Wednesday, March 09, 2005

 

the child, thirty-nine


They made camp quickly. It was too dark to gather firewood, so they made a short cold supper of some of the rations from their packs. Then, after a brief discussion (and a cordial one), they decided not to try to set up their tents in the dark, but to simply have the four women sleep in a group together, with the six remaining men making a circle around them for safety's sake.

And soon they were all asleep.

All? Or not? For as Starr drifted off, she opened her eyes more than once to see if in fact Malachi and his companions would sleep. They did lie down like the rest. But if they slept, she did not discover. For she fell asleep herself first, before she could find out.

Dreams she had none. Morning light awakened her. As did a sound.

She stirred, sat up. Rubbed at her eyes. And heard the sound again. A rattling sound, like... pebbles? One pebble, falling among others?

She looked. Yes, there! Even now, a little rock came bouncing into the camp, making that slight sound once again. And then a handful of pebbles, making a bigger sound.

And then, a voice.

'Man! It's a good thing no one wanted to attack you lot in the dark! Didn't you even think to set a guard?'

Starr gasped and turned towards the voice. The rest of the company awoke as well. It was Joy who said it first.

'Forest!'

A clamor then, as they all hopped up and mobbed the boy. Questions, so many questions! Where he had been, how he had fared during the night, how he had found them. And whether he would, uh, forgive them...

He scowled. 'Forgive, huh? Those were some pretty nasty things you said. But,' and he grimaced, 'I guess I'd be a skunk, wouldn't I, if I didn't forgive. So, yeah - I forgive you all. James, Jack, Lucy.' And he shook their hands, each of them. 'Stone...'

'Yes?'

'You were, uh, right. And I was wrong. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to you all.'

And solemnly, they forgave him as well.

'How I fared last night... I climbed a tree and slept like a squirrel. No problems.'

'Really?' said Joy. 'Weren't you afraid you'd fall out?'

Forest gave a lopsided grin. 'I'm never afraid,' he said. Then, glancing at Starr, who had seen him the day before when he had been hard-pressed by that demon, he amended it to, 'Well. Hardly ever. Now. That other question, about how I found you.' He shook his head. 'A five-year-old child could have found you lot in the dark. You snored like a herd of elephants!' That brought a round of denials, before the boy added, 'Besides - there was a full moon. No one noticed that? It was so bright when it rose over the mountain, it woke me right up. So I used the light of it to backtrack up the valley. And here you were, right in the middle of the road. Who wouldn't have been able to find you, eh?'

Sheepish glances, back and forth.

'But I say it again: didn't any of you think to set a guard during the night? Two-hour shifts, one awake watching while the others sleep, then get the next one up? No one thought of that?'

'Um - no...' said Jack slowly.

Forest shook his head. 'Pitiful,' he said. 'Josh warned us the enemy knows we're coming. Don't you suppose he might try an attack in the dark of night?'

Lucy started to object to the word pitiful, then thought better of it. Really, the boy was right. Their actions the night before had been pitiful, and in more ways than one.

'Well,' said James, 'daylight is wasting. We should go.'

'Yes, you're right there,' said Forest. And James resisted mightily the urging to ask the lad sharply if that was meant to imply that many other times, James was not right. Let it go, the man told himself. Give the boy the benefit of the doubt.

They made a sketchy breakfast, then started out. After about an hour's walk, Forest pointed to a tree partway up the leftward slope. 'There,' he said. 'That's where I spent the night. And just a bit farther up here...' he added, leading the way off the path.

He led them to a spring of fresh water, where they were all glad to drink and wash up a bit. Then they refilled their water bottles and so were soon on their way again.

The terrain this morning was no better than it had been the night before, the only improvement being that they could see it better in the daylight. And even that was not a great improvement, for the high mountains to either side blocked direct sunlight for most of the day, keeping the valley for the most part in a state of perpetual gloom.

Gloom. It was like a living beast, stalking them. Like a poison, trying to seep into their bones. It tried continually to worm its way into their hearts, from whence to spring forth out of their mouths, and so infect the next person.

The Master had warned them not to let melancholy attach to them. It was a subtle and constant danger, here in this valley. And one they often forgot to be on their guard against.

Only Malachi and his companions seemed unaffected by the gloom. They generally brought up the rear of the little group, their swords loosened in their sheaths, ready to be drawn on an instant at the first whiff of danger. Starr had finally learned that one of the companions, the shortest of the three, was named Maccabees. And the third - she wasn't quite sure, but she thought she heard his name as Morgan.

And while those three regularly brought up the rear of the band, Forest and James generally took the lead. Stone liked to walk behind the rest, just before the three companions, where he could keep an eye on the rest of the group. And Starr was at his side.

She was not yet aware of it, but she was now entering her own personal dark valley. One that would test to the fullest her promise, made so long before in the sunshine on the Mountain of Spices, to ever trust the Master, no matter what.

And it wasn't as if the Master had not warned her of what was coming. For he had warned her, and that with tears. But in the light of Stone's smiles, and in the comfort of his loving arm about her - she had quite forgotten the warnings.

She was about to be painfully reminded.

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