“What do I do?” he asked, still confused.
“Perform with supreme confidence, without concern for an audience and a total focus on execution.” The old woman smiled, and for a moment he thought her blind eyes perceived him.
“Such a simple thing to say, Madame Benan.”
“An even more simple thing to do, young master. You must practice the art of releasing yourself from the tyranny of yourself. All fear, all hesitation, all doubt comes from within you. You are in sole control of what and who has power over you.”
He took the chipped teacup into his hands once more. It had grown cold, and he noticed the fire had dimmed along with the light from outside. The sun was nearly set. He’d been in the hut for hours. He took a sip of the tepid tea, letting its bitter grit wash over his teeth, then put the cup down and rose.
“You are leaving,” the old woman said.
“Not before stoking your fire, madame.”
“There’s a good lad. While you do that, let me relate to you one more tale from my youth. From a time where I was not much older than yourself, some four generations ago. Back in the time of devastation, where we were still wandering about, dazed and directionless, still too numb to rebuild.”
He found the poker and stabbed at the dying embers in the stone hearth. They gave a halfhearted gasp of sparks, and he placed a few dry sticks atop them.
“You perhaps cannot imagine a time such as that,” the old woman continued, “for all of your short life you have known nothing but plenty. The occasional poor harvest pales in comparison to the privation we faced. Where the fire you now tend had become a distant memory, and men fell upon other men to consume their flesh so that they might live another day.”
“I’ve heard the stories,” he said, then felt the rudeness of the words as they tripped out of his mouth. He blew a fierce breath over the kindling and watched as it flamed to life. “I’m sorry, I speak out of turn.”
The old woman laughed, a dry sound like a sheet of paper rattling in the wind. “I forgive you, young master. That is all those memories have become, just stories. Even now I have trouble knowing if those things truly happened, or are remnants of bad dreams I may have had as a child.”
“There is history,” he said.
“And what is history?” she asked. “A collection of stories that we agree are the truth? What matters isn’t the truthiness of them, simply our agreement. I have seen my own memories twisted by the words of our rulers more times than I care to say, and watched as new generations adopted those altered versions of what happened. I don’t hate them for it, because they don’t know any better, and are guided more by emotion than by thinking. It is the way of things.”
Satisfied with the flames licking over the kindling, he placed a fresh log over the fire and watched as its bark caught. Before long the hearth was radiating a healthy warmth. The sun had fully set. Somewhere, a wolf howled, a long and forlorn sound that seemed to fill the hut’s small interior with its echoing cry.
“You’d best stay, young master. The forest is no place for a lone traveler in the night. I will finish my story and you will tend to my fire, and in the morning you will set off. A little wiser, perhaps, and I so much the warmer for the company.”