Friday, September 09, 2005

 

the child, ninety-three


Silence fell over them all like a slap in the face. They stood motionless, listening.

'Aha!' cried Forest suddenly. He snatched up James' sword from where Jack had impaled it into the ground, flung aside his remaining crutch, and took off limping at top speed. Jack raced after him, and so did Lucy.

Mac too whirled and ran. But not after those three. Instead, he ran to the pile of packs and bundles to sling on his backpack. Mal and Morgen hurried to do the same.

'What are you doing?' asked Stone, torn between following Forest and finding out what the angel was up to.

'I do not expect that we will return to this camp,' Mac explained briefly. He handed a packed tent and bundle of tent poles to each of his two companions, taking the third set for himself. 'If we are moving, then, we must take everything. We can track the others and try to catch up.'

Now Stone and the others saw what he meant, and hurried to snatch up packs as well. Since James, Jack, Forest, and Lucy had not taken their packs with them, some of the rest of them had to carry two. Stone caught the canteens from Starr's hand and quickly distributed them as well.

It was bare moments before all was cleared away and they were ready. With Mal and Morgen in the lead, and Mac bringing up the rear, Stone and the three remaining women set out to follow their friends and find out what had become of James.

'What did anyone hear?' Stone asked maybe ten minutes later, as Mal and Morgen paused to make sense of some tracks.

'I thought I heard a cry for help,' said Joy.

'And what Forest heard?' said Stone. For he himself had heard nothing.

Linda shook her head. 'I don't know. I didn't exactly hear anything. Not even what you heard, Joy.'

'Come,' said Morgen, cutting off any further discussion. The group jogged on.

The next time they stopped to be sure of the tracks, Morgen looked up at the rest and said, 'This is the same way that Jack and I came this morning, before we realized that instead of following James, we were chasing him away. This is where we stopped and turned back. Now...'

Mal interrupted him with, 'That way,' and pointed. Nods all around - many of them breathless - and they hurried on.

Before long, they broke from the woods lining the sides of the path along the valley floor, and began following the valley path itself. The tracks seemed to be harder to see here, but Mal was an expert in finding them anyway. Stone kept the sheath of his sword gripped in his left hand, ready on an instant to snatch the sword out with his right.

He kept his eyes open, scanning the mountain sides rising on either side of them. They all did. No one wanted to be caught by surprise if, for example, the wolves might be lurking in the woods to take advantage of them.

Of course, they were all wondering where these tracks would lead them. Stone especially was wondering - and also struggling to keep his mind from darting off on rabbit trails of speculation about what they might find. Where was James? Why had he fled from Jack and Morgen, instead of coming back? What had Joy heard, and what had Forest heard? And where were James and his pursuers now - why had none of them come back?

Questions he had aplenty. But answers?

The sun was passing its height overhead when Mal held up his hand to halt the group. His other hand he held to his lips, for quiet. And except for the unavoidable noises of catching their breaths, they complied.

Morgen waved Mac in. For some time, heads together, the three studied the tracks and consulted together. Finally they looked at each other and nodded all around.

Then stood and faced the others. 'We need to split up.'

'What?' said Linda. And then slammed her own hand over her mouth, for saying it so loud.

Mal pointed at the ground. 'The tracks split up, and so must we. See how they go this way, and that?' His hand swept off to the left, up into the trees, and then ahead of them, still following the path. 'They made two parties here.'

'Why would they do that?' asked Joy.

'They must have seen something,' said Stone.

Mac nodded. 'Exactly. Two continued on the path, and the one went up into the woods alone.'

'Forest went by himself, no doubt,' put in Stone.

Morgen grinned. 'Either you're learning to track, or you know our young Forest very well.'

The others smiled. If anyone was going to make a brave stand at single combat, it would be Forest - limp or not.

'Well, let's go then. Starr, Mac, you two come with me. The rest of you, follow Jack and Lucy. Mac,' and Stone paused. 'Well, I'm assuming you know how to read a trail.'

Mac smiled. Oh, yes. An angel would surely know how to follow a trail!

'All right then. Let's... uh,' and again Stone paused. 'Let's do this right. Let's pray and speak to the Master before we take another step. Starr?'

He held a hand out to her. She took it, and joined hands with Joy on her other side, while Stone joined hands with Mac. All seven were soon in a circle, standing hand-in-hand. Lifting her face to the heavens above them, Starr began, 'Dear Master...'

At that moment, something whizzed into the center of the group and stuck quivering in the ground.

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