The Legend of the Hell Climbers

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The Old Man

That night the youth and the craftsman partook in conversation concerning the details that had led up to their fated encounter. The craftsman was a kindly man; not one to disclose much about himself, but ready and willing to listen to the living ambition that strove Arnold forward.

Within the flickering candlelight of the small hut, the two discussed for many hours, seemingly forgetting the night altogether until the early dawn shed its head upon the horizon. And as the familiar ray of light shone through the thatched roofing, Arnold stood, thanked the craftsman once again, and made for the door.

“Traveler, your dreams and aspirations have intrigued me. For many generations my family has worked the kiln, transforming sand into glass and clay into pottery, but in this day and age the world no longer needs the skill of a craftsman like me. Let me join you on your journey,” Tristan asked, rising in the old chair.

The youth craned his neck, analyzing the sitting man whose tired eyes flared with the same ambition that had carried Arnold out of his village. After short consideration, Arnold shook his head.

“What of your hut here? Your life, your friends?” the youth asked. The craftsman turned his body in the chair, perhaps fracturing some of the fine woodwork in the process.

“As I’ve said, the world no longer needs the skill of a craftsman like me,” he replied. Arnold shook his head again, this time facing the man.

“The world will always need craftsman like you,” the youth said, causing the craftsman to fall silent at his words.

Arnold looked about the small hut and thus the small world the craftsman had made for himself. In its shambled and decrepit state, Arnold thought it similar to the mundane life he lived from within the confines of his room. He looked into the craftsman’s fiery eyes and saw himself reflected within the man’s pupils. The youth smiled and extended an arm.

“Join me then.”

And so the two travelers embarked on their journey once again. They traveled for many days and many nights enduring the brunt force of the seasons as they trudged onward. Though Arnold spoke little of it, he was glad that he had a companion to speak with.

The miles and miles of road ahead of them seemed long and distant as the two continued in search of the meaning of life, but to no avail. For many months their aimless wandering had led them nowhere though Tristan frequently noted that it was the aimless wandering that had led them to each other.

“Worry not young Arnold. Life has a way of providing necessities where one needs them most,” Tristan would say. Arnold did not quite understand the meaning of the craftsman’s words. At the time the youth could think on little more than his hardships on the long road he had traveled. However, as fate would have it, one day, when the two travelers were making their way through a dense forest, the pair happened upon the collapsed form of an elderly man.

“Old man, are you alright?” Arnold cried out, rushing over to the collapsed figure.

Arnold knelt beside the man, turning his head out of the grass. The elder’s bespectacled face was laced in painfully contorted wrinkles, emphasizing the man’s advanced age and apparent distress from his recent collapse. His chest rose slowly and weakly as Arnold carried him to a nearby tree.

Tristan, kicking aside a protruding branch, cleared an area for Arnold to place the old man. The youth cleared the elder’s face of the dirt and grass blades that had latched onto his skin and continued to search for any noticeable injuries.

“Arnold, give him this,” Tristan instructed, pouring a bowl of water and extending it to him. Arnold put the bowl to the old man’s lips and drained it carefully. The old man’s eyes fluttered weakly as soft coughs escaped his chest. The craftsman felt at the man’s limbs and placed an ear up to his mouth.

“His breathing is light and he’s been out here for a while,” Tristan informed, throwing his cloak over the old man’s body to warm him. The craftsman looked to the youth. “Arnold, find help. I will stay with him. Take the path. If you follow it you might find a village.”

Arnold nodded, discarded his rucksack beside Tristan, and began running down the road. The whips of the cool forest air carried the dust and dirt that trailed under Arnold’s feet, creating a haze of dirt behind him. The squawks and squabbles of on looking squirrels and birds dissipated as the animals scurried to safety upon sight of the oncoming youth.

Distant trees and branches seemed to converge in on each other, thinning the path and darkening the ground. Under the shade of the trees, the dirt carried over to mud as the atmosphere of the forest itself somehow catered to the youth’s dire situation. Slicks of muck began sticking to Arnold’s boot wrappings, slowing him and necessitating further physical effort.

Streams of light broke through the forest canopy, illuminating the otherwise dimly lit environment. As Arnold sped down the path, crying out for help all the way, he thought the relative silence of the forest somewhat polarizing in light of the old man’s collapse.

Arnold panted heavily, driblets of sweat careening down his face until he ultimately tired, slowed, and guided himself to a nearby tree. The youth could feel the heat of exertion climb up through his feet, circulate through his ears and face, and end within his pounding head. Nearly tripping over his own feet, Arnold steadied himself upon the rough bark and allowed his lungs a moment to rest.

Dripping perspiration from his nose and chin created damp blotches in the mud as Arnold turned his back and slid down the base of trunk. The youth was not accustomed to this level of urgency and had rushed down the path mindlessly. As he inspected his arms, cuts left by the stray branches and leaves of the overgrown path began to trickle with blood. Sighing, partially from exhaustion and partially from pain, Arnold wrapped his arms within his cloak and perused his surroundings, trying to assess his situation.

The path that the two travelers were taking was old and disused, seeing little patronage from traders once a river route was found to be more favorable. Arnold wondered why the old man was in the forest in the first place. He carried no tools and no bag as to carry his belongings. This would suggest that perhaps a village, like Tristan suggested, was nearby, though it wasn’t unreasonable for an old man to live in the forest by himself.

Though this was unlikely, Arnold began to quickly formulate a rough script for what he was to say in the scenario that he’d find other people and also considered his actions in the off chance that there’d be no one in sight. As Arnold stood himself on wobbly legs with the support of the tree to his back, he opted to save his mind from pessimistic thoughts and continue his search.

Making his way further into the thicket, the youth wondered as to whether or not he had made a wrong turn. As he continued, the youth doubted that the old man traveled along a path so heavily decorated with thorns and twigs. Eventually, after having been distracted by the previous thought, Arnold, turning one way and that, realized that he himself was lost.

The green tinted light spilling through the canopy of leaves made it difficult for the youth to make out his own footprints. In his rush Arnold took little notice of discernible landmarks and now paced back and forth in an attempt to make his next rational decision.

In doing so, off in the distance, Arnold heard the faintest chiming of bells and rustling from the brush. The sound seemed amplified by the forest, coming from all sides, reverberating through the trees, the roots, the ground and the air. Low grunts followed the ethereal chimes as the youth dropped his ear to the floor to listen for the sound’s source. The damp ground muddled the precise direction of the noise, but it was enough. Standing and swatting aside obstructive branches and twigs, the youth cupped his hands over his mouth and began to shout.

“Over here! We need help!” the youth shouted, his voice equally amplified by the woods. Though what emerged from the trees to answer his call was strange to say the very least.

Out from the brush came a heavily robed man sat cross-legged atop a large spotted boar. A crude straw hat nestled atop a hidden head of long scraggly black hair was similar to that of the animal’s. Long beaded strands serving as a makeshift harness clanged softly against the ivory tusks of the large mammal as the robed man adjusted his seating atop the back of the creature. The mysterious figure stopped just before the youth, brandishing a crooked dark wood staff in Arnold’s direction. A small bell at the end of the staff caught a glint of the sunlight as its piercing chime rang through the wood.

The man leaned forward, tipping his straw hat upward and revealing his dark and worn face. A shift in the man’s weight rattled the bead harness, causing the boar to snort and send articles of the draped cloth and a crescent of dust and fallen leaves into the air.

“I heard your call. What do you need?” the mysterious man inquired. Arnold was speechless for a moment. Though, upon reabsorbing the importance of his task, threw his makeshift explanation to the wind as he pointed behind himself.

“Help. I think they’re that way,” the youth replied.

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