Friday, December 16, 2005

 

the child, part 1, chapter 9 - 'drawing closer'


***Republishing the original shorter chapters into longer ones. These were originally chapters 26-30, from 23 dec 04 through 14 jan 05.***



They talked a long time that evening, the two of them. The crowd had dwindled off to a mere handful by the time Mathilda came in and quietly called for Starr to come away.

Ah, there was no doubt about it - Starr had fallen in love with Stone. And Stone...

The next morning - as well as many mornings afterwards - he showed up at sword practice to share the lesson with her. Many noontimes he would come looking for her to share lunch together. Or evenings, to share supper.

And many nights - many nights! - they walked together, the two of them, in the cool of the evening under the radiant stars. Talking, or not talking. Simply being together. His hand holding hers.

His hand held her heart as well. But he did not yet know it.

One evening, as they walked together under the stars across the thick dewy lawn, Stone said to her suddenly, 'I've been thinking of something.'

'Yes?' said Starr.

He glanced at her, smiled shyly, and glanced quickly away again. 'Something that someone said to me not so very long ago.' Curiously, he did not look at her as they went on walking. But he held her hand the more tightly. 'Not long before I first began to notice you practicing with the sword master, someone came up to me one day and said to me that the Master wanted me to hope for a wife.'

Starr's heart gave a leap within her. Forcing her voice to sound normal, she responded, 'He did?'

'Yes,' said Stone. 'And then I had that dream of the star falling into my hand. And then I met you...' He glanced her way again. 'Well. Actually, every time lately when I meet an unattached woman, I can't help wondering - is she the one? So it isn't just you. But...' And now he stopped, and turned to face her straight on. 'Starr. You hear from the Master much more directly than I do. And I was wondering. Has the Master said anything to you? About me?'

Heart in her throat, Starr replied truthfully, 'Y-yes.'

Stone dropped his gaze, then met her eyes again. 'Because if he's already given you a no about me...' And he sighed. 'Well... I'd like you to tell me. So I'll know not to look in your direction anymore.'

'He...' Starr's ears were roaring from the pounding of her heart. 'He hasn't said no...'

'Oh!' He smiled, and then began to walk on, her small hand still tucked in his. 'Hasn't said no, hmmm?' And then, to her dismay, for she knew she was not to tell Stone all that the Master had said about the two of them, about the Master's plans for them together, Stone asked, 'What has he told you, then? About me?'

She was silent. So silent, that Stone stopped walking again and turned to face her. 'Starr?'

'Is...' she paused to swallow the lump in her throat, 'is it fair for me to tell you that? You need to know such things for yourself, don't you? Without me telling you?'

He studied her face silently for a long moment. 'You're right,' he said at last. 'If you are the one for me, it's not for you to tell me so. It's just... you're good at hearing the Master. And I'm not.'

'Don't be afraid of that,' she answered. 'What you need to know, you will know. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.'

'I sure hope so,' said he. 'Oh,' he added. 'Here's Mathilda.'

Inclining its head respectfully, the cherub greeted them quietly. 'Time to take her away again?' said Stone.

'Only for this little one to sleep and be refreshed,' Mathilda replied.

'I know,' said Stone. 'It's just... well, seems like there's not enough hours in the day, to be together.'

'If,' Starr replied, choosing her words carefully, 'you are the Master's choice for me, and I for you - there will be. Some day.'

Stone smiled on her. 'I'd like that,' said he.

'I'd like that too,' Starr answered. And then Mathilda led her away.

~~~~~~~


She woke screaming. Screaming. The chains! The burning!

Strong arms enfolded her. Arms - yes, and wings as well. Mathilda.

The Child clung to the angel, sobbing, till at last the frantic racing of her heart settled back to normal. 'Little one...' the voice like many waters spoke over her. The cherub used its own veil to dry the tears from Starr's cheeks. 'You dreamed,' said Mathilda. 'But you are safe. You are not there, within the dream, but you are here within the Master's house. You are safe.'

Starr nodded. The last tendrils of the dream, with its horror, were still curling through her brain, still seeking to take hold and draw her back. 'Don't leave,' she whispered to the cherub.

'We are here, little one. Be at peace.'

At length Starr slept again, this time dreamlessly. She woke at the dawn light peeking in at her window, and rose to seek the Master.

He was working with a young man Starr did not know, instructing him with the use of his sword. Seeing Starr, the Master said to his student, 'Continue on with that for a few moments, Forest, while I speak with Starr thy sister.' The young man nodded, breathless, his dark hair plastered in sweaty strings to his forehead and nape.

As young Forest went on with his practicing, the Master came to his Starr and took her in his arms. 'You dreamed,' said he.

'Yes. It was awful.'

'It was necessary, though, for you to see these things.'

She leaned back within his embrace to look up, wide eyed, into his face. 'You know what I dreamed?'

'As I have often told thee, my cherished girl, I know everything about you. Including your nightly dreams.'

She shuddered and huddled deeply within the circle of his arms. 'It was awful,' she said again.

'It was. But it was given thee for a reason. And now, Starr...'

She looked up into his dear face once again. 'Yes, Beloved?'

He smiled gently on her. 'Starr, I want you to write it down.'

Her eyes went wide. 'Must I? I don't even want to remember it!'

'There is a reason for this as well, love. Do not be afraid. Take paper, and sit and write the dream. You will shortly know why I am asking you to do this.'

'Yes, sir,' said she, baffled but obedient.

Going back into the house, she found a sheaf of paper to use and came back outside. Finding a shady tree, she sat down in the soft grass, leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and began to write.

Slowly she wrote, drawing up one at a time the painful bitter memories of the dream she had escaped from. She pictured into words the anguish and the dark, the damp and the fear. The great thick bars. The heavy chains. The miry floors, on which feet would slip and fall again and again. And the burning!

That was the most frightening part. For the burning was not around her, but within her. Fierce, searing, ravenous - like a hunger, but not the ordinary sort of hunger she knew. Like a great emptiness within, aching, dying to be filled!

She was deeply engrossed in finding just the right words to describe the horror, the hopelessness, the helplessness. To describe this overwhelming, unquenchable longing for something - something. What was this yearning for, that burned the very soul...?

And as she bent over her papers, thinking and writing - a shadow fell across the pages. 'There you are, Starr-girl! I've been looking for you everywhere. Did you skip your lesson with the sword master this morning?'

Stone. He sat down at her side and sighed comfortably. 'Glad I found you,' said he. 'Oh, what are you doing, writing?' And when she nodded mutely, he added, 'May I see?'

Wordlessly she placed her papers into his outstretched hand. Then she watched his face as he read. For as he read, his face changed. The unwary bemusement he started out with changed quickly to wide-eyed shock. He shot a sharp glance at the gentle girl at his side. Then back to the reading. His face now became pale, so pale. He ran a shaky hand nervously through his hair as he went on reading, reading.

And then he finished. Handed back the pages. Sat for a bit in stunned silence.

'Stone?' Starr ventured at last. At just the same moment as he asked her, 'You wrote that?'

'Yes.'

'Where...' He swallowed. 'Uh... where did you get that?'

'That's what I dreamed last night. The Master told me to write it down.'

'Last night? Really?'

'Yes,' said she. 'Why?'

'Because last night, Starr-girl, I barely slept a wink.' He paused, then added, 'Do you know what you've written here?'

She shrugged. 'My dream...'

'That's more than just a dream, Starr. That's...' Again he broke off, then said, 'Do you remember asking me what part of the enemy's dungeon I came from? And how I very cleverly gave you a non-answer?'

'Yes...'

He tapped the pages in her hands. 'That is where I came from.'

'Oh!'

He gave an odd smile. 'And you dreamed it last night. At the same time that I was lying awake all night, agonizing on how much of my past to tell you about. And here, the dreams of your head last night told you all my past.' He chuckled. 'That's what I get for worrying on it.' He tapped the papers again. 'This is the Master's hand; you know that.'

Her eyes wide with awe, she nodded. 'Yes... And this is where you were?'

'Yes,' said Stone. And then his eyes became wary. 'What do you think about that?' he asked.

'I'm glad you're not there anymore,' said she. 'I'm glad the Master rescued you and brought you here to his house, where you are safe and whole.'

'But doesn't it bother you,' he pressed, 'the part of the dungeon that I came from? Some of the ugliest, nastiest pits in the whole dungeon?'

Starr looked at him, baffled. 'Should it bother me? All dungeon is dungeon. We all needed rescuing. We all needed the Master to come and set us free and make us whole. And it's all past now. We belong to the Master now. So what difference does the past make?'

Stone smiled and visibly relaxed. 'Oh, Starr, you'd be surprised. Yes, you would. But I'm glad you see things this way. Because that's why I was up all night debating with myself over what to tell you, and when.' He sighed. 'You see, it came to me that if this friendship between us continues, if we draw closer, if perhaps the friendship blossoms into something more - then I'll have to tell you about my past. So I decided I should tell you now, today, before another day could pass.

'And I was very nervous, you know. I had no idea the Master was preparing you to hear what I would say. All I knew was that, in telling you, I would risk losing your friendship.'

And then, very softly, he added, 'The way I lost Walker's.'

~~~~~~~


'Walker?' said Starr. 'Who is that?'

'Well, he was my best friend,' said Stone. 'I met him back when I first got here. And for quite a while there, we hung out together - we studied our sword-work together...' He smiled nostalgically. 'Man... I miss that. We were the best of friends, Walker and me. And we were making plans that, when it was time for us to go back to the enemy's dungeon, we would go together, as a team. Well, you know the Master often sends us out two by two. And Walker and I had in mind to be a team like that.'

Stone sighed and looked up through the tree limbs overhead. 'Well. That was the plan... Until this one day, when we got to talking about the past, and what we got rescued out of. And when I told Walker the part of the dungeon I used to be in... Man! I could see it in his eyes! It was like a door came up between us and was slammed in my face. And Walker leaned back away from me, like he was afraid of becoming contaminated just by being next to me.'

'Surely he didn't think that!' said Starr.

'Didn't he?' said Stone. 'Because the next thing he did was to tell me that no one who has ever been in the part of the dungeon I was rescued from, is ever completely free from it. And then he said that he couldn't possibly return to the dungeons with me along, because when we got back there, I would inevitably go back to what I was before - and I would betray him in the process.'

'No, you wouldn't!' Starr protested.

Stone smiled. 'Well, thank you for believing in me, Starr-girl. Not everyone does. Walker sure didn't. And... he still doesn't.'

'He doesn't?'

'Nope. You see, every so often I will spot him - maybe across the yard here, or perhaps across the dining room inside. And when I see him, I will watch him, to see what's going to happen when he spots me. And it's always the same.'

Stone held up his hand before them. 'This is what happens,' he said. 'This is what Walker's face does.' And Stone curled his fingers up tightly, making a fist. 'That's just what his face does - it closes, just like that. Like an angry fist. And then he turns and gets away from me as quickly as he can.'

He sighed again. 'You know, Starr, I wish - but I hate that word wish - I wish I'd never told him. But then, it wouldn't have been fair or honest to hide my past from him much longer. Anymore than,' and he took her hand into his, 'it would have been fair of me to continue to hide it from you.'

Starr felt a blush coming on. Her heart was full, but words she had none.

'And it's just like the Master,' Stone was saying, pointing at the sheaf of papers in her other hand, 'to prepare you ahead of time to hear what I was going to say. Which makes me wonder...'

'Yes?' said Starr.

'Oh, I wonder did I speak too soon, when I told Walker? Maybe I did; maybe I didn't. It seemed to me that the way the conversation was leading, was the Master's leading for me to say what I said. But maybe I was wrong...'

'He was not wrong,' said the Master. Suddenly he was there, standing just beyond Stone. 'One day Stone will see and know that he was following my leading. He follows me already far more than he realizes. And one day, he will see that too.'

'And now...?' said Starr.

'Now?' Stone replied, thinking her question was to him. 'Now - I don't know. I would like to have his friendship back. But I can't make the first move. Not yet. Not when he can't even abide to be in the same room with me.'

'Now,' said the Master, knowing the question was for him, 'fear nothing, but be at peace. I will work out all according to my own timing. As you know. Simply tell Stone this...'

And what he told her, she nodded and repeated in Stone's hearing. 'His friendship will be returned to you, Stone. In the Master's timing. He's good at that, you know.'

Stone looked away. And in doing so, he looked straight up at the Master. If only he would see him! thought Starr.

But plainly Stone did not. For he merely glanced back at her again and said, 'Yes, I know. It's just... this waiting for his timing - it can drive you right up the wall.'

And then he gave a sigh and a smile. 'Well... Guess I should go now. Catch you later, Starr-girl.' He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze as he was releasing her hand. 'I'm glad you're my friend,' he added seriously. 'I hope nothing ever changes that.'

'I hope the same thing,' said Starr.

And as the big man loped off towards the house, she glanced to the Master. And felt a sudden chill.

'Don't be afraid, Starr,' the Master said as he wrapped her in his arms. 'No matter what happens - do not be afraid.'

~~~~~~~


'You know what it is,' said Stone. It was some days later, and he and Starr were standing together, watching the beauty of the sunset. 'It's the way we used to treat the people who came to rescue us.'

'In the dungeon?' said she.

'Yes.' He ran his fingers through his dark-blond hair. 'You see... People would come to us; they would tell us about the Master; they would tell us we could be free. They would show us the key, right there in their hands. They would even,' and his hands moved, demonstrating, 'unlock the cell doors for us. Fling the doors open! Say to us: you see? You are free!'

He turned and looked at her. 'And you know what we would do, Starr-girl?' He leaned close, his hands again demonstrating. 'We would grab the cell doors, and we would slam them shut again. Locking ourselves back in. We would do that!'

'But you walked out...' said Starr.

'Yes... yes, I did. And I got the usual treatment for it, too.'

'Usual treatment?'

'Yeah. First the others called out to me: No! Come back! Don't do this!' He looked very uncomfortable as he again ran his fingers through his hair, . 'And then when I didn't turn and come back - that's when they started screaming at me. Ugly, ugly things, Starr. I don't want to tell you what they screamed at me, for going through that open door and leaving the dungeon behind.'

'What?' she asked. 'Curses?'

'Ohhhhhh, yeah. But I knew that was coming. That's what always happened, when one of us left. That's what we did to the ones who came to help us, too. We would curse at them. They were coming to set us free, and we would curse at them. And throw accusations at them too. You know. Things like: we like what we are! If you don't like what we are - then you hate us!'

He gave an awkward laugh. 'But you know what? At the same time, we would be yelling: we didn't choose this; it's not our fault. We're trapped! You're blaming us when we are trapped - you hate us!'

She glanced up at him sharply. 'But...'

'Ah - you're seeing it, aren't you, Starr? We were trying to have it both ways,' said he. 'On the one hand - proud. And yet on the other hand - victims. But always, always - that accusation of hate.'

And he fell silent. They stood for a long time in that silence, as the brilliance of the sunset began to fade off into twilight.

His hand sought hers, and held it tightly.

And then he added - softly, so softly, 'Sometimes... the one who came to rescue us, the one with the key in his hand... sometimes it was someone who used to be in the same dungeon with us, who used to be one of us. And oh! that would make us livid! Traitor, we would scream at him. Traitor, hater...'

He shivered, and she longed to be free to wrap her arms around him - not that the shivering had anything to do with the temperature, of course.

'You see what the problem is, Starr?' he asked at last. 'The problem is, that when I go back - that's going to be me. I'm going to be the one standing there with the key in my hand. And getting screamed at. And spit on. And hated. And accused...'

He sighed, and glanced at her at his side. 'And if you go along with me, Starr - it will be you as well.'

'Oh!' She hadn't thought of that. She thought of it now, thinking while the rim of the sun slowly disappeared below the distant rim of the earth.

'I know this, Stone,' she replied at last. 'I know the Master tells me often: do not be afraid.'

He turned to look at her under the pale starlight. 'Has it ever occurred to you, Starr, that if someone tells you not to be afraid - it's because there's a mighty big something out there for you to be afraid of?'

~~~~~~~


'Ready?'

Josh the sword master, the Master himself, stood between the pair of them, one hand on Starr's shoulder, the other on Stone's. Another training session was about to begin.

As they stood facing each other, hands at the ready on the hilts of their swords, Starr was struck by a curious thing - and this was not the first time she had noticed it. It was strange, but... even though she knew the Master stood a head taller than herself, and that Stone also was a head taller than herself - somehow, somehow, the Master was also a head taller than Stone...

But push all other thoughts aside now, she told herself. Time to attend to the lesson, to the practice.

'I'm ready,' said Stone.

'Yes,' Starr replied. 'I am as well.'

'Then begin, children,' said Josh. He tapped both on the shoulders and stepped back as they drew swords and entered into the dance.

There was no other word for it but dance, the way they moved together. They had come to move very well together by now from all the sparring sessions they had shared. Stone and Starr had been learning each other strengths and weaknesses and habits. And learning to work together, strengthening one another. The more they worked together like this, the more they were coming to see how very much alike they were. How well suited they were to each other.

There was a beauty in this that came close to breaking Starr's heart. Oh, if only...! If only Stone knew all that was in her heart towards him!

She watched his eyes as he searched for an opening, a bit of a smile on his face. 'You know, Starr-girl,' he said, 'I really enjoy this.'

'Practicing with swords?'

'Practicing with you.' The blades clashed, and they switched positions. 'I could do this the rest of my life,' he added.

Her heart skipped a beat, wondering what exactly he meant by that. Again, she had to push away all other thoughts, concentrate on the practice. After all, these were live swords!

Parry and thrust. Feint and lunge. Disengage. Riposte...

'So,' Stone said suddenly. 'Has the Master been saying anything to you? About me?'

Starr's sword hand faltered a bit, and Stone immediately responded, 'Press in! Don't give me any advantage!'

She obeyed, though her mouth had gone totally dry. 'I...' she said. And then her mind went blank.

'Because the funny part is,' said Stone, 'from the way you've been acting, and the things you've said - sometimes I get the impression that he's said yes to you about me - and sometimes I get the impression he's said no.'

'What?' she cried. And again her defenses faltered, and again he encouraged her to press in, press in.

When she had recovered herself a bit, she asked, 'I've been giving you the impression of both yes and no? How did I do that?'

But he only smiled. And continued the practice.

Lunge. Riposte. Feint...

'He has told you,' he said. Again, suddenly.

'Well...'

'And I asked you to tell me if he had said no...'

Her heart skipped a beat again. Oh! Oh, no! She had given it away, when she told him a few days back that the answer was not no!

So how had she given the impression of the opposite, though?

'Starr...' he said. 'I want to tell you something. I...' He paused, grinned. 'Well, I guess I already did tell you, when I said I could do this the rest of my life. Starr, I... Well... I choose to love you. And I've fallen in love with you. And the choosing comes after the falling...'

'Stone!' she cried. And she dropped all her defenses.

'No! Keep your sword up, girl!' Stone said.

She obeyed, her heart thudding so loudly in her own ears, she was sure he could hear it as well.

'Never let your guard down, Starr, no matter what. All right?' said Stone.

She nodded. 'I'm sorry.'

'You know I won't hurt you, Starr-girl. At least, not on purpose. But the idea of sword practice is to be ready for the enemy's attacks. And he won't ignore a break in your defense. Right?'

Yes. He was right. He surely was.

'And...' he added, 'now that... now that I love you, I have all the more reason to want you safe and protected. So never drop your guard, Starr. Never.'

'Yes, Stone. Stone... I love you too.'

He smiled a smile that came up right from his toes and spread all the way up to the roots of his hair. 'I'm glad to know that, Starr-girl. My girl.'

'Time.'

They both turned to look at Josh the sword master. He nodded at them. 'Well practiced, children,' he said. 'You are dismissed now.' And he turned to work with some other students who had gathered.

'Starr...' Stone sheathed his sword and stepped closer, his hand reaching out to touch her cheek. He smiled down on her as his thumb traced the curve of her jawline, ending up under her chin. Was he about to tilt up her face, to kiss her? she wondered. And, yes, she hoped...

'It would be sweet to kiss you, Starr honey,' he said. 'But you know what? I think even better would be to hold off on that, and to kiss you for the very first time when we get pronounced man and wife.' And he grinned, his eyes sparkling.

She sparkled back.

'Catch you later, Starr-girl,' he said. He caught her hand briefly, squeezed her fingers tenderly. And then he was off, loping towards the house.

Wow...! A sigh shuddered through her, starting at her heart.

'He is right,' said a voice behind her. Josh. The Master. He took her into his arms. 'Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life,' said he.

'Keep?' she asked.

'In the sense of guard. You must carefully guard your heart, dear Starr. Now,' he added, 'I am not saying to close your heart against Stone, for towards him your heart must ever be fully widely open. Even as your heart must be ever fully open to me, my love. But in keeping your heart open to Stone and to myself - you must guard against the enemy using that openness to hurt you. And to hurt Stone. And ultimately, to hurt me.'

Softly, tenderly, the Master kissed her on the forehead. 'That is why the enemy hates you so, you know. Because he hates me, and wants to hurt the ones I love in order to hurt me. You understand?'

Yes, she nodded. That, at least, she understood.

'Little girl,' the Master smiled over her. 'I treasure you. And now...'

'Now?'

'Now...' he sighed, 'the enemy will seek to use both you and Stone to hurt each other, in order to hurt me. So keep on guard against that. Heart open, sword in hand. Yes?'

'Yes, sir,' she replied.

'Good, my girl.' He too gently caressed her cheek - but he kissed her.

It was only as the Master released her from his embrace and walked back to where the other students were busy practicing with their swords that Starr realized something.

Her sword was in fact still in her hand. She had completely forgotten to sheathe it.

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