Friday, February 25, 2005


the child, thirty-seven

They didn't travel very far that day. To begin with, they had had a late start. They also weren't any of them used to being on the march all day - they had been busy training at swords, not at long-distance walking. And so they took frequent breaks to rest. They also, not knowing any better yet, took longer breaks than they really needed, before getting back on the march.

On top of all that, the distance across to the entrance of the dark valley had looked deceptively close when they started out. But it turned out to take all the time until the sun was nearly setting to finally reach that dark passage.

'Let's stop here for the night,' said someone.

'Who was that?' Stone whispered to Starr. 'Jack, or James?'

'Jack - I think,' she whispered back. Over the course of the day, they had been learning their companions' names. James and Jack were Lucy's two friends. 'James is the more serious one, and Jack's the one who makes the jokes. I think?'

'That sounds right,' Stone replied. 'Question is, when he said that, was he serious or joking?'

'Come on,' Forest was saying. 'We can make another mile, maybe, before we absolutely have to stop for the night.'

'But if we go in there now, at nearly nightfall,' said the other of Lucy's friends, 'with it being so dark in there - well, that just doesn't seem to be very wise to me. We might get into a situation in the dark that would be better faced in morning light.'

Stone and Starr looked to each other. 'James,' they whispered in unison.

'Well, if we're supposing what might happen, we might also come across a situation that waiting till morning would only make worse. Someone drowning in a lake, for instance,' Forest countered.

'We can suppose all night,' Lucy put in. 'Let's just go ahead and make camp now.' And the other two women - thin pale Linda and the young girl Joy - agreed.

Forest scowled. 'And the rest of you?' he challenged. 'What do you say? Malachi. What about you?'

Malachi, one of the three men Starr suspected were angels, spread his hands. 'We are here to journey with the rest of you. We will go or stay, as the company decides.'

Still scowling, Forest turned towards Stone. 'Well? What about you?' he growled.

'Me? I don't much care one way or the other either. Whatever the group decides is fine with me. But look. We have five already who strongly want to camp here. Those three are undecided. I'm undecided too. There's only one of us who strongly wants to move on, and that's you, Forest. Just looking at the numbers, I'd say you've got your work cut out for you, if you hope to convince most of us to move on tonight.'

'Majority rule, is that it? But what if the majority is wrong?' Forest's eyes were lit with fire now, his chin set stubbornly.

'Unity,' Lucy returned sharply. 'Josh said to stay in unity. Right?'

'When he said unity, I don't think this is what he had in mind. Uniting together in cowardice like this!'

'Cowardice?' That was James, his voice soft and dangerous. 'Better watch your mouth, little boy,' he warned. 'You're getting in over your head.'

'I said cowardice, and I meant cowardice. Cowering back, just because it's a little dark in there!' He snorted. 'If you're afraid of a little dark now, what will you do when you reach the dungeons? Huh? I mean, don't you get it? We're supposed to be carrying light to them! We're going to rescue people! The longer we take on the journey, the more people might be lost in the meantime.'

'Pressing on in the dark into some place that might be dangerous, when we are all tired and hungry - that's foolishness. We should rest now, and eat, and tackle the next part of the journey fresh in the morning.' That was James again, and Jack and the three women nodded in agreement.

'You're saying I'm foolish now?' Forest glared.

'I'm saying... oh, stop this, Forest. Be reasonable.'

'And now I'm not reasonable!'

'At the moment, no! Now we,' and James shed his pack and dropped in on the ground, 'are staying here. Get into unity and stop dividing the group. We've already decided, and we're staying here!'

'So you five are the majority now?'

'We five know what we want to do. The other five don't mind. You're the only one being stubborn about this.' While behind James' back, Lucy, with her arms folded and her face dark with anger, muttered the word 'pig-headed.'

Forest caught that and scowled back. 'Yeah - call me names! That'll help. While your so-called 'majority' makes the stupid rules for everyone. You know, majority rules is a pretty stupid system, if you ask me. You never know when the majority is going to act like a bunch of idiots!'

'No one asked you!' Lucy was saying, while Jack snapped, 'Oh, now we're idiots, eh? You think you're so big, Forest, because you fought a demon today. But nobody put you in charge of this group. So just back down and stop spouting off your mouth!'

The argument continued, Forest alone against Jack and James, with Lucy putting in an occasional acerbic comment against the boy as well. Stone and Starr looked helplessly at each other as the nasty comments grew worse and worse.

She clutched at his arm suddenly. 'Oh, Stone! Do something! This is terrible!'

He looked at her. 'Starr?' he said, surprised at how pale she had gone. 'Something happened?'

'Is happening... Please... They must stop!'

Rubbing at the back of his neck, Stone turned and said the first thing that came into his head: 'Uh, Forest. You remember how I said you had your work cut out for you to convince the others to agree with you? Well, if this is the plan to win them to your side - I don't think it's going to work too well.'

'Oh, and are you against me too, Stone?' the boy asked heatedly. 'Am I supposed to just shut my mouth and say nothing because the majority doesn't like it?'

'I'm not against you. But I can see how you could disagree without being so disagreeable. You can state your point of view without throwing in insults.'

'Hmph!' The boy turned on his heel and stalked away, climbing the slight incline that led into the dark valley itself.

'And the same goes for all of us,' Stone added, turning to the rest. 'There's no call to be insulting anyone. Even if they start with the insults first.'

'No one made you leader of this group either, Stone,' James spat, glowering.

'No, that's true. No one was made leader of this group at all. I think that's something else that time and the journey itself will show all of us - who the natural leader of this group is. But in the meantime, let's try not to act like a pack of wolves or some such.'

He was about to say more, but Starr had started so plainly at what he had just said, that he turned and looked at her. 'Starr? You all right?'

'What you just said...' Her eyes were wide, and her face even paler than a few minutes before.

'What, Starr? Tell me.'

'Yes, tell all of us,' someone else said.

'It's just...' She looked round at all of them, then turned her focus to Stone. 'While the arguing was going on, I, I saw...' She paused, swallowed. 'I saw a pack of ravening wolves. They were snarling at each other, fighting among themselves. Until one of them got bloodied. And then the others turned on him viciously, biting him, ripping him. And he fought back the same way, biting, tearing. Till he had enough, and slunk off by himself to lick his wounds.'

Eyes were dropping all around her, and shame began to color some faces. 'Anything more?' Stone asked quietly.

She nodded. 'In the midst of it all, I heard a sound behind me. So I looked. Over there, across all that ground we crossed today, I could see Jessie standing at the foot of the Mountain of Spices, watching us. And the sound I heard?'

She gave a great sigh. 'It was laughter. She was laughing at us.'

Quietly, Jack looked over at James and muttered, 'Yeah - and we deserve it.'

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Saturday, February 19, 2005


the child, thirty-six


Starr had closed her eyes when the demon began its charge, not really wanting to see her own death bearing down on her. But the skewering she expecting never came - and the sound of swords clashing did...

She opened her eyes. Blinked. Gaped.

Somehow, Forest had rallied to her and was now between her and the demon. No longer merely holding the demon off, no longer giving ground before it step by trembling step. Oh no. Now...

It was amazing. Now, the lad was raining blows upon the foe before him, lunging, feinting, thrusting.

And now it was the demon giving way before the young man's sword. 'No!' cried Jessie's voice from its lips. 'No, don't hurt me! How cruel you are, to hurt a woman...!'

'You were hurting a woman,' Forest replied grimly. 'And it didn't seem to bother you a bit, to rip Starr with your words. And you would have killed her, happily, if you could just now - wouldn't you? As for me hurting a woman... ' And he pressed on against this enemy, giving the demon no room nor time to recover or rally itself. '...if you really were Jessie, then you might have a point. But you're not Jessie. She's over there in the corner. You are exactly what Starr told me you are. You are a demon, and in the name of the Master, you... are... defeated!'

The boy thrust home on that last word. There was a shriek like cloth tearing, and a blinding flash of not light but dark. A foul stench filled the air, gagging them...

And the demon was gone. There was only Forest now, and Starr.

And Jessie.

Starr went to her, holding out a hand to lift her up, while Forest cleaned and sheathed his weapon. 'Jessie?' the Child called gently to the still-cringing woman.

Jessie shook herself, shrinking away from Starr, keeping her arms still locked protectively over her head. 'Stay away from me!' the woman cried piteously.

'You're all right now,' Forest said, coming alongside. 'The demon is gone. It's safe now.'

'Safe?' Jessie hissed at them. 'Safe? When the two of you barge into my home, with weapons in your hands? Safe?'


A new voice, soft, patient. All three looked over at the door, were now the Master stood.

With a sob, Jessie leapt up and pelted for the doorway, flinging herself into the Master's arms, pouring forth her tale of woe, pointing again and again back at Starr and Forest - her hand stabbed especially viciously in Starr's direction. Shaking his head, the Master said to her, 'Jezebel. Do you think I do not know the Truth?'

She stopped talking suddenly, glared up into that stern and gentle face. And then, like the striking of a snake, she slapped him. Slapped him!

Forest's face darkened, and his hand flew to his sword. How dare that woman slap Josh!

Starr's face reddened, and her hand flew to her own cheek as if the slap had hit her instead. How could Jessie slap the Master?

But the Master only looked down on the enemy's daughter, his eyes full of compassion meeting hers full of venom. Softly he said to her, 'When you come to love the Truth more than you love your own self, then will you begin to know me at last.' And when her eyes only darkened more and flashed with anger, he added, 'What you do, do quickly.'

She drew back, looked for a moment as if she might slap him once more - then swept pass him, regal as any queen. And left.

And now came the rest of the little group crowding into the house. 'What happened here?' Lucy asked as she passed in through the door. The others followed, Stone last of all, only now sheathing his sword. His arms found Starr and drew her close. He was trembling a bit.

But then, so was she.

'My children,' said the Master, said Josh. 'So long as Jessie held this house, she held against you an inheritance the Master would have you possess. Now she is gone, and the inheritance is yours. See...' He gestured toward a cabinet set against the wall opposite the door. One of Lucy's friends was standing closest to it, so he reached and opened the doors.

And there within - there were several packs, walking sticks, traveling coats. In fact, everything they would need for this journey they were setting forth on.

Quietly - indeed, rather subdued, for Jessie's outburst was still fresh in their memories - the eleven gathered to take up the packs and make ready to go. Starr, waiting till the others were done, felt a light touch on her arm.

She turned. The Master. Drawing her apart from the others, he said to her, 'Ask.'

She dropped her eyes, and a bit of a blush touched her cheeks. 'You always know...' said she.

'Always,' he replied. 'Ask me, Starr. Ask the question that is in your heart.'

'It's just... Why Forest? Why not Stone?'

'Why did I send you in here to support Forest, instead of choosing Stone to send you at the side of?'

'Well, yes. I mean, if I am to be Stone's...' She hesitated, glancing to see if any of the others would hear her speak the word 'wife.'

'My Child. Stone already knows you, and has already begun to trust your sight. Forest needed to learn to trust as well. And through him, the others. Remember? This was an exercise in unity?'

'Oh.' And she nodded.

'Go now and get your things, Starr. Fear nothing; trust my leading. Yes?'

Feeling a bit embarrassed, she nodded.

He gave her a cherished kiss on the forehead and sent her off to the cabinet. Soon she had collected her share of the supplies for the journey as well, and returned to stand with the others.

Stone took her protectively to his side.

'Now,' said Josh, leading them back outside. 'Now you are ready. Now you will set forth. Look there.' He pointed, and their eyes followed.

Here they stood at the foot of the Mountain of Spices. Leading away from them ran the last traces of the path, curving away into a deep valley. A great mountain, higher than this one, rose on the other side of that valley. And there, further off, they saw that there was still another high mountain, where the valley ran in between the two mountains, leading into deep shadow.

'That is your way,' said Josh. 'Fear no darkness. Trust, and be trustworthy. Grow in grace. Know that the Master's Presence goes with you, though you see him not. And be in Peace.' He smiled on them all, gently sighed - how Starr breathed in the dearness of that sigh! - and then he turned and climbed again the path up the Mountain of Spices.

At the top, he lifted his arm and waved. Then came a curious brightness of sunlight, so that they all flinched and hid their eyes.

When they could look again, he was gone. A bit of cloud came up then, obscuring the sun, causing a great shiver to pass through the company.

They stood yet a moment longer. And then, with the singing sound of the drawing forth of his sword, Forest said, 'Well, let's get moving then.' And he started out, leading the way towards the dark valley.

Slowly, the rest followed.

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Monday, February 14, 2005


the child, thirty-five

Twisted. That was the word that came to Starr's mind. Everything about the demon seemed twisted - distorted - like a foul mockery of a human being.

Except that, really - it was a foul mockery of an angel.

The wings - the eyes - the faces. It reminded her so much of Mathilda, of Michael. But the wings were dark and leathery, the eyes hard and bitter, the faces sneering and hateful. Twisted. Nasty. Sickening.

'Don't listen to her.'

The words caught Starr by surprise. For now Jessie's voice was coming out of the demon's mouth, perfectly reproduced. Jessie in the corner had fallen silent - yes, and fallen to the floor as well, hiding behind her own arms, whimpering.

'Don't listen to her,' the demon said again, cutting its many eyes in Starr's direction. 'She hates me. She's egging you on to kill me, you know. She's evil.'

It took both Starr and Forest a second to realize who the demon was talking about. 'You mean Starr?' the boy gasped, still sorely pressed by the demonic blade.

'She's jealous,' the fake voice of Jessie went on. 'Because the Master made me his bride, and not her. So she lies about me. She hates me! She would love to have you kill me. Then she thinks she would have a chance to snare my husband for herself - as if he would have her!'

Oh! The demon may have been fighting against the boy Forest, but its words struck deeply into Starr's heart. Twisted! It had somehow twisted Starr's motives and replaced them with Jessie's, and Jessie's with hers.

Starr dropped back a step, her mouth fallen open, hurting, bleeding within where it could not be seen. Surely, surely Forest wouldn't believe such lies!

And she started to speak up, to denounce the lies for what they were. When she looked down.

Her sword was in her hand. She didn't remember having drawn it. She looked up again, found that the demon was grinning at her, even as it continued to press its attack against Forest. It leaned nearer to the boy, its lips moving, whispering words she could not hear into the lad's hearing.

Forest glanced back at her, his eyes wide in shock. He dropped back another step, and then another.

His resolve was flagging, Starr realized. Whatever lies the demon was pouring into Forest's ears, they were sapping his confidence, sowing doubt.

Lying devil! she thought. Her fist tightened on the hilt of her sword. How she longed to wade into that demon, to make it eat those lies - yes, and choke on them!

She took a step forward...

Wait... Was she coming to Forest's defense? or to her own? The Master's words flooded back into her: ' are not to defend yourself, for I shall do that, and you shall rest in my defense of you - the use of the sword is not to defend yourself, not to promote your own ways - but it is to defend others, to protect them from the wiles of the enemy...'

Again she looked at the sword in her hand. Which was she about to do - protect Forest from the enemy's wiles? or defend her own self - her own good name - from the enemy's lies about her?

Again she glanced back at the little group outside the house. There was Stone, his own sword in hand...

But her eyes were seeking the Master. He was standing there, so calm, so serene. Smiling, he lifted his hand.

And she felt his touch, there on her cheek, across the intervening space.

Sureness flooded into her. She need not defend. Smiling back, she decisively sheathed her sword.

And turned back to the scene inside the house, her hands now empty. Forest was pressed back against the wall now, his eyes near to panic. The demon was right up in the boy's face, its scaly free hand reaching to grasp Forest's throat.

'Oh, Master! For Forest!' Starr breathed.

She barely spoke the words aloud. And her hands were yet empty. But suddenly the demonic body jerked and shuddered, as if it had taken a great blow. Snarling, it turned on her, glaring, hissing. 'You see!' it growled. 'She strikes me in the back - like the coward she is!'

Starr raised her hands, showing them to be empty. And then dropped them, palms outward, completely and utterly vulnerable.

The demon's eyes glowed with glee to see Starr leave herself so wide open to attack like that. Forgetting the boy, it turned, regripped its cruel evil sword - and charged, hurtling itself full force towards the unprotected Child.

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storyblogging carnival XII

Donald Crankshaw of Back of the Envelope has the Storyblogging Carnival XII up online now. Please go and check it out. He has a chapter from one of his works up; Doc Rampage has an entry; so does Andrew Ian Dodge. And so do I. Two other stories round out the latest SBC. Enjoy!

Friday, February 11, 2005


the child, thirty-four

Starr's mouth opened to report to Forest what she was seeing inside the house. But it was already too late.

In a flash, in a twinkling, she had seen Jessie. The woman was crouched in the middle of the room, her glaring eyes somehow at the same time both red with fury, and coldly dead. Her mouth was twisted into a vicious snarl, looking more feral than human. A low hiss escaped her throat.

And Starr's mouth opened, her lips forming the start of the words she had in mind to give to Forest. But she was nowhere near fast enough.

For Jessie sprang.

Her leap was phenomenal. In that single jump, she closed the distance between herself and the boy Forest, who was still framed in the doorway. On reflex, the boy brought his sword up to defend himself, his other arm also rising to ward off that blow. And from the corner of her eye, Starr saw on the boy's other arm, like a shadow of light, a shining shield - one that was not physically there.

Forest's sword came up on reflex. And that was good for his sake, for in Jessie's hands, Starr now saw, there was a sword coming down against the boy. An evil sword, curved, with a row of glittering barbs all along its leading edge, like the teeth on a saw. A sword to rip with. A destroying weapon.

And now there was a loud clash as sword met sword. Forest moved instinctively to his right, partly to deflect the power of the blow, partly to turn the sudden battle away from the door - away from where Starr was still standing.

She half-turned for a moment, glancing back at the small group outside. Her eyes took them in in a flash - most of them huddled together, watching the house with puzzled faces - Stone looking ready to explode, ready to charge over and get her out of here.

And the Master. Standing calmly, he nodded towards her, the gesture plainly saying to her to get back to the task he had set for her.

She turned back. Forest was being pressed backwards, straining to hold his ground against the ferocity of Jessie's attack. Her words were spitting at him, at them: 'How dare you? Invading my house. Mine! My husband... I have a right... How dare you...!'

Strange. Starr frowned. The voice, the words, didn't match with what she was seeing. The battle was here... but the voice was coming from...

She turned. Looked. Stared.

Jessie? But how?

For Jessie was huddled over there, in the far corner of the room, her arms thrown over her head, screaming and spluttering out her protests. Even as Jessie was fully engaged in raging battle against the boy Forest over here...

Starr looked again at the fighting Jessie. Blinked. Stared hard. Saw...

Forest was being driven backwards, step by grudging step. The cruel evil blade was pressing him hard, even as the boy whispered, 'I don't... want... to hurt you...'

Bless his heart! The boy had taken the Master's instructions deeply to heart, doing his best to avoid harm to a fellow human.

But that was not what he was fighting now.

'Forest!' Starr called out. 'Don't be afraid; that's not Jessie. You can fight it with all your might. See Jessie there in the corner?'

The lad spared a glance in the direction Starr was pointing. His eyes went wide, and he nodded.

'Fight for all you're worth, Forest!' Starr called, encouraging him. 'That thing...' Ugh! What other word was there for it?

'Forest, that thing's a demon!'

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Saturday, February 05, 2005


the child, thirty-three

And now Josh led them forth from this bower and down the path. But not the same path they had come up. Down they went, past myrrh and cinnamon, past aloe and acacia. Down to the very foot of the mountain.

The other side of the mountain.

The Master's house where they had all been living for so long was nowhere in sight from here. None of them - save Josh himself, of course - had ever seen this side of the Mountain of Spices. There was a little house here...

Starr gasped. The house! The little house where Jessie lived. Was this it?

And... hmm... Where was Jessie now? Starr glanced about. She had seen the woman earlier as they were entering the bower, but then she hadn't given a single thought to her since. Was Jessie here now, lurking about, waiting to rip someone again with her vicious words...?


It was the Master. 'Yes, sir?' she replied.

'Tell the others what you are thinking.'

Oh! Startled, stumbling over her words, she began to explain to the rest about Jessie. She felt deeply embarrassed, afraid she wasn't saying it quite right.

There was a movement to her left, and the singing sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath. Forest. Scowling heavily, the boy said, 'Just let her try some of her nonsense while I'm around...!'

'My son,' the Master replied. 'Always remember, and never forget, that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. That sword is not given thee to slash others with - that is Jessie's way, the enemy's way. Yes, she is sold to the enemy - but she is yet a human being - someone for whom the Master gave his life and rose again from death. There is yet hope for her.'

And to them all, he added, 'People are never the enemy; the enemy is the enemy. The enemy uses people - and sometimes they are willingly used by him, and sometimes not. For the enemy will also take innocent actions by people who have no ill-will against any, and twist their actions to make them look evil and hate-filled.'

He looked around at them all - their eyes were riveted on him. 'The enemy will seek to use you - your own innocent actions - one against the other. He knows you are being sent out against him. Do not let him divide you. It is your unity - united together as one body, with the Master as your head - that gives you strength. That unity the enemy will strike against. Do not believe everything you hear, nor everything you see.'

They stared back, eyes wide, like so many owls. He smiled. 'And be at peace, children. And filled with joy.' There was a small commotion then, as the young girl, the one who was Forest's age, gave a start and threw a hand over her mouth. Josh's eyes crinkled merrily at her, as he went on: 'The Master's joy is strength to you, dear children, to battle against the enemy's melancholy and discouragement. Do not let melancholy attach to you, but meet it always with the Master's joy. When you deliberately live in the Master's joy, even in the midst of many adversities - then will you confound the enemy's plans against you. Do you understand?'

So many owls they looked still. And not one admitted to understanding what he was getting at.

Josh smiled. 'Though you understand not, remember. And one day you will understand. For now, remember: unity and joy. Unity, because each of you is gifted by the Master himself in different areas, in different ways, that together you may accomplish the Master's will for you all. As you shall see.' And turning to Forest, who was still standing there with his sword drawn in his hand, Josh said, 'You are valiant, my son. And in your valiance shall you enter this house and deal with what you shall find within. But! Not all that you shall see there, shall be in truth as it seems. And so Starr,' and she started at the calling of her name, 'shall go with you. She shall describe to you what she sees. You shall trust her words, and act accordingly. Go forth, my children.' And again he said to them, 'Go,' - for they hesitated.

And even then they hesitated more. Starr glanced at Stone, stunned that she was being sent to aid the boy Forest - not Stone instead? The man Stone squeezed her fingers gently, released her hand reluctantly.

As for Forest, he shifted his grip on his sword, cleared his throat, tightened his face, and then strode purposefully up to the door. Starr hurried to crowd in after him, peering over the boy's shoulder into the dark interior of this little house, straining to make out what there was to be seen within.

And then Starr could see what was inside. And she gasped in amazement.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005


the child, thirty-two

He led them out of the house, out into the great wide expanse of lawn, across that lawn to the foot of the Mountain of Spices. And on up the path. The verdance of the trees tossed gently in the fragrant breeze as they followed. Up, up the path they went in a little line behind him. Wondering. Whispering.

Stone had caught Starr's hand and held it fast. Once he turned and beamed at her as they walked, following. And once he leaned down, put his mouth close to her ear, and breathed into her hearing, 'I'm glad we were chosen together, Starr-girl.'

'I'm glad too,' she whispered back. And her eyes misted over again.

In addition to the four people she had already noticed, there were two more women and three more men. One of the women was very young, about Forest's age, and the other was very pale and shy-looking. And the three men...

One of them turned to glance in Starr's direction. And she caught in an instant a flash of too many eyes, too many faces. And the flicker of a wing.

'Thou preparest a table before me...' the Master was saying now. They had reached the top of the path here and found that, under the nodding branches of a leafy bower, there in fact stood a table. A very ordinary table, long enough to accomodate them all. It was set simply enough: there was only a single pitcher, a single cup, and beside them a platter covered over with a plain white linen cloth.

' the presence of mine enemies...' Starr heard someone finish the quote. And, yes, there - peeking at them from behind one of the trees - there was Jessie. Her face was suffused with anger, but what could she do? What dared she do, to those led here by the Master himself?

The Master went around the table to stand before the pitcher and platter, spreading his hands left and right to call the others to table with him. They ranged round the table, glancing nervously one at another.

Stone kept Starr right at his side.

'Children of the Master,' said the Master to them all, 'children of his house. You have been chosen now to go forth to the enemy's dungeons, to fetch forth those who are yet imprisoned as you were. Will you go?'

They glanced among themselves, whispering. They were being given the choice if they would go or stay behind? But...

But the honor of being chosen to go! And the shame of choosing instead to stay behind...!

And so not one of them budged from the table. And the Master nodded.

'You will journey forth from here,' he said. 'All you will need, will be provided you. And the way you will know. As you journey, you will discover which among you is best suited to each of you, to work together with, side by side. So that at the end of the journey, when the time comes to enter the dungeons to rescue the captives there, you will do so in pairs, two by two.'

Forest started at that saying and leaned forward, his eyes glowing.

Josh smiled. 'Ask the question,' said he.

'Which one of us gets to be your partner?' said the boy.

'But if the sword master goes with you,' Josh replied quietly, 'who will be training those of this house in the meantime, in the use of the sword?'

'But...' said Forest.

'Yes?' Josh prompted.

'Well, look,' said Forest, pointing round the table. 'There are eleven of us. How can we go two by two, when there's an odd number of us?'

Josh smiled deeply on the boy. 'One of your number has been sent on ahead of you to spy things out. When you arrive, that one will meet with you. And that one will become partner with the one of you who as yet will have no partner.' And then to Forest, Josh added more privately, 'You ask good questions, my son. Never be afraid to ask.'

Forest blushed a bit at the praise, and glanced at the others.

Stone squeezed Starr's hand and whispered into her ear, 'I've already got my partner.' And his eyes twinkled merrily at her as she too blushed.

'Before you go,' Josh said, commanding all their attention now, 'you shall share in something together. A symbol, deep and rich, of unity one with another, as well as with the Master.' And with a sweep of his hand, he caught the white cloth up off the platter.

Under it was bread - very plain bread, very flat. Brown from the fire of baking, and with lines of holes across it so that it was both striped and pierced. Josh - the Master - took up the bread gently in his two hands and spoke a blessing over it. Then to them all he said, 'One loaf, from many grains of wheat brought together. As you are brought together, and made one together in the Master who rescued you. Many grains, crushed together. For until the wheat is crushed, it is too hard to be used for bread. Do you understand this?'

They glanced at each other. Crushing? Was he talking about something other than just the grains of wheat?

'You will understand by and by,' Josh added. 'But see the bread: striped, as the Master was striped with whips. Pierced, as the Master was pierced, hand and foot and side. Baked in the fire, as all who are the Master's pass through the fires of affliction. Broken...' and he suited action to word, breaking the hard flat loaf in two. ' he who gave his life was broken. As you also have been and will be broken - that wholeness may come. Take. Eat.'

And he passed the bread, one half to the left, the other to the right. Each one of them, as the loaf came to him, to her - broke off a piece and ate.

Or did they? For Starr was watching carefully the three men she had noticed earlier. And while they broke the bread as the rest, she could not really say whether the bread ever reached their mouths.

But now the Master - Josh - was taking up the single cup and the pitcher. He gave thanks for it, then poured forth from the pitcher the deep red richness of the fruit of the vine.

'Grapes too are crushed and mingled to become one,' said he. 'A fitting symbol of the oneness of the children of the Master. His love was such that he poured himself forth - his very lifeblood - for you, whom he loves. You also must love so. Willing to pour forth your own very lives - first for him, and also for each other. Take. Drink.'

He passed the cup to his right, to where Forest was standing. Embarrassed to be the first, the boy's hand shook as he raised the cup to his lips and drank. He passed the cup on to the girl, who also drank.

And so on around. Lucy. The two men her friends. Starr. Stone. The remaining woman. The three...

And again Starr observed them carefully. And could not say if any of the three of them ever truly tasted of the cup.

Who were they - angels? And did angels ever eat and drink?

Josh received back the cup and set it on the table again. And as he did, Starr's eyes caught a glimpse of scars in his hands. Very old scars, piercing right through his wrists. She saw them. But did anyone else?

He looked up into her eyes where she stood right in front of him across the table. And he smiled.

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