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The Learned Brethren prided themselves on living lives of simplicity, disdaining anything that might distract them from their pursuit of knowledge. It was said that a monk would go without food for a week, in exchange for a mere glimpse of a rare manuscript. From his birth, Josan had lived according to the brethren's ways. If asked, he would have said that he lived a life of privation, though by his own desire.
Now he realized how foolish he had been. As his stomach ached with hunger, he grimly reconsidered the tale of the fasting monk. Starvation was a virtue only when it was a choice. Given the choice between a bowl of soup and a chance to be the first man in two hundred years to read the scrolls of Alexander, Josan would choose the soup.
And now he was worse off than ever. When he had fled from the hunters, he had lost not just his campsite, but also his blanket and food. Even his tinder and flint had been left behind. In his haste he had grabbed the sack that contained his spare clothes, and his writing case. He could not have chosen more poorly if he had deliberated for hours.
He was a monk. A scholar. He could speak seven languages flawlessly, and make himself understood in a dozen more. The ancient picture writings of the first Ikarians were as clear to him as plain script, and he comprehended the mathematical mysteries that underpinned the work of the great builders and governed the movements of the stars. He could plot a course across the great sea, and recite the epic tale of Zakar and Ata without a single prompt.
What he could not do was light a fire. He brought his hands to his mouth, blowing on them softly to warm them up, as he stared balefully at the contraption that he had crafted. It was not elaborate, merely two pieces of wood. In the longer piece of wood, he had used a sharp stone to scrape a furrow, exposing the soft inner wood. Along this furrow he had placed shredded strips of bark. The second piece was a sharpened stick, wrapped with string fashioned from the torn hem of his cloak.
According to the writings of Brother Telamon, the primitive natives of Abydos routinely used such a device to start a fire. The sharpened stick was placed point first into the trench and then rapidly spun until the heat from the rubbing created a spark. The monk had described the process in great detail, but he must have left something out. Perhaps the trees in Abydos were harder than the soft pine he had to work with. Or perhaps there was a secret step that the natives had not shared with their visitor.
Josan's failure was not from lack of trying. Indeed, his hands were rubbed raw and cramping, with nothing to show for his efforts. Beside him lay the trout he had caught earlier, its glassy eye seeming to mock him. Josan's belly grumbled with hunger, but he was not yet willing to concede defeat. He would try once more, and then he would eat the fish raw.
Flexing his fingers one last time, Josan knelt on one end of the length of wood, to hold it in place. Grasping the sharpened stick with both hands, he began turning it back and forth, as fast he could make his hands move. "Come now," he told himself. "This time it will work."
But no faint wisp of smoke appeared. He concentrated even harder, putting all of his energy into twirling the stick, but it jumped out of his hands, skittering along the base until he jabbed himself in the thigh.
He cursed, giving vent to the anger and frustration of the past weeks. The pain in his leg was just the latest indignity. Angrily he jerked the stick free, ignoring the blood that welled up from the puncture. With his right hand he felt the grooved trench. It was warm, but it would need to be many times hotter to start a fire.
"All I want is a hot meal. Is that too much to ask?"
Josan picked up the wood and threw it. It tumbled through the air into the growing darkness.
When it struck the ground, it burst into flame.
Copyright 2006 by Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.