining at all at the smell of them as they cooked.
As we sat waiting Con spoke about meat. “This will be the first meat I have eaten in a long time. I missed the last two Bhut Days for fear I would taste meat and not ever want to go back to the Keep.”
As we ate we questioned Tol about the strangers. He had been to the north of the cross roads waiting for sunrise so as to catch rabbits in a field he knew that had them in plenty. He had not had time for a kill when he heard the screams from the village. He’d rushed to investigate and had hidden behind a clump of bamboo. From there he had witnessed two killings and worse.
“They were taking the girls and young women too. That’s how the men were killed – trying to save their kin.”
“You know, the strange thing about these fellows is that they look nothing like us at all. They are all big men and have rough beards and fair skin and they speak with each other in a language that is full of sounds that I can not make.” He tried to make a sound like clearing his throat to spit but all he managed was to choke and spit.
“I wander what they are after” Jot said. “There is not much at the Keep worth stealing.”
“Ah Keeper” Tol said “you are young and just a worm so perhaps you do not know of the treasure they say is buried in the mountain where only the most senior of Keepers have access.” At this Con looked up as if to say something but instead glanced towards the Mountain that was now clear to see in the distance.
I’d heard such things in the past of course but my father had told me that the only true treasure in the Keep was the Keepers. Still, the word Keeper suggested that something was being kept. I had asked what was kept by the Keepers and the answer had always been “our way and our hope” but that was just a line form many of the versings and it never really meant anything at all to me.
Tol doused the fire and we were off again. This time he jogged. The rice fields were larger and there was more space between them with less need to make turns. Before long we came to a track.
“This leads back to the west road and we might take it for a while till we get to another I know that runs west closer to the road. We can make good time now so let’s run for a while.”
We ran. For about three hours we ran or jogged taking this track or that, sometimes passing abandoned farms and once hearing a call from the distance but we did not stop. And all the while the Mountain of the Keep loomed larger.
We ran for the rest of the day and when night fell we slowed to a walk. There was enough moonlight to see the path but not enough to see much else. That’s why we did not see the man sitting on a log beside the path until he called to us.
“Keepers. To where do you go?”
That brought us up sharp. I peered into the darkness and there sitting before us was an old man. As we approached him he stood.
“Hello sir. My name is Con and these are Jot and Pit. Our guide here is Tol” Con greeted him. “Why are you sitting here in the dark?”
“I was weary and here was as good a place to rest for a time as any young Keeper. So, and why are three young keepers walking through the night when they should be in the hold versing.”
“Sir we are rushing to the Keep to warn them about a large band of marauders that can not be far behind us.”
“Ah. I see. Very brave of you boys but let me tell you that there is no need. The Keep has been aware of them for more than two days already. We received news that they landed on our eastern shore though we were not expecting so many nor were we expecting such violence.”
“Sir you say we as if you were a Keeper yet you are not dressed as a Keeper.”
“And Keeper I no longer am my boy. In fact, all of the Keepers have left the mountain and have gone in all directions from the mountain so that when the marauders reach the Keep they will be greeted by the crickets and the fire flies. You boys may call me Don.”
I had been silent all this time while they talked. Now I spoke up.
“Sir, Don, why have you all left the Keep?”
“There reason is simple young Pit. We did not wish to see any further killings. The marauders may have the skills to find what they seek but it is a sure thing that they would torture any Keepers they found to get information.”
“But sir, might they not destroy the Keep?”
“Yes lad they might indeed and it would be a sore thing if buildings that have stood for many hundreds of years should be destroyed.”
Con probed the old man. “Sir, you said that they seek something. What is it that they seek?”
“Young man you have been a Keeper only a short time and it is not for me to break with ancient tradition and disclose all the secrets of the Keep to one who has not passed all the tests we place in your way.” There was a touch of kindness and mirth in his voice. He spoke again. “But who knows what marauders might seek in such a place. Perhaps they have a liking for blue cloth.”
“So sir” Con spoke again. “What are we to do then?”
“Well my boy I would strongly suggest finding some other clothing for these marauders might start looking for Keepers under every rock and it might not be such a good idea to be the only ones they can find. It will be problem enough with our shaved heads but I expect they will grow out soon enough.”
Tol guided us to a farm house he knew of. There was nobody to be seen and nobody answered our calls. Toll disappeared into the house and emerged soon with some old and worn work clothes which he handed to us.
“I guess we’ll just have to borrow what we need and I’ll let them know what happened later.”
We did not grumble. We changed and left our robes hidden behind the house under a pile of rocks. Maybe we’d return for them. I had no idea when that might be.
With that done we were off again. We walked south and east back towards my own lands but we went across country with Tol leading us. The going was slow because the old Keeper required frequent stops.
“Sir” I enquired, “Why were you traveling alone?”
“Well, young Pit, I had watched all the younger Keepers off with a few other older Keepers like myself. Then we had made some final preparations for our marauder visitors and left each going either north or south or east or west. I came west.”
“May I enquire sir what your preparations were?” I pressed.
“My boy “only the Keepers know the answer to that question” he returned with a wry smile. “And now I must rest again my boys. So sorry to be a burden to you.”
I sat with the old Keeper while Tol shot off ahead to scout around and the other two walked at some distance to either side keeping an eye out for anyone.
“Pit, I know you or at least I am sure that I know who you are. You are Brom’s son are you not?”
“Yes sir. I am. But how did you know?”
“I can see your grandfather in you and we were very close friends. He was a great Keeper did you know?”
“I have heard similar from Grom who verses at the hold near our farm.”
“Ah old Grom, what a kind soul he is. I have not seen him for many years. How is he?”
“Sir he is well, it was he who saved my head just the day before yesterday. He told me of my grandfather. I had not know he was so revered.”
“Well, Pit he became what we call a Poet. This is a very great achievement. Had it not been for fate it might have been him, and not I, who now walks with you. And because of this I will share with you something that, if I had not shed my robes I would be bound to keep from you. I will share this because it might be that I will not survive this journey and it will be necessary for someone to carry a message back to the Keep if ever the marauders leave.”
I waited patiently for him to continue, wondering what sort of a secret he might share.
“Pit, There are not many Keeps around the world. There are perhaps only a dozen that have not been pillaged over the many centuries since they were made. In the early days when a Keep was pillaged what they hold was utterly destroyed. Those that remain survived only because their secrets are so well secured that none of those who have attempted it have succeeded in breaking them. But these marauders, I think that these may succeed where many have failed.”
“Sir, you know then of these people?”
“Yes lad I do indeed. They are servants of a Druid. Not just any Druid but the great Arch Druid from across the
. Druids, if you have not heard of them, are like Keepers in one way yet not in the way that is most important. Druids crave power. They work Magic. They can work it for good or for ill but when it comes to knowledge there is little but death itself that will stop them.” Great Sea
“Sir, but this is terrible to hear. What then does this Druid seek from the Keep?”
He glanced around looking to where the others might be. “Pit I ask you to keep this secret from all unless death comes to me whence you might share it with one other so that what I will tell you might survive even your own death.”
“Sir I swear it.”
“Pit, what is hidden secure within every Keep are “Books”.
“Books? Sir I have never heard the word. What are they?”
“Lad, Books are things in which ancient knowledge is stored - knowledge so vast and so profound that few if any of our people have the skill to understand it. Poets are those people who are permitted to study these books and to make new versings from them so long as they protect the people from a terrible truth that lies within the books.”
I was starting to feel sick. What could be so terrible?
“Sir, I do not know if I am strong enough to hold such a terrible secret.”
“Pit, I am sorry, but I had overestimated my health and stamina and it must be you for at least I know that two of your line, at least, have the skill and the heart to hold such knowledge and not disclose it except in dire need.”
I waited, feeling that the doom that was to come would be too much for me to bear.
“Pit, mote than a thousand years ago we humans were like gods. We were vast in numbers and we were powerful beyond your dreams. There was little we could not do. We waked upon the moon, we flew through the air as easy as you or I walk on the earth. We had conquered illness and lived long years beyond the years we live now. But all of this was not through our skill but through exploiting what had been left to us over the vast stretch of time going back to when the earth was made. We drank the blood of the earth. Then, when the blood was exhausted, a great collapse came and billions of people died. All the knowledge that we had had been stored in a huge mind that we had made. The Books that are held in the Keep were but antiques that were lovingly preserved for their historical and artistic value and in case of a collapse – for even then there were some who could see collapse would come.”
“Sir, but how can these books be anything but good. Should we not open them up and copy them and spread them to all the people of the world so that we might become as gods again?”
“Pit, that is the goal of the Arch Druid. And as much as it appeals to us all there is one simple fact that releasing all this knowledge will make clear to all living humans on the world.”
“Pit, the secret that we protect the people of the world from is that we have no future. We are in decline. We are a doomed species, we can not escape our world and we can never reclaim the greatness of the ancients. They took from the earth the very power that is needed to conquer the universe and they wasted it on things we do not even understand. To achieve what they achieved we would need a population as vast as that of old but the earth can not support such numbers any longer. In all the world now there is barely one hundred million people and may of those live in poverty and struggle to survive each day.”
“Sir, you mean that we will all die?”
“No, lad, no. We will live for a long, long time and we can be happy and maybe over that time we can learn for ourselves much of that which is in the books we Keep. But one day in the distant future there will be none of us left. We just live. And at the core of the human heart is that great thing called “Hope”. We dare not risk the destruction of hope in the hearts of people for then what would we become but animals?”
“Sir, why did you tell me this? How am I to keep hope with this knowledge?”
“Son, now indeed you are a Keeper. I think you will do just fine Pit. Now, I have some secret key codes to teach you and then we can call the others to hunt for some lunch. How does that sound?”
“Sounds like a good idea sir. Better than giving up and jumping in a well.”
I smiled. And he smiled back.