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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