I was pulled out of that river with a yank. My lungs burned. My face felt like it had melted away from my bones and was lying, solid, caught on somme driftwod at the bottom of the river while I lay above it.
Why was I lying? Why was I coughing? My body was fighting to live. Didn't I want just the opposite? I might just as well stop fighting..
"None of that," the old man said. "You've changed now. The old ways no longer apply. The moment you stop changing, that's the moment you die."
So I coughed, and let him wrap a blanket around me. It was soft, downy, and impossibly warm.
"That was a very near thing," the old man said. "You were lucky I was there."
"Who are you?" I asked.
The old man shook his head. "No names," he said. "Too dangerous. I don't want to leave parts of you behind."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but since the man had, apparently, just saved my life, I decided it would be best to be polite.
"My name is -"
"Ah!" The old man smacked me across the face with surprising force. "What did I just say? The last thing you need is a name, and the last thing I need is another lie!"
I was confused. "When have I ever lied to you?"
"When you told me you were mine. I mean to say, look at you! You're piecemeal! One part belongs to your mother, another to a dead teenager, some third part to invisible sky spirits. What's left for me? The worst part, if history is a guide."
I was feeling a little stronger now. I drew myself up, letting the blanket fall from my shoulders.
"Sir," I said, "I may be only a cow-farming son of cow farmers, and I thank you for saving my life, but I know you are mistaken. I have given myself to no man."
The old man watched me for a moment, appraisingly.
"Well done," he said. "Perhaps there is some strength to you after all. Very well. I shall send you on a quest."
"I don't think you understand."
"The feeling is mutual. Bt what quest shall it be? Ah! I have it." The old man snapped his fingers, and for a moment, I thought I saw him change - the face of a much younger man replaced the craggy contours I saw before me. But I shook my head, and the feeling vanished.
"You will kill the Hermit," the old man said. "So it is, and so it shall be."
"Kill?" I was taken aback. Enough was enough. He couldn't possibly expect -
"Yes. Kill. A fellow human, Just as frail and fragile as yourself. He'll die by your hand, I swear it by my beard. How and when - I leave those to you. A test of character."
"You can't make me."
"Nile's blood, you ignorant, foolish, pathetic child!" As the old man spoke, cracks began to form in the icy surface of the stream, revealing the frigid turmoil beneath. "I am trying to do you a favor! I pulled you out of that miserable, monotonous waste of regret you called a life! I put the whisper in your heart, that these woods would be the time and place to die! I plucked you out of death, and claimed you as my own, all so you would have at least a chance to claim the one true - "
Abruptly, the old man ceased his ranting. This was just as well as far as I was concerned. Against my better judgment, and although I had no idea what he was getting at, I was beginning to grow afraid of him.
"What I'm trying to say is," said the old man, once he had regained his composure, "cooperation is in your own best interests. Though, if you like, I could always return you to death.
The thought seemed to please him. I noticed the water was frozen over once more.
"Yes, now we have it. Here is your Quest. The hermit will die by your hand, or you will die by mine."
And the old man vanished without a trace.