Friday, June 03, 2005

 

the child, sixty-seven


'Vanished!'

Stone was still shaken by the whole event, even as he finished recounting it to the rest of the group. They were all, with the exception of Joy who was sleeping, gathered at the men's tent, listening to him tell the tale. Forest was propped up on a backpack, peering out through the tent door that Morgen was holding open for him.

'I couldn't even find the footprints of the wolves,' Stone went on. 'And I looked. Especially the one that was circling around me. My footprints were all over that bank of the stream. But only mine.'

A chill went through them all. 'Maybe...' Starr said softly.

'Yes, Starr?' said Stone, grasping at her words.

'Maybe,' she said slowly, 'they weren't wolves...'

'What do you mean, they weren't wolves?' he retorted sharply. 'Of course they were wolves! I saw them! Do you think I'm lying?'

She looked up into his face, reading the woundedness in his eyes of him thinking she didn't believe him. And he looked down into her face - and read woundedness there as well.

Shame colored his face. 'I... I'm sorry, Starr. I...'

'I do believe you, Stone,' she said fervently. 'I'm not saying they weren't real. I'm saying - well...'

'She's saying,' came Forest's voice, 'that this is like the little house on this side of the Mountain of Spices. When I used the sword against the enemy there, it vanished too.'

A murmur through the rest of the group. 'That's right!' said Jack. 'Spooky, but right!'

'Demons then,' said James.

Starr nodded. 'I think so.'

Stone ran his fingers through his hair. 'I fought demons?' His face went pale. 'I, uh, I think I would have rather gone on believing they were just wolves...'

'Well,' said James. 'Whatever they were, hmm...' He thought for a moment, then said, 'All right, we're going to need to make some changes. To start with, no one leaves the camp alone anymore. No one. Not till we have a clearer idea of what's out there. Now, tomorrow, Stone, I want you to go back to the stream and take, um,' he considered, 'Jack with you. Make another inspection of the battle site; see what the two of you can find. Also, I think we need to double the watches at night. Three watches, two men each. Morgen with Jack, me with Mal, Stone with Mac.'

Stone blinked - hard. James was pairing him with Mac? Again?

Oy!

'So the watches will last twice as long?' Jack was asking.

But before James could answer, Forest interrupted with, 'I want a watch!'

Surprisingly, where once James would have frowned and told the boy sharply to be quiet, he now said, 'When your leg is better, you'll have one, Forest. I promise you that. Now. Anyone have any questions?'

'Not a question, but another change we need to make,' said Forest. 'Sword practice.'

'Sword practice?' echoed Lucy. 'What do you mean?'

'I mean we haven't been doing it. And we need to. No offence, Stone,' the boy added, 'but it shouldn't have happened that using your sword was the last thing you thought of. It should have been the first. I mean, beating the wolves with a stick helped a bit - and I guess there are times when running for your life is a good idea,' his voice betrayed that he really didn't believe that last part, 'but for destroying the enemy, there's nothing like the sword. And we haven't been practicing with our swords, this whole long journey.'

'He's right,' said James.

Lucy started to protest, but the wonder of James agreeing with Forest so distracted her, she said nothing.

'Easy to see how we sloughed off on the practice,' put in Jack. 'When we first started out, we thought the journey would be so short, we didn't bother to set up a practice schedule. Why, we'd be at the dungeon in a matter of days. Who would have time to get rusty?'

'But then the journey stretched on and on,' James agreed. 'And we simply forgot.'

'Not all of us forgot,' said Forest. 'I didn't forget. I just - didn't do it. And I need to apologize to you all for that.'

Silence. Forest apologizing? Forest?

'Umm,' said James, 'speaking of apologies - I need to apologize to you also, Forest. And I do so right now, in front of everyone.' James paused, then said, 'Well. In all these arguments you and I have had all this time - I was often wrong. And you were right about things - many things. But I wouldn't admit it. I argued with you instead. I'm sorry for doing that. I won't do it again. Or, at least,' and he glanced at his brother, who in the whole company knew him best, 'I'll try to not do that again. And I give you permission to call me on it if I do.' And then James offered his hand to the boy, who took it solemnly.

'I forgive you,' said Forest.

Silence again. The others just stood there, stunned at what they were seeing. Lucy especially was flabbergasted.

Linda, standing a little apart, looked back and forth between the reconciling men and her own rival. And she then turned and walked away to the foot of the cliff for a bit, to have a seat by herself and think.

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