Monday, October 10, 2005

 

the child, one hundred eight


The trees thinned out as they reached the foot of the mountain, and it became harder and harder for them to keep their eyes on where their feet were going. For ahead of them, maybe half a mile distant and impressive even through the screen of trees - there rose the enemy's fortress.

Tall. Massive. Burly stones built up and up to tall spires that raked at the sky. Fierce. Proud.

Sickening.

Starr gaped. She, of course, had no memory of ever seeing this edifice before.

The rest did remember it, but for the most part, not the outside. Most of them had spent years inside it; the one best memory of the place that they shared was seeing it dwindle in the distance behind them as the Master and his people whisked them away to new life in the Master's home. Now they looked on it again - the old 'home' they had all been glad to leave.

They shuddered.

Malachi brought them to a halt under the last fringe of mountain trees, the spindly underbrush concealing them from view from the fortress. Forest leaned up against a tree, drawing up his bad leg, catching his breath. The others were catching their breath too, some of them all but gasping from the exertion of coming down that last steep part without falling.

Mac touched Stone on the arm and gestured off to the left. A brief walk, and the two of them came upon a fresh stream gurgling down the slope. Swiftly they refilled their canteens, then returned to gather the other canteens and fill them as well.

Stone was just finishing with the last of the canteens when he realized he was alone. Looking around - and dropping his hand to his sword hilt - he called softly, 'Um, Mac?'

'Right here.' Mac was emerging from the woodland beyond the stream.

Relaxing, Stone asked, 'Where'd you go?' And then he blinked, 'Uh - where's the tent?' For Mac no longer had the twin bundles of tent and tent poles he had carried since they had all run from their last camp in the valley.

'I hid them. Back there,' he gestured, 'in the undergrowth.' And with a shrug he added, 'What need will we have for a tent, once we are inside the fortress?'

Inside the fortress. Stone glanced off through the trees at that imposing stronghold. Now that it came right down to it, the thought of going inside was pretty intimidating. But inside they must go, if the captives were to be set free.

Mac set a hand on Stone's shoulder. 'The Master knows,' he said reassuringly. 'He wouldn't have sent you, Stone, if he didn't have confidence in you.'

Stone gave a wry smile. 'It's my confidence in me that gets shaky. I know he's trustworthy. But I sure am weak at times. A lot of times.'

'But his confidence stands, Stone. So will yours.'

Gathering the now-full canteens, they made their way back to the others. Forest, James, and Jack stood a bit apart from the rest, staring out at the barren expanse between their present position and the fortress. Whispering together, the men pointed and nodded, or else shook their heads and pointed some more. The women were sitting down, resting, and Mal and Morgen were standing, waiting.

Stone and Mac distributed the canteens, then joined the men. The looks on their faces were not very encouraging, thought Stone. 'What do we do next?' he asked softly.

'Not sure,' Jack replied. 'I mean, look at that!' His arm took in the whole scene before them. 'Not enough cover to hide a field mouse! We could wait for nightfall...'

'And run into patrols,' said Forest.

'We don't know that they have patrols!' Jack whispered fiercely.

'We don't know that they don't. Don't assume stupidity on the part of the enemy. That could be fatal.'

'And I suppose the other half of the guards are in there now?' Stone remarked.

'Actually, no - not yet,' said Mac at his shoulder. 'See there?'

Surprised, Stone looked off towards the valley where they had last seen the returning guards. Yes, here they came, heading for the fortress, moving so very slowly. Peculiarly slowly. Almost groping along as they came.

'Mac,' Stone said, asking at last the question he'd been longing to ask since shortly after they'd run from the corral at the guards' camp, 'just what did you do?' He kept his voice low and private, just between the two of them.

'They are recovering,' Mac said simply. 'In a week's time, they will be fully recovered.'

'Recovered from what?'

Mac only looked at him. And then Stone recalled that word he had heard so very often - too often - since the escape from the corral a day and a half before.

'Blind,' he said. 'You made them blind?'

'Not completely. Enough for our purposes. Blind men will not see who follows them.'

And he gave Stone a sharp look. Stone frowned in reply. What could Mac be saying? Blind men won't see who follows them...?

And then he got it.

'Umm...' Stone turned and spoke to the other men, stepping out blindly on Mac's suggestion. 'What if we follow the returning guards? We can pretend to be with them, and get close to the fortress that way.'

The three men blinked at him. 'What if they turn and see us?' said Jack.

'Do they look like they'll see us if they turn?' said Stone.

The men considered. 'The guards inside, though,' said Forest. 'What if they see us?'

'By the time this troop draws close to the fortress,' said Mac, 'it will be nearly sundown. We will be coming from due west, and will be hard to recognize for the glare of the setting sun.'

The three men consulted together. 'All right,' said Forest. 'That will get us very near to the fortress. But surely they'll recognize that we aren't any of their people once we get that close. Especially,' and he nodded towards the women. For there had been no women among the guards they had met in the valley.

'Once we get that close,' said Malachi, coming to join their discussion, 'we will do as the occasion demands.'

All the men stared at him. Forest, frowning, said, 'And what is that supposed to mean?'

Looking the boy deeply in the eye, Mal said, 'When we get there, you will know.'

Forest turned to James, and then to Jack. They both shrugged. 'What else do we have?' Jack said, putting voice to all their thoughts.

'All right then,' said Forest slowly. 'Gather the others. We're going to go with this. Only... well... may the Master go with us. Because unless he does, we'll get into the dungeons all right. But as prisoners again, just like Walker.'

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