Sunday, September 11, 2005

 

the child, ninety-four


A spear! They all scattered, Stone pulling Starr after Mac and himself, while Mal and Morgen each caught hold of one of the other women and plunged into the underbrush.

In a moment the path along the valley floor was as still and empty and barren as could be. Starr crouched with Stone and Maccabees in the bramble along the western side of the path. So quickly had it all happened, that Starr wasn't entirely sure where the other four were now. Had they run for cover to the opposite side of the valley?

And yes! Just for a moment, a hand rose above the bushes on the other side across the path. The fingers waved briefly, then the hand vanished.

'Malachi,' whispered Maccabees. And he raised his own hand and returned the brief signal.

So they are over there, and we are over here, thought Starr. But the question is, who threw that spear?

To her amazement, that very question suddenly echoed out to them.

A harsh voice, gruff and gravely, called out the question. And then a body of men - soldiers? - came down the valley, marching out of the direction that Starr and the others had been just about to search.

Soldiers. Surely they were soldiers. They were dressed almost identically, all of them, with dark rough armor over dark rough clothing. But where would soldiers come from? she wondered. She and the others had been on this trail for so very long now, and this was the first set of people other than themselves that they had seen in all that time.

Had Forest and the others seen them as well? Was that why they stopped here and split up?

'I said,' came that gruff voice again, 'who threw this spear?' The foremost of the group, the darkest and most dangerous-looking of them all - he all but reeked of dark spirits! - laid hold of the spear and snatched it out of the ground. He turned and looked over his troops. None of them gave him an answer. Scowling, he snarled, 'Speak! Or when I find you out, I'll run this through you!'

A voice then lifted - the only man not carrying a spear, so it was well that he owned up; his empty-handedness would not have remained unnoticed for long. The leader snorted and flung the spear in such a way that it came nigh to impaling the man anyway.

'And why did you throw it?' barked the leader.

'I... I thought I saw...'

'I know what you saw. Idiot! If you hadn't warned them with this spear, we would have stolen up on them and taken the lot! Now. Spread out and search for them. They can't have gone far. You five - stay there and...'

Whatever else he was saying, Starr did not hear. The soldiers were coming! She gathered her feet under her, ready to flee. Stone caught her hand in his, pressed her fingers. And when she looked up at him, he mouthed silently and plainly, 'I love you.'

He had his feet under him as well, ready to spring off through the woods in a bid to outrun the soldiers. A near-hopeless bid, he knew. But they would surely catch them otherwise, right?

Mac's hand closed over Stone's arm. And the angel shook his head.

What?

Then Mac looked across the path, pointing silently with his chin.

'What are they doing?' Starr hissed in shock.

For the other two angels, and the other two women - their friends, Malachi and Morgenstern and Linda and Joy - had broken from cover noisily. They ran with all their might, running away, up the path.

Heart in her throat, Starr watched. Oh, please! They had to get away. They had to! They...

They didn't. The soldiers caught them up all too quickly. Binding all four, the men then led their prisoners back before their leader.

All the soldiers came back. The ones who had started in this direction, towards Starr and her group, also returned to where the leader stood with his cold dark glance.

Maccabees laid a cautionary hand on Stone's shoulder. Yes, they had to keep quiet.

The leader spat at the ground. 'Women! More women they send! What folly! Put them with the others.'

Others?

With their eyes, Stone and Starr followed their friends as they were shoved along by the soldiers. And there, at the rear, with five soldiers to guard them - there were Forest, Jack, and Lucy. And there as well, his face battered, great welts all over his cheeks and eyes...

Oh, no. James.

Starr's heart sank within her. Whoever this new enemy was, they had taken eight of their friends. And what, oh, what could she, Stone, and Mac do about it all alone?

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