The Hermit’s Bane


I occassionally write fiction. Here’s a story that I wrote last year.  I’ve recently read some things on the Internet that make it pertinent.

The Hermit’s Bane

A short story by Kostas Dervenis

Once, a long time ago, in the very far South there lived a great warlord who, through cunning, guile, and showmanship, not to mention a bit of outright strength and skill, conquered all the lands around him and ruled over others in a time of intense controversy.

To celebrate this feat, he built himself a great castle of wood, because in the South, although there were stones for building, wood looked really cool, and you got to pretend that you were a Viking and shit. In this castle, he lived for many years until the day that his wife was satisfied she was indeed a Very Important Person (which was what all the fuss was about). Taking great joy in this event, the King called all his subjects together for a grand celebration. As a sign of appreciation for all the showmanship that he had made, his subjects brought him many gifts of great value and these were hung from the tall wooden walls around the castle for all to see. The King, wise in these matters, immediately promoted to Prince the sons of all those who had brought him presents. And they were many.

In time, one particular Prince of the poorer sort grew to manhood and was trained (very well) in the arts of war. Then one day, the king called this foster son aside and said, “O noble Prince, my knights, everyone in the castle and I will go on a great vacation, and I have a most important task for you. While away, I want you to stand guard in front of the castle and protect it so that my wife and I will have a place to come home to when we are bored with making merry around the world.” Saddened that he was to be left behind, but obedient as all knights are, the foster son bowed his head and accepted his assignment. “There is one last thing my son,” the king added. “While guarding the castle, you must not go inside, you must not look at the castle and no one must come close to it. You will live in the cave across the meadow and each morning you will walk backward from the cave to the front of the castle. That way, no one may surprise you.”

So the young Prince spent his nights in a cold cave and every morning he would arise and turning around walk backwards to his post and spend all day with his sword drawn and his shield at the ready to protect the castle, that is, when he was not drinking booze and too drunk to get up.

Time passed.

Sometimes, robbers would approach the castle and the prince would drive them off. He recalled his King’s wishes that no matter how fierce the combat, he was never to look at the castle and walk backwards to his post. Being Greek, though, taking orders didn’t sit very well, so after a few years the Prince said “screw this”, and started taking a good hard look at the castle day by day. The Prince had studied engineering, and what he determined was that the castle, impressive and beautiful though it was, had been built on sand, and not very well at that. There had been a lot of emphasis on show and luxury in the design, but very little solid structure was in place – a single earthquake would knock it down. So one eventful afternoon, knowing that the castle was destined to fall, the Prince decided he didn’t want to be in it when it did.

It occurred to him though that the lands he surveyed were beautiful – why give them up because his King didn’t understand basic civil engineering? “While guarding the castle, you must not go inside, you must not look at the castle and no one must come close to it.” What kind of bullshit is this, the no-longer-so-young Prince thought to himself? Might be OK for other people, but not for me.  So the Prince resigned his commission. Once again, being Greek, he decided he had suffered enough for the King’s sake to be owed some compensation, and damn if the cave wasn’t on the best spot in the Kingdom, and didn’t the old fart owe all his Princes something for their troubles anyway? Good sturdy rock for a foundation the cave had, nice and roomy it was, and a great view it had as well (Yoda voice for all three items) – the Prince laid claim to the land around the cave and built a very small mansion there. If the King came back and asked him, “what da ef, homes?”, the Prince had decided to tell him and everyone else the Truth about the castle and its foundation.

In time, word spread of the strange Prince who stood guard over the castle filled with treasure and this caught the attention of other knights who wished to make their way in the world. Many rode out and challenged the prince and all fell to his superior skill. The Prince vainly tried to tell them that he was not at all interested in the castle anyway and that they could fry the castle in balsamic vinegar for all that he cared. But the Many would not listen, for he was on the land of the Kingdom, which looked pretty good, and he had the cave, which was clean and comfy, and damn if that mansion that Prince had built didn’t look pretty good, too. So the Prince had to kick their asses back into the next century. This only made things worse, because it pissed the Many off.
As time went by, the wooded castle began to rot and termites made their home in its walls as expected, since the construction was so shoddy. But the prince never looked at the castle and always ignored it as much as he could; it was a Stage after all, not a real castle.

More time passed.

A knight from a next fiefdom over heard the tale of the lone prince and decided to go take a look himself. However, the minute he approached the castle, the prince drew his sword and engaged him in fierce combat. They fought all day and only stopped when the sun when down. Exhausted and nursing many wounds (the Prince liked him and let him go rather than plant him in the ground, since that would have entailed digging a hole in any case), the neighbor knight retreated to his fief. Not willing to give up, the knight hit upon the idea of asking the Kingdom’s hermit for help.

This hermit lived high up in the mountains. Some say he was a myth, yet the knight’s old father assured him the hermit was real and lived a boring life in the mountain tending his garden and raising the flowers he sometimes sold at the market. It had not always been so. For many years the hermit had served his King well fighting in countless battles, and once he had hung up his sword, he had served faithfully in his king’s court. Then one day the hermit had packed up his beautiful wife and belongings and disappeared into the mountains. Few ever spoke of the hermit and few visited. Much to the hermit’s dismay the reputation he had earned on the battlefield never left him. Still, the knight’s father assured him that if he visited the old man perhaps he could find a way to best the Greek in combat.

After days on the path, the knight found the old hermit. Polite and retiring, the hermit listened to every detail of the young man’s story. At first, the old hermit wanted nothing to do with any of it. He had no need for treasure and was content to live out his days in his mountain hideaway. Yet there was something compelling about the young knight’s pleas and eventually the old hermit agreed to help. Retreating into his little shack, the hermit emerged with a large bag. He did not seem to be carrying any weapons but since the young knight had heard of the hermit’s past battles, he said nothing.

A few days later the young knight and the hermit arrived in front of the small mansion and wooded cave. Outraged, the king’s foster son drew his sword and challenged the two. “What the hell is wrong with you people?” he screamed. “That building should be condemned! Who’s responsible for Zoning around here anyway?” The young knight leapt from his horse and made ready for combat (the Prince groaned, as his knee was hurting him that morning and he was in no mood to be benevolent), yet the old hermit gently held his arm and asked him to wait. Getting down from his own horse, the hermit took down his bag and approached the king’s son.

Enraged at being approached by such an obviously old and broken down man, the Prince smacked him upside the head, so that the old man might be overcome by fear and run away. After a brief journey through the air, a thud and a yelp, the old man regally stood on shaking legs, dusted himself off, and looked back at the Prince, who laughed like a wolf eyeing a rabbit.

“What the hell u doing up here, homes?” the Prince asked him. “Didn I tell u the last time to back the ef up before u get smacked the ef up? Lots of water under the bridge since we last met, homes, and Geronimo say white eyes speak with forked tongue. That was your problem all along, u know, you never understood that it was either a Kingdom of Conscience or Nothing at all. And whadda ef u doin pretendin yo an old man anyhow? Shit B, u ain’t even finished wid yo mid life crisis yet! Is that what dis is efin all about? Back off, a’ight? Take some of that efin money the King has stashed away and go buy yo beautiful wife some beautiful panty hose or something. This here be bandit country, and you two be trespassing big time, you know what I’m saying? I’m not in the mood.”

The young knight was shocked. He had been sure that the Hermit could easily best the Prince. 

Yet the old hermit walked straight toward the prince showing no fear. He held the large bag under one arm, and for all the young knight could tell, felt no more concern with the prince than he would be a butterfly in his garden. He stopped a few meters from the prince who was leaning on his sword in a stance which showed that he did not give a shit.

The hermit stopped and smiled and then he slowly unwrapped the package. In it was a silver shield that shone with mirror perfection. The prince took a step forward and the hermit simply held the shield towards him. There was a whirring noise and the Prince struck the Hermit on his legs with the flat of his sword, causing the not-really-so-old warrior to tumble onto his regal butt. The Prince snatched the mirrored shield from the hapless hermit’s hands.

“Good idea, that,” the Prince said, and grabbed the Hermit by the hair, shoving the shield into his face. The Hermit gasped and his eyes bulged.

…and there in the shield’s surface the Hermit saw the truth for the first time in decades. The castle’s walls were rotten and falling, the windows broken and the treasures that once hung brilliantly on the walls had rusted way. The castle was sinking into the sand because it hadn’t been built right in the first place. Plus, the Hermit had a cavity in a maxillary lateral incisor that needed to be looked at immediately.

“What the hell did you morons think?” the Prince asked. “That the Castle was forever? That the King was a god? He was a great warrior and a mediocre actor, and I owe him a lot, and so do you, but there is no reason to be an idiot about it. The King had no background in engineering, he built his castle on sand without a foundation, and most of the treasures he had in there were glitz and fool’s gold anyway. I’ve been here since the beginning… you think some teenage runt is going to come off the street and tell ME about this castle? BULLSHIT! You morons get your shit together before I really get pissed off and use the edge instead of the flat of my sword.”

The true ending of this story has been lost to time. Some say the prince and the young knight became fast friends and went on to found a great empire that they passed down to their sons and their son’s sons. Some say the prince was so outraged with the hermit that he cut off his head anyway. In yet another telling the prince refused to believe in human nature and to this day still stands in front of the old, rotten castle watching the idiots go by to visit that decrepit rubbish heap. No one is sure which of the endings is correct. Readers must decide for themselves.

But hips don’t lie.