Saturday, July 30, 2005


the child, eighty-five

Forest spotted them first. He wasn't really taking an actual break. No, he was just pausing to adjust the crutches under his arms. And while he made that adjustment, James stopped. And then Jack stopped. And the women, as they drew closer, made signs of stopping as well.

'I got it, I got it,' Forest called, not wanting them all to stop on his account. 'There. I'm ready,' he said. And as he glanced around to be sure the others didn't plop down and take what might turn into a lengthy break, he spotted something.

There, behind them. His eyes, at first, didn't make sense of what he was seeing. And then what he saw got a touch closer and snapped into sharp focus.

Stone, carrying Starr. Why was the man carrying Starr? Hey, they all knew he was nuts over her, and she was nuts over him too, but carrying her? Wasn't that taking things a bit too far?

And then - then he saw the blood. 'Oh, no!' the boy cried, and started hobbling in their direction.

'What?' said James. And then he saw too, and started running.

By the time Forest could reach Starr and Stone, the rest had already gotten there before him. Someone had spread a blanket there in the path for her, and Stone had set her gently down on it. The man looked utterly ashen.

But what was surprising was that the person who seemed to be taking the whole thing the worst of any of them - was Lucy. She had flung herself down alongside the stricken girl, wailing, anguished.

Maccabees was just now kneeling down at Starr's other side, preparing to unwrap the hasty bandage and have a look. 'Who has water?' he asked.

Lucy flung her canteen off and shoved it at Mac the first of any of them. 'What else can I do?' she insisted.

'A wolf did that,' Stone panted. 'Pretty mangled. She needs...'

'Wild german!' Lucy cried. 'Linda, let's go find some.'

'Wait!' ordered James. 'Mac, do you want them to go find this wild whatever-it-is?'

Maccabees had been gingerly peeling up the cloth on the woman's arm, only to suddenly stop and clasp his two hands round her arm instead. Fresh bright red appeared through the cloth - and Stone turned even more ashen.

'To staunch the bleeding, yes,' Mac said, his voice much calmer than might have been expected. He glanced up and back at his two tent-mates.

'I'll go with them,' Malachi volunteered.

James nodded. 'Good. I was just going to suggest someone go along with the women. If wolves are attacking again, we all need to be on our guard.'

'Wolves that disappear after you kill them,' put in Stone.

James' head snapped up and stared at him. 'More of those!' And to Mal and the women, he added, 'Be especially careful. And quick!'

'Fetch more water, if you can,' Mac added.

Malachi nodded, and with a quick scan of their surroundings, he led the two women off in a very definite direction across the valley and a bit backwards along their path.

'Stone, what happened?' Jack asked briskly.

Briefly, Stone told the tale. When he was done, James turned to his brother. 'Come with me. I want to check out where this happened.' Jack hefted his pack and started with him.

'I'm coming too,' declared Forest.

'No, you stay here,' James replied automatically.


'Because you're, well, you're on...' He had obviously been about to say that Forest was on crutches, and wouldn't be of much help. But then he thought of how Forest had bested him at sword practice recently, and changed his mind. 'All right, buddy. Let's go. Morgen, you keep guard here.'

Morgenstern nodded his compliance. Mac continued to compress Starr's arm; Stone sat at Starr's side, gently pillowing her head against his leg. Joy, a bit at a loss for what she should be doing, had a sudden inspiration, and set about with a set of tent poles and some stakes and cords, to rig up one of the blankets into a temporary shade over the injured woman and her attendants.

And there they were still when the others came back.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005


the child, eighty-four

They were both off-balance when the wolves rushed in. Stone's was on top of him so fast, he didn't have time to get either club or sword into place. The savage animal - if it was an animal - bowled him over, scattering both his weapons.

It snarled, gloating, towering over the fallen man.

To its surprise, Stone snarled back.

'No - you - don't!' the man panted, as he planted his two hands round his attacker's neck. Strength quite beyond his own flowed through him, and with a snap, that wolf was down.

Stone scrambled up. Looked around, focusing. Here was his sword. And here his club.

And here Starr, thrown on her back, the awful wolf fastened on her forearm, savaging, worrying her like a rag doll. She was trying to bring the sword in her other hand around to do the wolf some damage. But her pain was so great, and her strength so frail.

Stone strode over. With the club he firmly bashed the wolf's head - one hearty backhanded blow - and it let her go. Turned on him, of course, but what did that matter? It was not going to hurt Starr anymore; that's all that counted.

He didn't give it time to make a full-fledged attack. As soon as its back was completely turned on the whimpering girl on the ground, Stone struck. And struck true.

And then he slid the expired wolf off his blade and went to Starr.

She was crying, of course. Bloody, of course. 'It was too fast!' she whispered.

'It was my fault. I wanted to get a second weapon, and wound up putting us both off-balance. If I hadn't squatted, and had you do the same...'

He shrugged off his backpack, rummaging in it for something cloth - he didn't care what. Pulling it out, he tenderly wrapped up her ravaged arm, trying to find that balance between tight enough to staunch the bleeding, and not so tight as to cut off the blood flow entirely.

That done, he looked around and found some leaves to use to clean the blood from his sword. Sheathed it, then checked hers. There was little blood on the edge, but he cleaned it anyway, then sheathed her sword for her.

He put his pack back on, then took Starr up in his arms. Gently, like holding a baby. Her good arm she wrapped round his neck.

And she buried her face against him once more and wept.

'It's all right, honey,' said he. 'Everything's going to be all right.'

Getting his bearings, he set out downhill. They had been running uphill, he reasoned, so downhill should inevitably lead them back to the path along the valley, and so back to the rest of the group.

A final glance around to be sure he had left nothing behind. Hmm. Well, that wasn't surprising, was it?

The wolves' bodies had vanished.

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Monday, July 25, 2005


the child, eighty-three

She ran, not towards the rest of the group, but simply away, blindly away. Blindly indeed, for her vision was clouded with gushing tears.

Stone pounded after her, angrily reflecting that he had picked the right word just now when he called himself an idiot. Being taller and longer of limb, he was quickly catching up with her. 'Starr!' he called to her. 'Starr, wait!'

She shook her head, trying vaguely to avoid him. But he closed the remaining ground between them and caught her arm. Spun her. Folded her close. 'Starr,' he whispered, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry.'

Her tears soaked into his shirt. She didn't resist the embrace, but melted against him, as if she didn't trust her legs to hold her up.

'I'm sorry,' he whispered again, while she leaned against him, crying till the tears ran out.

She fell silent at last. Slowly, her arms came up to embrace him as well. And slowly she said, 'No. No, I'm the one who's sorry. I shouldn't have run. Why did I run? From you? The enemy wants me to run from you. The Master wants me to trust...'

Slowly, Stone replied, 'Um, Starr? Do you, uh, see anything?'

She unburied her face from his shoulder and looked up into his eyes. Puzzled, she then looked around...

And stiffened. Wolves!

Again she looked into his face. 'And you see them too!' she exclaimed.

He nodded. Slipping his arm between them, breaking the embrace, he quietly drew his sword. He gestured for her to draw her own, and whispered, 'Get behind me.'


'And watch my back, and I yours. And pray!'

She nodded, eyes wide. Back to back, they faced the wolves - two great grey snarling beasts. With clarity, Starr saw how this had come about. It was her fault for running. The enemy would not have been able to split the two of them off from the group, had she not run.

It was his fault, Stone told himself, for snapping and snarling at Starr as if he himself were a wolf. If he hadn't done that, they would still be near the rest of the group, instead of isolated here where the enemy could launch this attack.

Was there any point in calling out to the rest? Were the others close enough still to hear them, if they did call out?

He felt her, pressing up suddenly against his back. 'Starr?' he breathed.

'It's coming closer,' she whispered back.

Yes. And so was the one before his face.

'Please forgive me, honey,' she added. 'And I forgive you. Oh, may the Master have mercy on us!'

'I forgive you,' he replied solemnly. 'And thank you for forgiving me. And amen, about the mercy.'

If only, thought Stone, he had a long walking stick now. He glanced at the ground about them, when he wasn't keeping his eyes on the eyes of that wolf. A good stout stick would be a wonderful ally right about now...

He could hear Starr's voice behind him, sounding both soft and strained as she prayed steadily, sometimes in words he could understand, sometimes in words he couldn't. Slowly the two wolves were circling them, and slowly they circled as well, keeping their faces to the wolves, trying not to give this enemy any openings to exploit. Both kept their weapons up, watching, waiting, wondering.

And in the slow turning, Stone spotted a hefty tree branch not far from his foot. Much shorter than the walking stick he'd had before, but a nice size to be a club. Over his shoulder, he whispered, 'Left. Take two steps to your left.'

'All, all right,' she stammered back. And as she obeyed him, he took two steps to his right, so that they continued to be back-to-back. There, he should be able to reach it now.

'Squat,' he said.

Still wondering what he had in mind, she once again obeyed. He squatted at the same time and snagged the club. 'All right. Stand up again, slowly,' he said. He had been concerned that if he had squatted alone, leaving her standing, the wolves might have seen that as an excuse to attack. Now...

Starr gasped.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005


the child, eighty-two

Now, he thought. How was it he had kept focused in his thoughts all morning? The helmet, surely. But what was it?

He pictured it again in his head - how Starr's hands had mimed the placing on his head of the helmet from above. And as he thought of Starr's hands, his mind slipped sideways to think of how much he enjoyed holding those hands, and also enjoyed watching her sweet, expressive face. And as he thought of the helmet being from above - his eyes slipped skyward to wonder if it might rain today.

Rain. He smiled. It was delightful, when it rained, to take Starr with him again when he went to the tent that Morgen, Mal, and Mac shared. To all sit together in long conversation once more, while the rain poured down outside.

And he wondered - not for the first time since Mac had revealed himself to be an angel - what it was like for Morgen and Mal to share a tent with him, and how they had reacted when they first learned what he was.

What was it like, sharing a tent with an angel? Did he sleep?

The tent. And now Stone chuckled. He remembered how strange that tent had looked, when he saw the way they had set up after Mac and his friends had donated one of the poles to make Forest's splints. What a sight it had been! The front was normal, with the two poles holding up the two corners. And the back was normal at the ground, with two stakes holding out those two corners. But the top two back corners had been looped together over that one remaining tent pole, making it a triangle at the top. Very weird. At least they had been able to fix that quickly, with the tall pole he had brought them.

That tall pole he had used to fend off the wolves...

The wolves! And Stone slapped his two hands over his head.

What was he thinking?

Oh! All morning, he'd been fine, been focused. And now! Now his thoughts were binging all over the place, like an apple in a tornado. Or like ten thousand rabbits with the hounds after them - here, there, everywhere.

Ugh! Will I ever change?

And he came nigh to weeping. For he wanted so much to change. For Starr, for the group, for the Master...

Mostly for Starr. And that, he knew, was the wrong reason. He loved her, deeply, passionately. But he had to love the Master more.

It's in his strength, the Master's strength - his and not mine. That's the only way this will get done.

Surrender. That word came reverberating through his bones.

Surrender. All to the Master. But, um... he thought he had?

What now? He just wanted to sit down and bury his head in his hands. He nearly did.


Starr. She was standing in the path, the others going on ahead of her. Apparently she had decided to stop and wait for him.

'What?' he said. And was surprised at how sharp his voice sounded.

A look of surprise crossed her face as well. 'Are you all right?' she asked.

He frowned, shook his head. And suddenly he blurted out, 'I don't see why you want to bother with me, anyway. And why do you trust me like you do? What are you thinking, trusting me? Why in the world would you want to pin your life to a, a,' he searched for the right word, 'to an idiot?'

Shock took over her face. Hurt - deep hurt. She recoiled from his angry torrent of words. And before he could take it back, or say anything more, she bolted.

She ran.

Oh, God! I've done it again! thought Stone. He wanted to curse himself.

He sprinted after her.

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Friday, July 15, 2005


the child, eighty-one

It was the fifth day out. Stone was bringing up the rear, as usual. The order of march on their renewed journey had changed little. The level of bickering had changed for the better since Forest and James no longer took offense at every second word each other spoke.

It made a huge difference. Now if only a similar change would happen for Lucy and Linda!

Starr, at this particular moment on this particular day, was walking with Morgen, Mal, and Mac. From the day Stone had ordered her to stay away from Mac, she had quietly obeyed him, saying not another word about it. No, it was Stone who had brought the matter up again, telling her suddenly and unexpectedly three days before, 'Oh, I forgot to mention: if you want to be friends with Mac, it's all right with me. I'm sorry I got jealous.'

And that was that. Still, even as she walked now with Mac and Mal and Morgen - they all knew that in her heart, she was walking with Stone. She was only giving him the space he needed, while he dealt with the demons.

Yes, demons. That was what he was calling this now. Ever since Starr had had the vision of the second wolf and the helmet, Stone had been mulling it all over, and had come to the conclusion that these strange things - her vision, and the wolf attack itself - were speaking of ways that the enemy was attacking him personally. Demons.

The first wolf, the one he had already killed - that, Stone believed, was the jealousy he had felt over Mac's friendship with Starr. And that wolf was dead now for sure. The sight of Mac transformed with all the wings and faces and eyes had killed that wolf!

It was the other wolf he still needed to deal with. And he was sure he knew what it was. It was the thing that had maddened him for such a long time already: the problem of his thoughts darting off in all those different directions, carrying him off with them.

Distractions. Time-wasters. Life-stealers.

And now he must kill that wolf as well. He was glad Starr had had that recent vision and told him of it; seeing the distractions as a ravening wolf ready to grab him by the throat and bite deep until he was dead - ah, that changed his perspective on the problem. Before it had bothered him - annoyed him - embarrassed him. Now, though - now he knew that it was a beast out to kill him.

The helmet - what could that be? Set over his head - Starr had made such a point of that. Helmet - to guard his head, his thoughts? A buffer of some kind, a shield between his thoughts and the enemy?

James' voice ripped through his thoughts just then. 'All right, people! Time for a break.'

Weariness unexpectedly overtook Stone, and he looked for a spot to drop. The others were stopping to sit as well. But not Forest. Propped on his crutches, his left leg drawn up slightly at the knee, he said, 'Already? Come on! I'm good for another hour's walk, easy!'

'Buddy,' James said patiently. 'Look at yourself. You're panting.'

'But...' Forest started. And then subsided. If the boy had learned anything since his leg snapped, it was that when James called him 'buddy,' it meant that the man was doing whatever he was doing because he thought it was for Forest's own good - and that there was no way James was going to change his mind, either.

All right. A break then. Forest found a tall boulder and rested himself against it.

Stone too found a place to rest - a nice thick fallen log. Conveniently, it was the log Starr had already sat down on.

She smiled up at him as he joined her, his fingers curling contentedly around hers. 'Hi, love,' she said.

He smiled. She smiled. They smiled.

How beautiful she was! he thought once again. Not a classic beauty of form and figure, for in fact Starr was somewhat ordinary-looking. Linda was prettier when it came to looks. Why, even Lucy was prettier.

It wasn't Starr's looks, no. Not her outward appearance. It was...

It was the way she looked at him. The glad light that sparkled into her eyes whenever she saw him. It was - the way she trusted him, which was in itself both shattering and exhilarating.

It was the way she was so whole-heartedly given to him, in such sweet simplicity, such child-like completeness. Such radical abandon, such confidence.

Such faith.

Faith in him? He hoped not. For surely he would let her down.

Already he had let her down, more than once. Ugly, cruel that had been, he now saw.

And she had forgiven. And still loved. Still with reckless confident abandon, she loved.

It was the Master that he saw in her. That was her beauty.

'I love you, Starr,' he said. And heard his words echo back to him in her voice, speaking his name instead of hers at the end of it.

Chuckle. Sweet girl! She had said it in the same breath with him!

'So,' said she. 'How's it going?'

He blinked, his mind briefly blanking out on what she could be referring to as 'it.' Then it hit him - his day, his progress. His battle.

He shrugged. 'Same as always, I guess. Thinking about the second wolf you saw, and the helmet, and all like...' A thought struck him, forcibly. 'Hey!'

'Hey what?' she asked, bemused.

'That's all I was thinking about all morning! No rabbit trails, no bouncing here, there, and everywhere. I stayed focused!'

'Great!' she beamed.

But why? he wondered. Started to ask.

'All right!' called out James. 'Break's over. Let's move!'

They stood to their feet, Stone and Starr did, their fingers lingering together, mingled together for another moment. And then, 'I love you, my darling,' said he.

'And I you,' she replied.

And on they went, she with the angels, and he with his thoughts.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005


the child, eighty

In a way, it was starting the journey all over again. After three weeks in camp, they weren't quite up to making a long day's walk - not like they had been before. Forest, of course, pushed himself as hard as he could. But he wasn't used to the crutches yet. And the rough terrain was not the best for crutches. And he had been more or less lying on his back for the past three weeks.

So even he needed frequent breaks and an early end to the day's march.

That is why, when Malachi found a cooling stream when there were still two hours left before sunset, James went ahead and called a halt, and had everyone begin to set up the tents. And Forest, predictably, began to protest about it.

Began to. And then he considered the ache in his broken leg, and the pain under his armpits from the crutches, and the blisters popping up on his hands from gripping the crutch poles all day. And he fell quiet instead. And set about helping with the tents.

Yes, on his crutches. He might not have been much help. But he was enthusiastic about it.

Supper came a bit early. And then, as the heat of the day was dissipating, James stood up and drew his sword. 'Time for practice,' he said. 'Get up here, buddy!'

Forest looked up at him, surprised. And then the next second a gleam shone out from his eyes. With a whoop, he grabbed his crutches and got himself upright, then tossed down the right-hand one and drew his sword as well. 'Have at you!' he cried.

The others got quickly out of the way as the pair of them went at it. Parry and thrust. Feint and lunge. Disengage. Riposte. Haha!

James was holding back for the injured boy's sake, not wanting to risk more injury to his weakened opponent. Until Forest got past his defenses and landed a smart smack across James' upper arm with the flat of his blade.

'Hey!' cried James, his free hand automatically springing to cover the spot. He felt skin, and glanced at his shirt. 'Hey! You tore my sleeve!'

'Oops,' said Forest impudently. He was grinning, that snotty boy was, his eyes flashing, waiting for James to get back into the drill.

And now James' eyes flashed too. 'You runt,' he said. 'Just for that...!'

And now the battle was on in earnest. No more holding back for the injured kid! On and on they lunged and parried, breaking each other's defenses, recovering and guarding, fighting, fighting...

Until at last they were both winded, their swords glued inside their cramped hands. Panting, James said, 'Yield?'

'Oh, you're yielding to me? I accept,' Forest panted back.

'No! Will you yield to me?' James roared.

'Does the word 'never' have any meaning to you?' Forest responded, even though he could barely lift his sword arm anymore.

'Does the word 'brat' have any meaning to you?' James snapped back. At the same moment, Stone raised his hands and called, 'Time! That's it.' And then he added, 'Don't you guys ever know when to quit?'

Slowly James let his aching sword arm go limp. And only then did the competitive Forest let down his own sword. And he grinned. 'Good game,' he said.

'Yeah,' James panted. 'You too.' He frowned and added. 'Were you always this good? You about ran me ragged.'

Forest chuckled and boasted. 'You kidding? When I'm at my best, ain't no one can beat me!'

'Really?' That was Jack. 'No one can beat you? You're that good?'

'Nope,' said Forest proudly. 'Not anyone I can think o...'

But Jack was interrupting with, 'Not even Josh?'

Forest stopped talking, his mouth still hanging open in mid-brag. He stared at Jack for the longest time, and then slowly, slowly, said, 'Oh. Well. I mean, Josh, yeah. Josh can beat me. But then, he's the sword master!'

'All right,' said Jack, nodding. 'Just checking.'

'Checking what?' said Forest. But Jack only grinned in reply.

After a very long pause, Forest at last sheathed his weapon, then stuck out his hand to James. James swapped his sword to his left hand to grasp the boy's hand and shake it.

'Good game,' Forest said again, much more seriously this time. 'And, Jack...'


Forest's eyes were deep and solemn as he said to him, 'You too.'

And as Jack and James exchanged puzzled looks, Forest accepted his other crutch from Joy and headed off to the tent by himself to lie down and think.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005


the child, seventy-nine

They moved on that day. Sword practice first, then breakfast. Then breaking the camp.

It seemed strange, after three full weeks in this one place, to now pack up and leave it. While the others were busy with folding up the tents and bundling up the tent poles - and how odd that one pole looked, the replacement pole that Stone had found, the one he had used to defend his life with that first day here - Starr gathered the canteens to fill them one last time at the pool.

Stone went with her.

She knelt at the side of the cool clear waters, cleansing each canteen before filling and corking it. Stone stood at her side, guarding. The light breeze was playfully rippling Starr's hair, though, distracting him. How beautiful, his bride-to-be!

'Starr,' he said softly.

She looked up at him, her eyes shining. And then her sweet smile quite vanished.

What? Hand flying to the hilt of his sword, Stone turned to see what she was seeing. And saw nothing.

His eyes darted round the empty woodland surrounding them. 'What is it?' he hissed.

'You don't see anything?' she whispered back.

'No,' he answered. And saw her visibly relax. 'What is it?' he asked again.

But she was not attending - not to him. Her eyes fastened and focused on the unseen, darting now here, now there, watching.

Stone wanted to kneel beside her, to look in the same direction she was looking and from the same angle. But he remained standing instead, still ready on an instant to draw that deadly sword if he needed to.

She knelt, watching. Slowly, a different relaxing came over her, and she sighed. Her eyes closed.

And opened again, to look up at Stone. She smiled at him.

'What did you see?' he asked.

'It was the battle.'

'What battle?'

'Your battle. With the wolves, not far upstream from here.' She came to her feet then, the canteens laying forgotten on the ground beside her as she began to point and gesture. 'I saw you running, with the two wolves after you. I saw you splash through the stream, and turn, and confront them. I saw the one start to circle behind you, and how you bloodied it. Then hit the other with the stick and sent it sprawling. Then killed the first one...'

'No offense, Starr, but - you heard me tell all this story.'

'Yes. But now - it changes. You killed the first one. That one is dead. The other...' she lifted her hand, pointing. 'It's still circling you, looking for an opening. Looking to break in through your defenses, Stone, and do you great harm.'

Her eyes were tracking something so convincingly, that once again, Stone looked to see what she was seeing. And saw nothing.

'You see that?' he asked. For he was wondering why, if she saw a wolf tracking him, she had smiled up at him so.

'It is after you, yes, Stone. But I also saw a hand reach down and clothe you in armor. In particular,' and her own hands raised to mimic the action she had seen, 'I saw a sturdy helmet being placed over your head.' Her hands placed the unseen helmet, so to speak. And then they fell away to her sides.

She laughed. 'Oh, I'm so weird, Stone! You sure you want to get mixed up with me?'

Another glance all about to be sure he saw nothing dangerous - and then he gathered Starr into his arms.

'Dearie,' he whispered into her hair, 'I wouldn't miss this for the world.'

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Thursday, July 07, 2005


the child, seventy-eight

If ever a week both flew and crawled past, it was that week. Except for the addition of twice-daily sword practice, once in the cool of the morning and again in the cool of the evening, this week passed as the previous two had. Lucy and Linda finding more wild geranium. James and Jack searching for signs of enemies. Stone and Starr falling ever more deeply in love together. And Joy keeping Forest company as his leg healed.

But there was an important difference this week. For as the company practiced with their swords - at every clash of blade against blade, they were reminded of Forest telling them to get ready to assault the dungeons. And as the women sought the medicinal wildflower for Joy, they remembered how Forest could not rise from his pallet to come to the cool of these woods with them.

As the men protected the camp, they were mindful of how much Forest would like to be able to guard the camp as well. And as Stone fell more deeply in love with Starr...

He thought of the sacrifice she had offered to make. To stay behind, here with Forest, separated from the man she loved, to tend to this boy till his healing was complete.

And at every memory and reminder of Forest and his broken leg - they prayed. Everyone in the camp, for their own reasons. They prayed for his healing. That when the test came again at the end of this week - that Forest's leg would bear his weight and not collapse under him again.

Forest prayed too. How he wanted to go with the rest! To make the enemy eat his taunts that the boy ever heard echoing within his head, that he would never set foot anywhere near the fortress. That he, Forest, would be left behind.

He wanted to be there for the assault so badly, he could taste it more keenly than he tasted his daily food. His leg must heal!

The seven days passed. And then dawned the eighth.

They gathered, all of them, at the men's tent door. Stone was last of all to join with the rest, standing just slightly apart from the others, with his hands carefully hidden behind his back.

All eyes peered in, to see what would happen this time. All hearts prayed, to see Forest stand this time and not fall.

'Do you want any help to get up?' James asked.

The boy shook his head. Then, just as he had the week before, he began rocking himself violently from side to side till he rolled over onto his stomach. Once again, he gathered his hands and one good knee under himself. Once again, he pushed himself upright and stood.

A collective breath, as each and all held theirs. The moment of truth.

Small beads of sweat popped out on the boy's forehead. Now that it came down to it, he found himself hesitating, remember the shock of pain that had spasmed through the length of his leg the last time.

Hmph. Push that away! Nothing was going to stop him from walking this time! And no silly doubt - he could almost picture an ugly demon standing by his side, whispering doubts and fears into his ear - was going to keep him back from trying to walk.

He gritted his teeth. Shifted his leg forward. Shifted his weight onto it...

Lifted his other foot. Wavered...

And his other foot stepped forward. One full stride, completed!

Silence - and then noise! Laughter, congratulations. Cries of 'Do it again!'

Which he did. He took several steps, round the inside of the tent. He got a bit overbalanced on a couple of them, but always waved off any help. He was going to do this, and do it without help. He was going to walk, and not burden any of the others in doing so.

James stuck out his hand to the boy, and Forest, beaming, shook it. Other hands reached to him and he shook them as well, or found himself on the receiving end of a hug. Someone's hand ruffled his hair, and he automatically reached up to smooth the hair again.


Stone's voice cut through the rest of the sound, as the man's tall frame cut through the crowd to reach the boy's side. 'I, uh, made something for you. Here.'

The big man's hands came out from hiding behind him now, thrusting into Forest's hands a pair of long, hand-hewn wooden crutches. 'If the size isn't right, I can shorten them,' said Stone.

Forest said nothing. Thoroughly caught by surprise, he wordlessly ran his hands over the gift. Touched. Deeply touched.

'Um...' He had to clear his throat before he could at last reply. 'Um - thanks, Stone. I, uh, had no idea. These look great.' He tucked them up under his armpits, trying out the length. 'Hey, you guessed it well. They fit fine.'

'You sure? I can take the ax and trim them a bit shorter, if you need me to...'

Forest shook his head. 'No, they're fine. Now. If someone will part the crowd for me...'

The crowd parted on its own. And awkwardly, still learning how to use the new gift of crutches, Forest swung out the door to look for the first time in three weeks up at the sky, and out at the day, and over at the tall cliff opposite.

The place he had fallen from.

He studied the cliff for a long moment. And then he turned and grinned at James. 'Moving day. Eh?'

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Sunday, July 03, 2005


the child, seventy-seven

The whole camp sprang to their feet at the horrible shriek that came next. James and Morgen were the first to reach the boy. He was sprawled in the tent floor, toughing back the tears, his splinted leg stretched out at a weird angle, as if he was trying to get away from the leg entirely.

But he waved off their help. 'I got it, I got it,' he kept repeating through clenched teeth.

And he was trying again to get up!

Against the boy's protest, James and Morgen scooped him up and laid him gently again on his pallet. James looked every bit as ashen as Forest did. 'I'm so sorry,' he kept mumbling.

'Sorry for what?' Forest snapped.

'I didn't think... I really thought you'd be ready. I'm so sorry! You... How's his leg?'

Morgen was examining it. After a bit, he sat back on his heels, nodding. 'It's fine. The seam where it is healing is intact. He just needs a bit more time.'

James exhaled extravagantly. 'Thank the Master for that!' he said.

'How long?' Forest demanded.

'Another week?' James replied. 'Or two?'

'Two weeks? But the dungeons...!'

'I know!' cried James. 'But it can't be helped. If you can't walk, you can't walk!'

Forest looked up at him - at both of the men here in the tent with him, as well as the crowd at the door peering in. And the boy nodded. 'I see.' And he looked James in the eye, piercingly. 'Then go on without me.'

There was a chorus of protests. And cutting through all the other voices, James' own voice, saying, 'No.'

'I mean it. There are people in the dungeons, dying every day. We are supposed to go to them, to rescue them, to lead them out of the danger that will kill them. I'm not important; they are. Go without me.'

And again, James said, 'No.'

Forest glared up at him. 'What does it take to get it through to you? Go on! Go rescue them. What happens to me doesn't matter!'

'It does to me,' James rejoined.

'And me,' added Jack.

'It matters to all of us,' said Stone. 'We aren't leaving you behind.'

'Look,' said James. 'You were chosen for the journey the same as the rest of us - for a reason. If we leave you behind, there will be one of us left without a partner - right? Josh said we would be making the assault in pairs. If you aren't there - that's one team that won't be in the fight. We go together - all of us. End of discussion.'

'Hmph...' said Forest. He was touched, and didn't want to show it.

'Here,' said a soft voice. Starr, pushing in between Stone and Joy. She knelt by the boy's side, looked him earnestly in the face. 'Give it one more week. All right? Just one. And if you aren't ready then... I'll stay behind with you.'

'Starr...!' Stone whispered, startled down to his toes.

Forest considered. Nodded. 'All right. One week.' He glanced up beyond her to the rest of them gathered round the door. 'And in the meantime,' he said good and loud, 'that's been some of the quietest sword practice I've ever heard these past couple of weeks. Think maybe the lot of you could manage to actually draw the swords from now on, when you practice every day? Hmm?' His glare was piercing, knowing good and well that his orders to practice daily had gone unobeyed.

'That's crazy,' said a shrill voice. Lucy, of course. 'It's too hot to be swinging swords around!'

'Do it in the evening, when it gets cool then.'

'The end of the day? When we're all worn out from hiding from the heat all day long?'

'First thing in the morning then, before the day gets hot,' said the boy. 'But we must practice. We're soldiers making an assault on a fortress. Do you really want to go up against an opposing army, when you haven't done anything with your swords but tote them on your hips for months and months?'

'You're right. You told us to practice. And we didn't do it.' That was James.

'Yeah,' said Forest, 'and now it's two weeks practice time lost. Maybe we need to practice morning and night, to make up for it. But we have to practice. We have to get ready to fight.'

'We'll begin right away, right after breakfast,' said James.

'But...!' Lucy started to protest.

'No but's. Forest is right,' said James. 'Oh, yeah - and he's not crazy.'

'Naw, she's right about that,' said Forest cheerfully. 'I am crazy. But that doesn't matter. Cause I'm still right.'

The clash and clatter of sword on sword a few minutes later brought a grim smile to the boy's face. Even if he couldn't take part in the practice.


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