The Six Isles
Long ago, a young man lived with his aging father in a small town near the shore. The father had been a well-traveled man, but had given up his roaming for a peaceful existence at home. However, his life abroad had exposed him to many dangers. Not long after returning from his final voyage, he began to suffer from a strange illness. The young man was frightened for his father, and sought the help of the herbalist who lived nearby. The herbalist, an ancient and knowledgeable woman, examined the man's father, and took the son aside.
"Your father is gravely ill, child," she said. "He has a slow but dreadful sickness; in time, he will become more and more blind, deaf, and unable to taste or smell or feel pain. Within a year, he will lose all sensation, and die of loneliness and despair."
The boy was much upset by the news, for he loved his father dearly, and asked if there was a cure. After a moment, the herbalist nodded, and said:
"There grows a plant on an island far to the East, which has bright blue flowers, a bitter fruit, a sweet smell, and whose stems and leaves, when crushed, will cause your skin to burn and itch. The roots of this plant, when dried and turned to powder, can cure your father."
The young man was much encouraged by this, and wanted to set out immediately. In two days' time, he had stocked his small sailing boat with food and supplies. On the morning of the third day, he bade his father a tearful farewell, and promised to return with the medicine. The father was filled with sorrow as his only son set sail, alone.
For days, the son traveled due East without sighting land. He began to worry that he would not be able to find the island, or, if he did, it would be so far away that the journey would take more than a year, and he would not be able to return in time to save his father. However, one morning he awoke to the sight of a small island, due East, just as the herbalist had said. By midday, he had landed on its shores. The son saw wisps of smoke rising above the treetops, and, thinking this would lead him to a village, followed the smoke to its source.
The village was not far from where the young man had landed, and its people seemed friendly, for a group gathered to greet him as the boy left the cover of the trees. He was relieved that the people spoke the same language as he, though they had an odd accent. The young man told the villagers that he was searching for an herb to cure his father, and he was led to the home of the wisest elder, who knew much about plants and medicine. The villagers were very kind and gracious, and had prepared a meal for the young man in the elder's hut. On this island, it was customary to discuss matters over food, and the young man, being rather hungry, was eager to eat. However, the food, despite smelling very good, was bland and tasteless. The young man, not wanting to offend his hosts, ate it anyway.
"What brings you to this island, stranger?" asked the Elder. "We do not often get visitors, for your people are from the Far West."
"I am looking for a plant to cure my father's illness," said the young man. "I was told it has bright blue flowers, a bitter fruit, a sweet smell, and whose stems and leaves, when crushed, will cause your skin to burn and itch. It is only found on an island far to the East, which is why I have come here."
The Elder contemplated this for a moment. "I do not understand what 'bitter' is, though I have heard of a plant with other characteristics as you have mentioned. You have traveled very far, but our island, Fasi Ruosta, is the westernmost of several other islands. I'm afraid you have not traveled far enough East."
The young man was disappointed, but not disheartened. "I must continue my journey, then, for my father becomes more ill every day."
The villagers were understanding of the young man's plight, but begged him to stay for the night, and give him provisions for his quest. The young man accepted their offer somewhat reluctantly, for though their food was nutritious, it was not very appetizing. The villagers provided him with a comfortable place to sleep, however, and the young man was well-rested the next morning. The villagers told him that there was another island several days' journey East, and cheered the young man as he set sail.
The villagers had spoken true, and in three days' time the young man spotted another island on the horizon. Within a few hours he had landed, and secured his small vessel on the shore. He saw several columns of smoke wafting above the treetops, and followed the smoke to yet another village. Even before he saw the huts, however, the young man was assaulted by a foul stench which only seemed to grow stronger as he neared the settlement. He began to fear that he would find a village in ruins, with bodies rotting in the sun; however, as he cleared the trees, he found people walking around, very much alive and quite happy. No one seemed to notice the smell, which was so strong that the young man choked and was almost blinded by tears.
The villagers were quite perplexed by his reaction, but greeted him warmly. The young man noticed that they had no nostrils on their faces, and indeed had to breathe with their mouths open, though this did not seem to bother them. He asked them, between coughs, if they could help him find a plant to help his father. The villagers led him to the hut of one of their wisest elders, who knew a great deal about herbs and medicine. While walking through the village, the young man discovered the cause of the foul odor - the villagers kept their trash heap very close to their homes, and upwind as well. The young man began to wish he lacked a nose as well, since the stench was becoming unbearable.
The Elder and the villagers were kind people, and were greatly distressed that their guest was suffering. The Elder suggested they take a walk along the beach as they talked, and the young man was glad to accept. Once they were far enough from the trash heap, the young man, now able to breathe much easier, told the Elder of his plight.
"I am searching for a plant to cure my father's illness," said the young man. "It has bright blue flowers, a bitter fruit, a sweet smell, and whose stems and leaves, when crushed, will cause your skin to burn and itch. It is only found on an island far to the East, which is why I have come here."
The Elder thought deeply for a moment. "I do not understand what a "sweet smell" is, though I have heard of a plant which is not unlike that which you have described. However, our island, Fasi Ruori, is not the furthest East. There is another, several days' travel from here, on which your medicine might be found."
The young man thanked the Elder, though he was disappointed yet again. The villagers insisted that he spend the night on their island and allow them to restock his ship, for he had eaten nearly all of the food from Fasi Ruosta. They prepared a comfortable tent for him near his ship, for they saw that he was uncomfortable in their village, though they could not understand why. The young man slept well that night, and left the next morning as the islanders bade him farewell.
The son traveled another several days on his small boat, eating the islanders' food, which still smelled faintly of garbage, but was at least palatable. Finally, he sighted shore, and landed on a gravelly beach. This island too had the traces of smoke which meant civilization, and once again the young man made his way through the forest to meet the natives.
Upon arriving at the clearing, the young man was horrified by the sight of the villagers. Each of them was covered head to toe with disfiguring scars and burns, and several were missing fingers, toes, and even entire limbs. The traveler at first thought them the survivors of some catastrophe or war, but the villagers seemed quite cheerful in spite of their wounds. They greeted the young man with open arms, and several showed a great interest at his unmarred skin. The young man told them his plight, and he was led once again to the dwelling of the wisest villager.
The Elder seemed to have no inch of skin untouched by violence, and the young man couldn't help but stare as he told him the object of his quest. The Elder mulled over the description, before saying:
"A plant with bright blue flowers, a bitter fruit, and a sweet smell; I have heard of such a thing, though I do not know what "burn" and "itch" mean. We have nothing like this on our island, Fasi Rubure. There are islands further East yet; perhaps you will have greater luck there."
The young man sighed at this, and resigned himself to continue his search. Before he left, however, the villagers asked him to grace them with his company for the night. They cooked a great feast, and the young man was cheered greatly by the food, which both tasted and smelled excellent. Sleeping was a different matter entirely, for the natives made him a bed of sharp gravel and prickly blankets - they themselves seemed impervious to any pain or discomfort, but the traveler slept poorly. He left early the next morning, well-provisioned but aching for several days after.
The young man spotted the fourth island early in the morning some days later, and again reached shore before midday. He looked for the usual trail of smoke in the sky, and upon finding it set out for what he knew was yet another village. This one, unlike the last two, seemed quite normal - the only oddity was the undyed state of the native costumes. The young man stepped forth from the cover of the trees, but was surprised that none of the villagers had come to greet him. Indeed, even though several glanced his way, none seemed to have noticed him. The young man ventured forward cautiously, for he knew not what to expect.
The youth approached a small group near the edge of the village. A few turned their heads as he neared, but they did not fix their eyes upon him. With a start, the youth realized that their eyes saw nothing at all, and quickly he introduced himself. At the sound of his voice, the villagers cheered and gathered around, touching his limbs and face shamelessly. The young man asked if they could help him find the elusive blue-flowered herb, and the villagers walked him to the home of the most knowledgeable Elder, for no one else knew as much about medicine as she.
Inside, the youth was made to sit on a soft, thick sort of pillow or mattress. There were no tables or chairs, nor any art save for the occasional carving or statue. The white-haired Elder sat across from the youth, and asked him the purpose of his traveling so far. The young man once again described the plant. The Elder hummed, as though recognizing the description. She said:
"I have heard of a medicinal plant which smells, tastes, and feels as you say, though I do not know what a "blue" is. Yet, such a thing does not grow on Fasi Ruoya, our home. There is another island to the East, and there you may be able to find it at last."
The villagers were generous with their food and accommodations that evening, though the youth was weary and disappointed from his fruitless voyage. His heart was lightened by the beautiful songs of the native girls, however, and the next morning he felt hopeful and eager to continue his quest. As he set sail, the joyous voices of the villagers accompanied him East.
The young man spent two more days alone on the open sea, and sighted land as dawn broke on the third day. He landed once more early in the afternoon, and tied his ship securely on the beach. He looked skyward, and saw once more the faint traces of smoke. The youth walked through the trees, wondering what sort of people lived on this island.
As he broke from the cover of the forest, the young man found himself on the edge of a bustling village. However, though there were people walking about, the settlement was eerily silent. Almost immediately, several villagers spotted the youth, and began to approach him quite fearlessly. As they neared, the young man was shocked to see that they lacked ears entirely! He was at a loss about how to explain his quest to these strange people, and could only watch helplessly as the natives wove intricate patterns in the air with their fingers, for this seemed to be how the people of this village communicated with one another. After a moment, the natives, who seemed to recognize that the traveler could not understand them, instead silently led the youth to a hut in the middle of the village.
In the hut was an ancient man, who, like the rest of the villagers, also lacked ears. The young man sat across from him, and wondered how he would be able to ask about the plant he had been searching for. "I am lucky the blue-flowered plant does not sing like a songbird!" he mused to himself, "but I cannot describe it to these people, for though they can see, touch, taste and smell as well as I, they cannot hear!" The Elder, seeing the youth's mouth move as he spoke, motioned with his hands in a way that appeared to be significant, but whose meaning was hopelessly lost on the traveler. Still, the young man thought he could at least try to ask about the plant, and crudely pantomimed what he hoped would signify medicine or a flower. The Elder, however, only stared blankly at the youth, who threw his hands up in despair.
Though the villagers did not know the purpose of the young man's travels, they prepared a feast for him that evening, for he was a guest all the same. The food was quite good, though, halfway through the meal, the young man drank a brew that was exceedingly bitter. As he choked a little on the beverage, he suddenly thought of a solution to his predicament. He leapt up, startling several of the villagers who were talking silently to each other, and ran about, gathering several objects before racing off to find the Elder.
The Elder was resting in his hut, and was surprised to see the youth burst through the door, clutching an odd assortment of items to his breast. The young man set each of the items upon the ground, and pointed to each in turn. The first was a small blue flower, plucked from a vine near the edge of the village; the youth pointed to his eyes, and the Elder immediately understood. Next, the young man pointed at a cup of the bitter drink, and motioned toward his mouth. The Elder took a sip, then nodded. Then, the young man pointed to a small dish of a sweet-smelling potpourri, and touched his nose. The Elder sniffed the dish, and nodded once more. Now, the young man showed the Elder a weed, and crushed it between his fingers. It was the type whose juices burn and itch, and the Elder understood its significance. The youth sat back, and hoped the Elder knew of such a plant.
The old man glanced over the objects, deep in contemplation. After several moments passed, the Elder rose slowly to his feet, and walked outside. The youth followed, not knowing what to expect. The Elder stood outside, and pointed toward the horizon, due East. The youth nodded, feeling disappointed yet again, though at least he was able to find out where he needed to go. He thanked the Elder, bowing instead of speaking aloud, and returned to the feast.
The young man left the following morning, after the villagers gave him enough food for several days. He sailed for three whole days, and began to worry when he still did not see land by the morning of the fourth day. He wondered if he had understood the deaf Elder correctly, but stayed his course. He had almost lost track of how long he had been at sea, and feared that he would not be able to find the plant, or, if he did find it, he would be unable to return to his ailing father in time to save him. He still had enough food for at least two more days, so he forced himself not to give up just yet.
By the dawn of the fifth day, the young man awoke and eagerly searched the horizon. Sure enough, he saw the small form of an island, and within several hours had landed on its shore. He searched the sky for the familiar traces of smoke, but this time found none. The youth wondered what he was supposed to do now, and resolved to search the jungle for himself. He began to make his way through the dense foliage, searching for the tell-tale blue flower which he had traveled so far to find.
After an afternoon of searching, however, the young man had found nothing. As night began to fall, he made a small fire on the beach, and ate some of the last of the food from the Isle of the Deaf. Before long, he laid down and fell fast asleep.
The young man found himself awakened later that night, not quite knowing what had woken him. The fire, which had been burning vigorously when he had gone to sleep, was now much reduced in size and brightness, but not completely extinct. In the near-dark, the youth glanced around him, and in the dim light of the fire, spied another form lying across from him! He was quite startled by this, but saw that the other form did not stir, and indeed appeared to be asleep. The young man slowly climbed to his feet, and walked quietly to the other side of the fire. As he neared the sleeping figure, he saw that it was another man!
The youth was frightened at first, but the stranger looked so harmless in sleep that his fear vanished quickly. Indeed, the man seemed quite weak and ragged, and the youth thought that he was perhaps some poor castaway, stranded and lonesome on this distant island. Since the young man could not find a weapon upon the huddled figure, he crawled back to his place at the opposite side of the fire, and resolved to wait until the stranger awoke in the morning before asking the circumstances of his being there.
The young man was quite awake and unable to fall back asleep, and patiently waited several hours until the sun began to lighten the horizon. Just before dawn broke, the stranger stirred, and found himself staring at the friendly face of the youth. He did not appear concerned, and actually seemed quite relieved. The stranger stood and dusted the sand from the rags which served as clothes, and introduced himself:
"Good morning, stranger, and welcome to Fasi Yadt! Forgive me for not introducing myself last night, since you were fast asleep, and I too succumbed to slumber."
"I am glad to merely find another person living upon this isle," said the youth to the stranger. "When I landed yesterday, I feared it was deserted."
The ragged stranger sobered. "It is, but for myself and now you."
"There is no reason for us to enemies, then – let us be friends, for there are no others to be our companions. What are you called?"
The stranger immediately brightened, and smiled as he said, "I am known as Lortek in my native lands, though you may call me what you will."
The youth then introduced himself and offered his hand in friendship, which Lortek shook heartily. The castaway was eager to hear of life beyond his little isle, and the young man indulged him as best he could. Soon, however, talk turned to the nature of the youth's quest; after the telling, Lortek tried in vain to hide the tears that threatened to flow down his face. The traveler too felt overcome with emotion as he thought of his ailing father, whose fate was still unknown, if not already sealed.
"Well," said Lortek after wiping dry his eyes, "there is hope yet. You know the looks and smells of this vital herb, so let us begin our search of this little rock. After all, there are only so many corners to this place to look!"
The last of the provisions made a brief repast, and the two men set about combing the island for signs of the blue-flowered plant. By midday they had made their way through much of the forest nearest the shore, but the object of their quest remained as elusive as ever. Lortek and the youth met at their long-dead fire for lunch, the former having gathered fruit as he found them during his search. The sun was intolerably hot, but the young man refused to rest after he had his meal. He had traveled so far already; surely he was mere hours from finding his father's cure!
The island, though much smaller than the inhabited isles along the archipelago, had covering most of its breadth a tall and stony mountain. Long ago its peak spewed forth fire and ashes, but it had since fallen into slumber. Few things grew on its crumbling slopes, and Lortek doubted they would find the plant among these scarce numbers. Yet when night fell and every tree and clearing had been inspected, the young man became determined to trek up the bleak cone. His companion of less than a day made no secret of his thoughts on this folly, but remained loyal to his new friend and swore to accompany him nevertheless.
Dinner that evening was a small and quiet affair, as both men felt equal parts anticipation and dread for the climb they would undertake once the sun lighted the new day.
Dawn found the youth already awake and walking about. He slept little during the night, but paced about with a nervous, desperate energy. The castaway awoke a short time later, and seeing his friend so anxious, eventually persuaded him to eat a few fruits and other edibles to ensure he would be able to make the journey at all. "After all," he explained, "an empty stomach weighs heavily on one's feet."
The grey slopes rose too steeply to make an easy hike, so the two men acquired several sturdy branches to steady their footing. Each also carried and stocked a pack with the island's own bounty, as the trek would last long past lunch, and possibly even dinner as well. So prepared, they began their ascent.
Once they neared the inner edge of the forest, the ground began to rise rapidly. Fallen leaves and trees gave way to dirt and grasses, until these too faded into harsh stone and ash. Hours passed as the young man and his companion clambered past huge boulders and vast tracts of scree, all the while never seeing the smallest sign of life. By mid-day, they had reached the base of a massive cliff. Not having any way to climb its sheer sides, they sat down for lunch.
"It seems our quest has been in vain, my friend," Lortek sighed as he rubbed his aching legs, which by now were crusted in dry blood and ancient dust. "I've not seen a single plant growing in this wasteland, and that's unlikely to change if we keep going higher! Let's turn back, before we kill ourselves through exhaustion or a long tumble down the rocks."
But the youth merely shook his head. "The moment we stop is the moment my father dies. I cannot abandon him until I've searched this island to its very peak."
Lortek nearly exclaimed against this newest declaration, but the words died in his throat as he saw the grim determination, and perhaps the slightest touch of madness, in the face of his companion. After a moment's thought, he pulled himself to his feet and clapped a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Since your eyes are set on the summit, I will follow," he said, then smiled, "because someone has to catch you if you fall."
"Thank you, my dearest friend," said the youth, tears threatening to spill out and carve their way through the dirt on his cheeks. "Come, we shall follow this course 'til we've no place left to go." With these words, he rose and began to fight his way uphill once more, Lortek close behind.
Evening cast a dull and eerie light on the many naked valleys and slopes of the volcano, which was devoid of life but for two small forms making their slow way to the summit. No birds called, nor insects; the only sounds were the clattering of small shards of rock from beneath the feet of the travelers. The sun sank ever closer to the glittering seas, and the shadows of every stone and crevice grew and deepened; yet the sailor's son and the castaway never slowed their pace. A painter, on the wings of a giant bird, might have chosen this scene to paint their greatest masterwork.
On the ground, however, their trek hardly seemed romantic or magnificent.
The past few hours had been especially laborious for the duo, who had been walking since dawn with only nuts and fruit to eat. Legs unaccustomed to such exertion trembled with each step, on the verge of collapsing entirely. Tongues dried and stuck to the insides of their mouths, and parched throats coughed and rasped with each vain swallow. Sweat poured in rivulets across their skin, dripping onto the barren earth below, and raw lungs ached with each breath.
And still they climbed.
The youth dug his staves into the ground and heaved himself ever forward, exhausted but relentless as a man possessed. It was all Lortek could do to keep pace, but even so he fell steadily behind. He knew better than to beg his friend to rest, as the peak was now so close, but he still feared that the youth would kill himself if he did not rest soon.
He thought it was lucky that the sun would soon drown itself in the reddening sea, for then the pair could rest, though an ashy slope was the last place Lortek wanted to spend the night. For as long as he'd been stranded on the isle, he had never stepped foot on the barren mountainside, and felt dread growing deep in his gut all throughout the day.
This was no place for the living.
Just as the bloody light of the dying sun began to darken and grow cold, the sailor's son crested the mountain peak, and sank to his knees. Lortek clambered the last few feet and collapsed by his friend's side, his staves dropped and forgotten. He rested a moment, panting, but grateful that the ordeal was now over. He did not immediately notice the youth's silence, thinking he was merely catching his breath, much as the castaway himself was doing. However, as he glanced around at the peak they agonized to reach since dawn, Lortek felt his heart drop.
All round was a grand basin, its sides falling away steeply before them. Most of the collapsed peak was cast deep in shadow, but the jagged teeth rising from the stony floor caught the last of day's light. Nothing was before them except the unfriendly slopes of loose ash and scree, and nowhere was there another living creature except the two lost travelers.
From the corner of his eye, Lortek saw two glittering tracks on the face of his friend, and his heart broke in twain.
Neither dared to burn the two sets of staves they had used to climb the mountain, and the peak, from what they could see before night fell completely, was devoid of anything they could have used to light a fire.
Except for the meager light of the stars above, the darkness was complete.
The youth had not spoken at all since reaching the summit, and Lortek could think of nothing to say to ease the boy's obvious pain. To have come so far from home – alone! – only to return empty-handed, and likely to a father who had not survived the long wait... the castaway could not even begin to imagine the grief and frustration his friend must be suffering. It would have been better had he roared in anger or sorrow, or raged aloud at the heavens for the unfairness of it all, but this silence was unbearable. Through the darkness, Lortek saw the dim glistening of eyes, so he knew his friend was not even able to sleep to escape the realization of his fate. He merely sat in the thick, rough ash, staring into the deep night.
Though his friend could not sleep, Lortek succumbed to exhaustion and dreamt of naught at all.
The castaway had a habit of waking before the sun, even after as difficult and draining a day as the one before. He slowly roused himself, waiting to hear the birds' chorus to the new day, but he heard nothing. Low spirits sank even lower, and he dragged himself upright. Somewhat to his relief, he found the sailor's son bent over his knees, snoring gently. To suffer this hellish setting through the night without sleep's blissful embrace Lortek could not imagine. At least this day they would escape from here, even though their hands would be as empty as they had always been.
But first, they would need to gather their strength for the climb down, and Lortek was determined to find water.
He shuffled over to edge of the gaping abyss and squinted into the misty distance. By now the sun began her slow ascent into wakefulness, and the eastern skies were shrugging off night's blankets. Most of the caldera remained in deep shadow, though the far rim was edged in a gentle glow. Lortek did not feel optimistic that he could find clean water in such a dry wasteland, but they had drank most of what they'd brought with them during the arduous climb yesterday. If they could find potable water here, they could replenish the canteens and save themselves some agony later.
Lortek continued to scan the great basin, quickly losing hope of finding water. Then, just as he turned to return to his sleeping companion, a glimmer caught his eye. He spun back around, peering in the direction of the phantom light. What was it? He shielded his eyes against the lightening sky.
There! A brightness at the foot of a tall spur of dark stone – it could only be a tiny oasis! Lortek grinned, feeling as happy and light as a young boy again. He rushed back to where he and the sailor's son had passed the long night, grabbing the two canteens and one of his staves from the small pile of their possessions, and returned to his perch at the top of the steep descent. A momentary panic gripped him as he sought the small puddle amidst the stony fangs and rough ash, but after a long moment he again spotted his target. All that was left to do was to make his way down the slope, and pray for sweet water.
Lortek's youth was long behind him, and the difficult climb up the mountain had taken its toll. He had travelled several fathoms down from the rim when of a sudden the slope crumbled underfoot, and his legs gave out. With a yelp, he tumbled head over tail down the slope, spinning for what felt like an eternity. It was all he could do to clutch the canteens to his chest so they would not be lost.
Long moments later, and the castaway had rolled to a stop on the caldera floor. The journey had been less than kind, and he lay panting in the rough ash, his whole body aching with dozens of cuts and bruises. Lortek tried to sit upright, but groaned and fell prone again.
"What I fool I've been," he mumbled to himself. At least, he thought, clutching the two canteens tightly by their straps, their water had not been lost.
Just then, a call floated down from the edge of the basin. The young man must have been awakened by Lortek's cry as he fell, and now he crawled on all fours to the caldera's rim. Seeing his friend lying in the dust, he called again.
"Friend Lortek, are you alright?"
Lortek, feeling too weak and battered to attempt another yell, waved one arm in feeble acknowledgment. The traveler waved back, and disappeared from the edge.
He reappeared a moment later, this time wielding two staves. By now the sun had risen enough to light the top of the western slope, and Lortek watched as a thin trail of dust arose from under the young man's feet as he descended into the basin, much more carefully than Lortek had. Some minutes later, he had reached the bottom, and trotted over to where Lortek still lay.
"I'm afraid it wasn't you who needed to be saved from falls," the castaway muttered amiably as the sailor's son drew close. The youth managed a tight smile, and knelt by his side.
"Are you well? What are you doing down here at such an hour?" he asked. Lortek shook his head.
"I thought I had espied water from the top of the cliff, and wanted to refill our canteens for the journey back. I'm a fool, I know, but at least what water we have remaining to us is still safe," he said, holding the two canteen straps out to his friend. The youth, however, looked puzzled.
"Water, you said?"
"I had thought so," Lortek replied. "There, by those tall rocks, unless the fall has addled my old brain. Oh, but I'm a mess now, look at me."
"You seem fine," the young man said as he gingerly lifted him from his place in the dust. "Are you hurt?"
"Nothing a little rest won't cure," Lortek managed as he suppressed a groan. "Some aches, some pains, and nothing more. Grant me some time to recover and I can make it back up on my own."
"I'm glad of that," the youth said. "You wait here a moment, and I'll investigate your water for you."
"Do be careful, the footing can be treacherous."
If the youth heard, he ignored the joke, instead turning intently toward the glimmer of water. He was not aware of the harsh, shifting ash beneath his raw feet, nor the pair of canteens clacking together in his hand; only this rock existed, and the water at its root. Perhaps he was thirsty, or perhaps this water was a signal of life in this barren waste. Whatever the reason, he knew not why he was so drawn toward it, but he walked.
Before long he was upon the small spring, which welled from beneath the towering stone and whose slight ripples caught the light of the rising sun. Dampened ash deepened the shade of the boulder, but as the light crested the caldera, the youth saw, nestled between the raw crags and crevices, a patch of leafy foliage.
Nestled amongst the sweetly-perfumed leaves were the most beautiful blue flowers he had ever seen.
Lortek next found the once-forlorn sailor's son weeping over a crumbling pile of ash, with what appeared to be a cluster of small, fleshy plants. The castaway had by this time regained his legs and walked over to the youth, and upon seeing his state, begged him tell him the matter.
"Oh, friend Lortek," the youth began between sobs, "At long last, a plant with a sweet smell, a burning touch, a bitter fruit, and blue flowers! We've found it, we've found it! My father is saved!"
Lortek felt himself nearly swept up in the young man's joy, but remembered where they were.
"Friend, we are still a long way from home and your ailing father; we must return at once, to administer this cure."
The youth dragged one ashen arm across his eyes. "Yes, yes, of course. Oh, but it's found! At long last…"
"There is still a mountain left to be climbed, and a sea to cross."
The sailor's son nodded. "A distance much shorter now for our return. Yes, let us leave this wretched place, and take with us my father's miracle!"
Lortek and the youth took care to gather as many of the plants as they could carry in whatever makeshift bundles they could make, using the clothes off their backs when needed. With their canteens filled and the plants in their native earth hanging carefully from their weary bodies, they began to climb out of the caldera, and leave the mountain wasteland behind.
The journey downhill was much easier than the journey uphill, but fraught with different challenges. Often the pair risked flying head over tail down the steep slopes, and their footing was less than sure because of the thick, shifting ash and loose stones. Yet for their slow pace and cautious navigating, they once more saw the jungle grow forth beneath their feet before the sun had touched the horizon.
Naturally, the youth wanted to race towards home as fast as he was able, but Lortek reined him in with his simple practicality.
"Should we set sail tonight, my friend and savior," he said to the traveler, "We would not leave these shores until the stars awake to lead us home. I do not trust the darkness, for it hides the shoals and reefs well."
The youth saw the logic behind his words, but sighed all the same. "Though I am eager to leave this place, I mean to return home without drowning. Very well, let us make camp one last time, friend Lortek."
Supper was once more what fruits and vegetables could be gathered close to the shore, where the two laid down in the warm grey sand to sleep. Sleep itself was long in coming, however, and both of the exhausted explorers spent several hours tending to their precious cargo; the live plants they had brought with him. Neither expected all of the flowers to survive the long journey home, and had gathered as many as they could that they would return with at least enough to make the vital remedy. Thinking back to the words of the herbalist in his home village, the youth knew that the roots of the plants needed to be dried in order to cure his father. To dry the roots here on the island would take too much time, of which he was running ever short on. To dry them at sea would be impossible, and he could not be certain that the salt air would not destroy the remains of the plants entirely.
The only way to be certain his father received the herbs at all would be to bring the flowers whole to his home.
Dawn found the two men asleep on the shore, though with the strengthening light they did not remain so for long. The youth knew the journey would take no longer than five days, that being the time it took to travel from Fasi Ruota, the Isle of the Deaf. Sailing back west would take them against the wind, but the season was mild and the headwinds felt weak, even during the hours of changing light. To be safe, enough food was gathered to last seven days, and water for both passengers and their vital cargo for just as long. Before the day reached its second hour, the small vessel was pushed from the shores of Fasi Yadt, and began its journey home.
The sea seemed to celebrate the completion of the youth's quest, and rewarded the travelers with calm and gentle sailing. By the afternoon of the fifth day cutting through small waves, the pair pulled the boat onto the sandy beach at Fasi Ruota. To their delight, every plant had survived the journey unharmed thanks to proper stowage and care.
Perhaps nearly as happy as the youth and Lortek were the deaf villagers of the isle, who remembered the sailor's son from his visit so long ago.
They first encountered several children collecting shells along the shore. The children stared at the travelers at first, but then began hopping and running around in joy. Lortek in particular took delight in their antics; he had not seen such youthful exuberance in many moons, and his heart was warmed with their shared joy and memories of his own childhood.
Before long, a few children ran back to the village, and shortly thereafter the rest of the villagers swarmed silently from their homes and made excited movements with their hands and arms. The youth and Lortek were soon seated and brought fresh food by the generous locals, and before long the feast was fully underway.
At first Lortek was confused and frightened by these strange people, but his friend reassured him that they were friendly, and shared the tale of how they helped him sail to the final island to find both Lortek and the blue-flowered plant.
"They are a noble people, then," the castaway declared with a nod before biting into an especially succulent roll of something he had never tasted before. "It is only a shame that they have not been rewarded for their good deed, but instead suffer so."
"They do not seem to suffer," the youth began, but his friend's words set him to thinking. "Perhaps there is yet something we can do to repay them, for they have been so generous to us." With this, the youth stood, and sought the company of the village Elder.
The youth was still not well practiced in communing with the deaf, but he brought to the Elder one of the plants on which his father's future rested. "Perhaps this herb will restore the sounds that have been stolen from your people," the youth tried to explain. After some moments, the Elder made a motion of understanding, but shook his head and gently handed the plant back to the confused traveler.
"Perhaps it is no loss to them that have never known the sounds of the world," the young man mused to himself. "But perhaps, should one day they wish to hear the sigh of the wind, the roar of the waves, or the music of the birds, then they should have that option." Once more he handed the delicate parcel to the Elder, and tried to explain in crude pantomime his plan. How well be communicated it was unknown to him, but finally the Elder accepted the bundle and bowed to the youth.
"No, I deserve none of that," the youth blustered, and urged the old man upright. "It is I who still owe you so much. This gift is the least I can do for your people who have been so kind to myself and my father's plight."
The feast continued well into the night, but the young man felt the weight of time on his head, and knew it grew ever shorter. By the dawn, the villagers had once again resupplied his vessel, with the youth this time offering them several of the blue-flowered herbs for them to grow for themselves and their progeny. Many saw these merely as tokens of the sailor's gratitude, but there were several among the crowd who took a deeper interest. The youth was hopeful that they might be able to someday use the roots of this plant to hear for the first time in their silent lives, and that someday, long in the future perhaps, this island would no longer be the Isle of the Deaf, and would take for itself a new name.
Lortek at first was loath to leave this populous isle, for he had been so long without companionship of his own kind, but he knew the urgency of his friend's quest, and had sworn to follow him until he returned at last to his home and saved his father. He helped tend to the vital plants and the sailing of their ship, and kept jolly company for his friend during the several days between Fasi Ruota and its nearest sister, Fasi Ruoya. Upon their landing on its shores, they were once again greeted by the blind villagers, some of whom feared for the fate of the young man who had stayed so briefly in their homes. Once more a feast was organized in celebration of his safe return and the success of his quest.
The youth was able to explain the properties of the herb to these people, and offered once more to grant them several specimens that they could grow the medicine themselves. As on Fasi Ruota, the race who had never known the sights of the world told him they would not require its use, but the youth convinced them to accept his gift as a simple repayment of his debt to them. Once more, several of the plants were granted to the villagers, who planted them carefully, and promised to tend them. "After all, who knows which poor traveler may find our isle on a quest to save the life and senses of friend or family," one matron said as she handled the ashen balls of earth with the greatest care. "If we can save them some of the agony you have endured through your gift to us, then your debt to us may be erased in your own mind."
So it was that the young man and his companion left the isle, the cheers of the islanders filling their sails. Their journey led them ever west, and they reached each of the other islands in turn. At every port, the pair offered the villagers several of the miracle plants, which traveled well and did not seem to suffer for being carried over the seas. Each village eventually accepted the gift, believing they would not need such a cure for themselves, but rather for anyone else seeking to banish the sense-stealing blight in others. The youth dreamed, however, that the descendants of these peoples would one day see, and feel, and smell, and taste.
For many days the small ship sailed on toward home, and, on the morning of the forty-ninth day since the young man had left his village, they finally sighted the coast of his homeland.
The youth and his companion Lortek both shook with joy, though apprehension also clouded their mood. To have been away for so long, they did not know if the aged sailor survived during his son's absence. Within hours, they had steered their ship carefully into port, and had barely touched the dock before the young man leapt ashore and raced to the home of his father, several of the vital plants clutched against his breast. Many of his friends and neighbors recognized him and wished to welcome him home, but the youth stopped for no one.
The house of his father stood eerily quiet, and at first the son feared the worst had happened. However, before long the door opened and the ancient herbalist stepped forth, drawn by the noise of the crowd that had begun to gather behind the youth.
"You have returned," the woman croaked simply.
"My father! Is he —?"
"Your father lives still," the herbalist said, "though perhaps not for much longer. You are timely, indeed." She noticed the bundles of living plants in their grey balls of cloth and mud against his chest. "You have found your father's cure, I see. Give them here, that I may make the medicine that will save his life."
The young man handed them over without a word, handing over each as though they were made of the most delicate glass.
The herbalist took them with less ceremony, but bowed and motioned toward the silent house. "Go see your father, boy; he has talked much of you."
The youth said nothing, but walked forward, oblivious to the cheers of the crowd which had gathered behind him. Their cries of joy and pride were soon muffled by the closing door, and the young man stood in darkness.
He remembered his home as though he had been there only the day before, though it had been nearly fifty days since last he entered here. He walked in the dimness toward his father's room, and poised to knock before remembering how futile an action it was. He opened his father's door, and stepped inside.
The room smelled stale, with the ghost of once-strong incense and flowers still lingering in the corners. The shutters were drawn, the room dark, and even the loudest sound from outside seemed distant and spectral in this room which seemed more a tomb. Even before the young man spotted the dark form of his father lying quiet and prone on his bed, tears began welling in his eyes.
Here lied his father, nearly blind, deaf, and unable to touch or smell or taste. How miserable an existence, the unhappy son could not even begin to imagine. How could he, when even in the past weeks he had seen and touched and tasted and smelled and heard such wonderful and strange things?
He took a few meek steps toward his father, the old sailor.
Though the ailing man lacked his bodily senses, he still stirred weakly under his sheets. "Is someone there?" he asked, his voice wavering and strange through disuse.
"I am here, I have returned!" the son cried, and fell at his father's side. "I'm sorry for taking so long to return," he sobbed, "but even now the herbalist is making your cure!"
The sailor's son knew his words could not reach his father's ears, but he spoke their reassurances all the same. The ailing sailor seemed warmed by his son's presence, for the sense of knowing a kindred soul is nearby was the only sense he retained still.
The two wet each other with their tears for many hours, and it was long into the night before sleep took them both.
The next morning, the weary youth was awakened by Lortek, who had asked several villagers for the location of the young man's home, knowing that he might find him there. "Please awake, dear friend," he said. "The herbalist is nearly ready with her potion."
"Thank you, my most loyal friend," the young man said in reply. "Ah! I apologize, I had forgotten you in my haste to see my father! Had you found a place to stay the night?"
"I do not ask your forgiveness," Lortek said. "I worried after you, but your people here in this village are a wonderful sort, and I was very well taken care of. I met the most pleasant woman last night, yes, very pleasant indeed."
The youth laughed and clapped the older man on the shoulder. "You rascal! Mind how you return hospitality, for I would be quite saddened to see you chased away." Lortek merely grinned like a mischievous boy, and together the two walked outside into the radiant sunshine.
The herbalist had awaited their arrival, and was waiting outside the house.
"I have prepared some medicine for your father," she said without preamble. "You have brought enough of the plant to rid him of the blight, though it will take some time for him to recover. The roots need be dried to work fully, but this draught in my hand will stave off death, and begin to work in small ways to save him."
The young man nearly collapsed at her feet, and words of gratitude flowed from his tongue. The herbalist raised one hand, and the youth fell silent.
"Your father is a good man, but I do not work for free," she said. The young man was taken aback at first, but before he could speak, the herbalist continued. "Yours was a long an arduous journey, boy, and there is little I could ask of you. I know you and your father and not wealthy people, but I could not bear to place either of you in my debt. For payment, I merely request several more of these miracle plants, to nurture and study for my own purposes."
The youth readily agreed, and in exchange for the remainder of the plants he had carried over the seas, he received the first of many draughts to give to his father.
Under the herbalist's instruction, he carefully helped his father to drink the potent medicine. At first his father showed no signs of recovery, but the youth held to hope, and after a week's time, the father complained of the bitter taste of the drink.
The young man was overjoyed, and kept making his father sip from the bowl in spite of its taste.
The old sailor recovered slowly each day, and before long had fully regained his bodily senses. The village celebrated his return to health with a grand feast, at which the young man was asked again and again to share the tale of his travels. In attendance was his friend Lortek, now with the Widow Laile at his side, who added generously to the story.
Of all the feasts in his honor, the young man enjoyed this one the most, for now he had his father to share it with him.