Sunday, October 23, 2005
the child, part 3, chapter 1 - 'into the fortress'
Mac led the way with Stone at his side. They skirted the foot of the mountain, keeping themselves hidden behind the underbrush as they went. They moved in silence, wary of where their feet landed, wary lest a stray crackle draw the attention of the returning guards. Blind those guards might be; deaf was another matter.
Soon they were at the point where the pass opened out into the plain. Most of the troop had already spilled out of the pass by now. The little group of eleven crouched in the bracken, waiting, watching, silent.
There was Walker. He looked both furious and humbled as he lurched along, his walking made strange and ungainly by the way his arms were bound so tightly behind him.
Stone, looking on the man, found suddenly that he profoundly loved him. The Master's love, he knew. Why had it taken him this long to see Walker with the Master's love? The upset of Walker's words - not the ones earlier today, but the long-ago words from when Walker had first learned of where Stone had come from - that upset had stayed with Stone all this time.
Well... He had let it stay with him all this time. He had thought he had forgiven Walker, had told himself that he had. But now, seeing the man bound up and being led back into the dungeons - only now did Stone's heart cry out for mercy on Walker. Only now did he really love the man, loving his old friend with the Master's love.
Please, Master! That we may succeed, and rescue him, and rescue them all!
He felt fingers curling with his own. A smile. Starr-girl, of course. He glanced down at her, as always at his side. I love you, she mouthed to him silently. I love you too, the squeeze of his hand said silently back.
The last of the troop was passing now. These in particular looked weary and wasted as they blundered along, stumbling very badly. A pang hit Stone's heart for them as well, and he wondered if perhaps some of them might not eventually find rest in the Master's house.
A tap on his shoulder. Forest. The boy jerked his chin towards the troop, mouthing, Go!
Softly, quietly, Stone and Starr slipped out of the underbrush. The others were right behind them, all moving slowly so as not to draw attention to themselves. They kept back from the troop ahead of them, leaving enough distance between them that (they hoped) they would not be heard following. But not so much distance (again they hoped) that they might attract the attention of the guards in the fortress.
It was a long trip, for covering such a short distance. They had to move every bit as slowly as the slow-moving guards ahead of them. Move slowly - no talking - try to blend in - try to be invisible.
The great concern Stone had personally, was that the one man in that troop whose eyes had not been affected by whatever Mac had done, might happened to glance backwards and see them. And what would Walker do if he spotted them following? Would he betray them? Had he done so already?
Stone glanced up at the mountain side, trying to make out where the cave was that they had just come from. From down here, he could see nothing of that hiding place - which was good. He also could see nothing of any guards climbing the mountain to find the cave. So maybe Walker hadn't given them that.
On the other hand, with the guards so weary and uncertain in walking, perhaps he had told them of the cave, but none of this guard had been up to the dangerous task of climbing a mountain half-blind.
Half-blind? All blind? Just how badly had Mac stricken their vision? At least the angel had assured him that it wasn't permanent.
The fortress was drawing nearer. The closer they got, the larger and uglier it loomed. Stone really hoped their stay within it would be short and voluntary, and their escape complete!
Poor Walker though...
A commotion broke out ahead of them. They all peered ahead, trying to make out what was happening. The first of the returning troop had nearly reached the main entrance just ahead of them on this west side. Stone, with his advantage of height, had the best chance of seeing what was going on.
Ah! From within the fortress, more guards were emerging. One of them had the look of a high commander. Standing imperiously in the entrance way, he gestured and the commander of the returning guards came towards him. Then the two apparently engaged in conversation.
More of the returning guard came up to the entrance. Having nowhere closer to go just now, as the high commander was not yet allowing anyone inside, they got as close as they could and then stopped, milling about, weary beyond weariness.
Now the final section of the guards was arriving before the entrance. The returning commander gestured, and the prisoner was brought forward before the high commander. More conversation.
And now Stone and his group arrived last of all. He glanced back. Do as the occasion demands? But what did that mean? Did any of them know?
And then pandemonium seemed to break out. Guards were rushing out from within the fortress, grabbing the returning guards. What were they doing? Arresting them?
But no - they were supporting them, bearing them inside, helping them along. So many guards! Stone barely caught sight of Walker being taken inside, followed closely by both commanders.
And then a touch on his arm. Mac, pointing. And now Stone saw Forest. The boy was working his way round the edge of the confused crowd, heading north. But why? thought Stone.
Why didn't matter. If this was what the occasion demanded, then the only thing to do was to follow the boy. And so Stone did - they all did - trying their best to look casual and normal as they passed beyond the busy crowd of guards and round the corner.
There they flattened against the fortress wall and took a quick count. All eleven were here. 'Come,' hissed Forest. And he headed on eastward along this north wall.
'What's he doing?' Stone breathed to Mac at his side.
'What the occasion demands,' the angel replied. And he smiled as he said it.
Forest stopped at the corner and peered round it. Turning to James and Jack, he whispered something to them, then gestured for Jack to go tell the rest. Jack seemed to put up an argument first before turning away and backtracking, shaking his head as he went.
Coming to Stone, Starr, and Mac first, Jack said, 'With all the guards distracted at the front, Forest hopes to find this northeast door unguarded. Or nearly so. He'll go first alone, and we're to follow once he gives the all clear.'
'And if he doesn't give the all clear?' said Stone.
Jack rolled his eyes. 'Then we'll have one more person to rescue from these dungeons, won't we? And one less rescuer to do the job with.'
Jack hurried on to tell the remainder of the group. Then they all watched as Forest shot a glance towards heaven, then plunged round the corner. James peered round the corner after him, waiting.
Time was passing. The sun was setting. The sounds from before the fortress were fading as more and more of the guards were brought inside, and less and less of them were still outside, waiting to be brought in.
And the rescuers were waiting. Waiting.
'Do you think he got caught?' Stone whispered to Starr.
She was standing quietly, her lips moving in prayer. She looked up at Stone and shook her head. But whether by that she meant, No, or that she didn't know, he wasn't sure.
Suddenly, James was gesturing, motioning for them all to move up. As Stone, Starr, and Mac reached him, the badly bruised man whispered, 'Go,' and waved them on past him.
Cautiously they slipped round the corner and looked. Just steps away was a small door, and peering out that small door at them, signaling for them to hurry - Forest!
Stone hesitated but a moment, searching the boy's face for any sign of anything wrong. After all, it wasn't impossible that the boy might have been caught, and this was now a trap to lure them all in. But there was nothing strange about Forest's face or actions.
'Let's go,' Stone said. The three of them rushed onward, swords out and at the ready just in case. They reached the door and Forest all but jerked them inside. The dark inside was momentarily blinding, but as his eyes adjusted, Stone saw that surrounding them within this entrance to the dungeons was...
He turned to Forest. 'No guards?' he whispered.
The boy frowned and made a gesture for silence as the remainder of their group hurried in the door. Closing the door quickly, Forest led them to a stairway - one of the staircases Stone had remembered? - and on downwards into greater and greater darkness.
Until there was no more down. Only dank musty miriness, scattered torches, and the muffled anguish of captive men.
They had reached the deepest dungeons.
It was almost unbelievable. How had they gotten in so easily? Unless...
Could this be a trap?
Stone made his way over to Forest. 'How'd you manage to get inside like this?'
The boy smiled. 'I knocked.'
'Oh, come on.'
'No, really. There was only one guard on duty. The rest had gone up front to help bring the helpless guards in. When he opened the door, I told him, "Didn't you hear the call for everyone to go help those poor guys in? Why are you still here? Go! Hurry!" ' Forest muffled a laugh, still amazed. 'And he went! Can you beat that?'
Jack frowned. 'You mean he mistook you for one of the guards? But how could he do that? You don't look a bit like any of the guards. You're not even dressed right.'
As Forest responded with a grinning 'No clue,' Stone and Starr looked at Mac. 'What did you do?' Stone asked him.
'Me? Nothing,' the angel replied innocently. But as he said it, he glanced in Malachi's direction...
'So - now we're in,' Lucy was saying. 'What do we do next?
They looked about. In the dim and wavering torch light, everything looked weird and a bit scary. The moaning of miserable men didn't improve the atmosphere. But as they stood, listening, trying to think what the next move should be, Stone tilted his head.
'What?' whispered Starr.
He pointed. 'This way.' Leading them away from the main part of this dungeon - and away from the bulk of the moans - he soon came to a door by itself.
'What is this?' asked Joy softly.
'Solitary,' Stone answered shortly. The play of emotions over his face as he stood looking at that door could barely be seen in the torch light. Only Starr truly looked and saw.
Then the man sighed and stepped closer. Putting his ear to the door, he listened.
Glancing through the small barred window, he saw nothing but darkness. No movement, no anything.
'Who has a key?' he asked softly.
'We all do,' Linda replied at a whisper. 'Remember? That was one of the things each pack had in it, when we first got them from the house Jessie claimed.'
'Right,' Stone muttered back. He unslung his pack, rummaged inside for what seemed like forever, and finally produced a small and elusive key. Half-turning to Starr, he gave a crooked grin and said, 'Here goes.'
He fitted the key. Slowly turned it. Gritted his teeth, hoping the key would not make any noise in this deep place.
No, no sound. The merest small clunk as the lock turned over and opened. But would the hinges scream when the door was opened?
A tug. The beginning of a groan of protest from the hinges. Stone stopped. What now?
'Wait,' whispered Joy. Now she was rummaging in her pack, looking for... 'Ah!' She held up a small bottle, unstoppered it, and poured a little of the contents on each hinge. 'Cooking oil,' she said softly. 'Now try.'
This second tug went much more smoothly and silently. Jack took the nearest torch from the wall and shined it inside the room.
'Perfect,' said Forest. 'This will be our first base of operations.'
'All of us, crammed into this tiny room?' Lucy objected.
'For now. We'll see what else we can do later. Now.' And Forest rubbed his hands together. 'The guards aren't expecting this room to be occupied. So they won't come by here. Right, Stone?'
'As far as I know.'
'So as long as no one down here gets thrown into solitary...'
'That's assuming a lot,' Lucy frowned. 'We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to.'
'And we won't,' Forest promised. 'We'll need to scout out our people - the ones Walker found for us - set them free, set Walker free...'
'Oh, very simple,' Lucy interjected.
'...and get out again. What do we do first?'
Mac spoke up then. 'First, we pray and ask the Master to give us direction. And then - whatever he says to do, we do.'
'Amen,' said Starr.
And so they prayed.
It was not a pleasant place, this deepest dungeon, not by a long shot. First and foremost, just as Stone had mentioned so many times before, there was the mire. Nearly two inches deep! There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lie down, nowhere to put down their packs - not without getting themselves and their things all coated with the mire.
And the place stank! Lucy and Linda especially spent the first hour or so holding cloths over their noses, trying not to breathe. After that, the smell became more tolerable.
'Probably because it's killed our sense of smell,' Jack remarked.
Forest and James spent quite a while consulting together by themselves, occasionally calling over Stone or Lucy, Morgen or Jack. And finally, they called everyone over.
'All right. Here's our plan,' said Forest. 'We split up into the six teams as originally planned, and we go for our people.'
'But what about...' said Stone.
James held up his hand in a 'hear him out' gesture.
'I know, Stone. On the one hand, you don't have someone to get out. And then on the other hand, maybe you do.'
Stone frowned. 'Meaning?'
'Well,' said the boy, 'you know, with Walker getting captured... Well, maybe the reason he didn't find a sixth person for you to rescue, is because the Master knew it would come out this way, with Walker himself needing rescuing. Maybe you and Starr will wind up needing to free him. Of course,' he added, turning to the rest, 'we'll all need to be looking for him. Each of the people he found for us lives on a different level of the dungeons. So each of our teams can search the level where we're assigned, to see if Walker is also being held on that level. As for you, Stone, Starr - we'll leave it up to the two of you what you want to do. Hunt for Walker on all the levels, or try to find someone down here to rescue, someone that Walker missed.'
The big guy nodded, as did the woman at his side.
'Now,' Forest went on. 'We'll need to keep in touch. Once a day, I'd like us to touch base with each other. James and I talked this over, and it seems to us that the easiest way to keep in touch, unless we come up with an even easier way later, is for the team on the top floor to come down to see the next team below them. Exchange information, and the top floor team goes back up. Next team, then you go down to meet with the team below you. And so forth. Each team waits to hear from the team above, then relays to the team below. Once a day, without fail, right after nightfall. Clear?'
Nods all around.
'Fine.' Forest looked at James, then at the rest. 'Don't get caught. Don't give up. Keep loving, keep seeking the Master. Pray for us, pray for each other. Pray for each person we're going to take out of here. Pray for Walker.' A pause. 'Love. That's the vital thing. The Master's love. Amen?'
'Amen,' they chorused softly.
'I love you all,' Forest went on, and there were tears in his eyes. 'If anything goes wrong, get out. Head for... well, for the cave, I guess. But don't go in blindly. Scout it first to be sure it's not a trap. And if you can't get out, rendezvous here, at this room. Right?'
They all nodded.
Forest drew in a large breath, then blew it out again. 'Well. Let's go for it then.' And he smiled. 'For the Master's love.'
'For the Master's love,' Starr echoed back.
And with hugs and handshakes, the others melted away into the darkness to move cautiously back up the stairs. Leaving Stone and Starr alone.
Alone had never before felt so very, very alone.
They took the stairs as silently as they could, wary for anyone coming down them. This would not be the best place to be discovered, they knew.
Of course, nowhere in the dungeons would be a good place to be discovered...
At the landing for the sixth level down, Forest and James made their brief and quiet farewells, and slipped away through the door. It felt so strange for the others, to suddenly be without that pair! They had grown used to James' leadership, and the boy's as well. In a way, going on up the stairs without them felt something like blundering on without a head.
At the next level up, Joy and Malachi departed to search for the girl Talia. The next level up from that, it was Jack and Morgen's turn to peel off, for this was where they would look for Rob.
Two levels up from that, and two levels below the ground floor where Ginger lived, Lucy and Linda stopped to say good-bye to Maccabees. But instead of going through that door and away to find Beatriz, Mac said, 'I'll see you upstairs first.' And so the three of them made their cautious way up the last two flights of the stairway, listening at every step.
They reached the top. Remembering that the back door by which they'd snuck into the fortress was not that far off, they slowly and noiselessly slipped into the nearest corridor, away from the guards at that door.
Silvered moonlight streamed in here. The long corridor stretched away ahead of them. Very familiar this was to Lucy. There were four more long corridors just like this one on this level - Lucy wondered if the lower floors shared the same layout? Five long corridors, each with three dozen doors on either side. Three hundred sixty cells. And one of them Ginger's.
And Walker - where was he? Had they brought him to an empty cell here? Or taken him downstairs?
Linda looked to Lucy. 'What do we do now?' she whispered. And Lucy, not really meaning to, glanced at Mac.
He pointed. 'There is likely to be a broom closet at the far end,' he whispered.
Yes, of course there was. Sometimes for punishment, Lucy had been assigned to fetch the cleaning supplies from that broom closet and clean a whole corridor of cells. And one memorable time, she had been sent to a lower level to clean a corridor down there. Ugh - she shuddered at the memory.
Why, though, would Mac be pointing out the broom clo...?
'Come on, Linda. Let's go hide in the broom closet,' Lucy whispered. Hand in hand, they hurried down the hall, hoping to avoid being noticed.
And once the women were hidden from sight, Mac turned away and returned to the floor he and Walker should have gone to together. He had with him the handful of shredded papers that Joy had rescued from the cave floor. Now he would find Beatriz. And, if the man had been brought to this level, Walker as well.
There was plenty of night left, and Mac had no need to sleep. He began his search right away.
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