Sage and Stranger
An old man, small and bent, came out of the inn and paced the arched stone portico. He shivered, stepped out of the deep shade, and slowly crossed the sunny garden to the edge of the lake where he stood staring at an island that lay a league across the channel.
Sky met water in a shimmer of sunlight, forming a backdrop against which the island appeared as a dark cloud in a pale blue sky: Prynne's Island. Its towering headland of stone had originally been a mate to the bluffs behind the sage, but now they had a harsh and jagged profile. Often in the oblique light of the setting sun, it made him think of a clenched fist. Now, under the direct afternoon sun, it showed up for what it was - a carelessly quarried deposit of red sandstone.
A great weariness burdened the old man. It had come over him that morning as he sorted the papers and records which he had accumulated over the years. He realized how many more questions his research had raised than he had ever been able to answer. He felt as though the island itself rested on his back, and he could not throw it off. He had come out of doors to try to clear his brain.
He turned, chose a bench in a wind-sheltered corner, and sat down.
The inn was old; red stone darkened to purplish gray, clay tile roof, green with moss. In the garden grew ancient olive trees, silver-green leaves gently draping the gnarled trunks. This part of town was old and charming, for, as trade had grown, the stream that edged the grounds of the inn had become too small for the barges and ferries that plied the lake, and wharves and warehouses had moved away. That left the inn isolated in a peaceful backwater, nestled under the towering red bluffs which stopped abruptly at the lake. Today water lapped gently at the edge of the garden, a soothing place for an old man to warm himself in the sun.
His appearance was that of a scholar: high brow, deeply set, intelligent eyes, long, slender hands, and an air of dignity. Snowy hair fell over his shoulders and glistened in the sun.
A stranger came out of the inn. He stood a moment in the shadow of the porch, looked about the garden, then walked across it to stand before the old man.
"Venerable?" He waited for acknowledgment.
The scholar looked up, squinting against the brightness, to see a large man in travel worn garments and shabby boots. In his left hand, he carried a leather bag, his right was thrust deep into his cloak. This was a man in his middle years - or of great age, judging by the deep creases about his face and the haunted look in his eyes. The sage pulled his mantle closer about his shoulders in a gesture to disguise a shiver that the stranger's mien aroused in him.
IN THE BEGINNING
In the beginning the island knew no human habitation. No ringing ax disturbed the stillness, no smoke of cook fires frightened the small beasts. Only bird song, wind tune, water music; only fragrance of flowering shrub, sunshine on cedar, rain on dried leaves, earthy and fresh. Very occasionally a visitor came, a warden or forester on official inspection for the king. But each time he left after a day and it remained unspoiled for the little creatures that made it their home.
The island itself seemed like a creature; gamboling with the winds that brought the early rains; basking and purring in the winter sun; submitting patiently to the hot dry months. A first view, seen from the mainland, also gave the impression of a great, live beast. To the west, a promontory of red sandstone, with a fringe of pink sand at its base, resembled the beast's head resting on its paw. This headland dropped abruptly to a valley, then rose again gently to form the beast's back, sloping to end in a sandy spit that curved like a tail back toward the head. When harsh storms swept down the lake, waves dashed against the head, sending spray almost to its mane of evergreen. On quiet evenings when the setting sun ignited sky and water, the red cliffs appeared to be a face inflamed.
Most of the island was heavily forested; fir, larch, oak, chestnut. Juniper crowned the headland. A grove of purple beech occupied the basin, a favorite nesting place for small birds. The branches crisscrossed to form a maze where golden orioles felt safe from the sharp eye of the hawk. In the darkness below, there was only light undergrowth - violets, honeyberry, ferns.
The pride of the island was its cedar - ancient giants, straight and smooth. Here and there one lay felled by the storms of long ago, small mountains of rotted humus that nurtured moss and coral fungi. The tempered light fell on bracken tall enough to conceal the unicorns, those shy beasts that hid their colts there.
Two streams watered the island. One drained the promontory - a trickle in dry season, a noisy, tumbling torrent during the rains. The larger creek's source was a spring at the center of the island, halfway up the hill. Along its course grew willows, bulrushes, the white-blossomed water jasmine. Here kingfishers rivaled for the largest fish, but left myriad water beetles to the red-breasted fly catcher. Where the two streams joined, the forest opened into a meadow, bright with sun loving flowers - lupine, day stars, tropic gentians. Beavers had formed a pond where wild ducks made their home, the unicorns came to drink, the bullfrogs splashed. The pond fed a small river, which flowed smoothly south to the lake, ending in a cove at the base of the towering headlands.
In the beginning the island was a jewel - a crown jewel. It belonged to the king, and no man lived there until it was given to Adam Prynne, a royal gift for a loyal friend.