Wednesday, December 28, 2005
the child, part 2, chapter 1 - 'into the valley'
***another reposting into longer chapters, this time from part 2 - well, some rewriting too***
They didn't travel very far that day. To begin with, they had had a late start. They also weren't any of them used to being on the march all day - the focus of their training had been swords, not long-distance walking. And so they took frequent breaks to rest. They also, not knowing any better yet, took longer breaks than they really needed before getting back on the march.
On top of all that, the distance across to the entrance of the dark valley had looked deceptively close when they started out. But it turned out to take all day; the sun was nearly setting by the time they finally reached that dark passage.
'Let's stop here for the night,' said someone.
'Who was that?' Stone whispered to Starr. 'Jack or James?'
'Jack - I think,' she whispered back. Over the course of the day, they had been learning their companions' names. James and Jack were Lucy's two friends; they were brothers. 'James is the more serious one, and Jack's the one who makes the jokes. I think?'
'That sounds right,' Stone replied. 'Question is, when he said that, was he serious or joking?'
'Come on,' Forest was saying. 'We can make another mile maybe before we absolutely have to stop for the night.'
'But if we go in there now, at nearly nightfall,' said the other of Lucy's friends, 'with it being so dark in there - well, that just doesn't seem to be very wise to me. We might get into a situation in the dark that would be better faced in morning light.'
Stone and Starr looked to each other. 'James,' they whispered in unison.
'Well, if we're supposing what might happen, we might also come across a situation that waiting till morning would only make worse. Someone drowning in a lake, for instance,' Forest countered.
'We can suppose all night,' Lucy put in. 'Let's just go ahead and make camp now.' And the other two women - thin pale Linda and the young girl Joy - agreed.
Forest scowled. 'And the rest of you?' he challenged. 'What do you say? Malachi. What about you?'
Malachi, one of the three men Starr suspected were angels, spread his hands. 'We are here to journey with the rest of you. We will go or stay, as the company decides.'
Still scowling, Forest turned towards Stone. 'Well? What about you?' he growled.
'Me? I don't much care one way or the other either. Whatever the group decides is fine with me. But look. We have five already who strongly want to camp here. Those three are undecided. I'm undecided too. There's only one of us who strongly wants to move on, and that's you, Forest. Just looking at the numbers, I'd say you've got your work cut out for you if you hope to convince most of us to move on tonight.'
'Majority rule, is that it? But what if the majority is wrong?' Forest's eyes were lit with fire now, his chin set stubbornly.
'Unity,' Lucy returned sharply. 'Josh said to stay in unity. Right?'
'When he said unity, I don't think this is what he had in mind. Uniting together in cowardice like this!'
'Cowardice?' That was James, his voice soft and dangerous. 'Better watch your mouth, little boy,' he warned. 'You're getting in over your head.'
'I said cowardice and I meant cowardice. Cowering back, just because it's a little dark in there!' He snorted. 'If you're afraid of a little dark now, what will you do when you reach the dungeons? Huh? I mean, don't you get it? We're supposed to be carrying light to them! We're going to rescue people! The longer we take on the journey, the more people might be lost in the meantime.'
'Pressing on in the dark into some place that might be dangerous, when we are all tired and hungry - that's foolishness. We should rest now and eat, and tackle the next part of the journey fresh in the morning.' That was James again, and Jack and the three women nodded in agreement.
'You're saying I'm foolish now?' Forest glared.
'I'm saying... oh, stop this, Forest. Be reasonable.'
'And now I'm not reasonable!'
'At the moment, no! Now we,' and James shed his pack, dropping it on the ground, 'are staying here. Get into unity and stop dividing the group. We've already decided, and we're staying here!'
'So you five are the majority now?'
'We five know what we want to do. The other five don't mind. You're the only one being stubborn about this.' While behind James' back, Lucy, with her arms folded and her face dark with anger, muttered the word 'pig-headed.'
Forest caught that and scowled back. 'Yeah - call me names! That'll help. While your so-called 'majority' makes the stupid rules for everyone. You know, majority-rules is a pretty stupid system, if you ask me. You never know when the majority is going to act like a bunch of idiots!'
'No one asked you!' Lucy was saying, while Jack snapped, 'Oh, now we're idiots, eh? You think you're so big, Forest, because you fought a demon today. But nobody put you in charge of this group. So just back down and stop spouting off your mouth!'
The argument continued, Forest alone against Jack and James, with Lucy putting in an occasional acerbic comment against the boy as well. Stone and Starr looked helplessly at each other as the nasty comments grew worse and worse.
She clutched at his arm suddenly. 'Oh, Stone! Do something! This is terrible!'
He looked at her. 'Starr?' he said, surprised at how pale she had gone. 'Something happened?'
'Is happening... Please... They must stop!'
Rubbing at the back of his neck, Stone turned and said the first thing that came into his head: 'Uh, Forest. You remember how I said you had your work cut out for you to convince the others to agree with you? Well, if this is the plan to win them to your side - I don't think it's going to work too well.'
'Oh, and are you against me too, Stone?' the boy asked heatedly. 'Am I supposed to just shut my mouth and say nothing because the majority doesn't like it?'
'I'm not against you. But I can see how you could disagree without being so disagreeable. You can state your point of view without throwing in insults.'
'Hmph!' The boy turned on his heel and stalked away, climbing the slight incline that led into the dark valley itself.
'And the same goes for all of us,' Stone added, turning to the rest. 'There's no call to be insulting anyone. Even if they start with the insults first.'
'No one made you leader of this group either, Stone,' James spat, glowering.
'No, that's true. No one was made leader of this group at all. I think that's something else that time and the journey itself will show all of us - who the natural leader of this group is. But in the meantime, let's try not to act like a pack of wolves or some such.'
He was about to say more, but Starr had so plainly started just now that he turned and looked at her. 'Starr? You all right?'
'What you just said...' Her eyes were wide, and her face even paler than a few minutes before.
'What, Starr? Tell me.'
'Yes, tell all of us,' someone else said.
'It's just...' She looked round at all of them, then turned her focus to Stone. 'While the arguing was going on, I, I saw...' She paused, swallowed. 'I saw a pack of ravening wolves. They were snarling at each other, fighting among themselves. Until one of them got bloodied. And then the others turned on him viciously, biting him, ripping him. And he fought back the same way, biting, tearing. Till he had enough and slunk off by himself to lick his wounds.'
Eyes were dropping all around her, and shame began to color some faces. 'Anything more?' Stone asked quietly.
She nodded. 'In the midst of it all, I heard a sound behind me. So I looked. Over there, across all that ground we crossed today, I could see Jessie standing at the foot of the Mountain of Spices, watching us. And the sound I heard?'
She gave a great sigh. 'It was laughter. She was laughing at us.'
Quietly, Jack looked over at James and muttered, 'Yeah - and we deserve it.'
James swallowed hard on the pride stuck in his craw. Stooping, he took up his pack and shouldered it. 'Come on,' he said. And he started up the slight incline that led into the dark valley.
'Come on where?' said Lucy. 'I thought we were camping here.'
'Not till I - we - apologize to Forest first. Come on!'
Slowly, Jack chose to follow him, then the other women trailed along as well. Lucy looked around at the others, then followed James also. The three men waited till Stone and Starr moved out, then brought up the rear.
Starr was leaning heavily on Stone's arm. 'Tired?' he asked.
She nodded. The vision, curiously, had sapped her strength.
'Tell me,' Stone added as they neared the top of the incline into the valley beyond. 'The pack of wolves. Was... Was I... one of the wolves...?'
She looked up into his face, read the uncertainty there. 'Why would you be one of the wolves? You weren't ripping up anyone.'
He sighed, gave a slight smile. 'Thanks. I really wasn't sure. I'm never sure if I should speak up. I'm never sure if I'm being a peace-maker, or making matters worse.'
'You weren't making things worse, dear,' said she.
He smiled deeply then, and chuckled.
'What?' she asked.
'Oh, I just like that. You called me dear.' And his arm around her snugged her just a bit closer.
They topped the incline. The others had stopped here, just over the top, and so they had to stop as well. Malachi and his two companions came up and halted behind them also. And they all stared into the deep valley opening up before them. Such a bleak place it was! Had any of them ever before seen such a place of, of hopelessness?
'This is the way?' said someone. Which was simply voicing what most of them were already thinking.
The path ahead of them ran down the incline, down in to the valley, winding round great dismal grey boulders and stunted, twisted, dead-looking trees. A pall seemed to lie over the whole area between the two mountains; a chill deadened the air. The little company could see only a short distance ahead of them into the valley, for the path soon made a bend to the right and disappeared.
Heads turned as they looked at each other, seeing - most of them - their own dismay mirrored on their neighbors' faces. Only Malachi and his two companions seemed undisturbed by the disheartening look of this valley.
James hitched his pack a bit higher on his shoulders. 'Well,' he said, 'come on. Let's go find Forest.'
He led out and the rest slowly followed, down, down into the valley. They passed by the boulders and reached the corner where the way bent to the right. And then they went on around that corner.
Oh, it was not a pleasant way. There were thorns to tear at their clothing and skin, and rough ground - even holes in the ground - to cause them to trip or stumble. It was exhausting, trying to make any headway that evening.
And then it got worse.
Oh yes, it did. For the sun set. The last rays of its light were abruptly cut off by the high shoulders of the mountain to their right. Sudden dark took hold of the valley, so that when they turned, as they had a few minutes earlier, to look at each other with dismayed faces - they now could no longer see each other in return.
'What do we do now?' said a quavering female voice. That was Linda, both Stone and Starr guessed.
'I think we should go back.'
Was that Jack?
'Back!' cried a voice that must certainly have been James. 'Are you crazy? You want to go back?'
'Well, I don't mean back back - as in all the way back to the Mountain of Spices. I just mean back a little ways, far enough that we don't have to spend the night here in this awful valley.'
'It's not a bit better over there than it is here,' James argued back.
'Not saying it is. It just - feels better back there than here.'
A snort. 'Maybe Forest was right about us.'
'Meaning?' There was a dangerous edge to that word.
'Oh please!' A younger, lighter female voice spoke up now - Joy, likely. 'Are we going to do this again? Is Starr going to be seeing more wolves?'
That brought an immediate silence. And in the silence, Starr began to realize that it wasn't quite as completely dark as she had thought at first. Her eyes were adjusting to the lack of light. And so were everyone else's.
James sighed. 'Look - I'm sorry. Stone is right: there is a way to disagree and not be disagreeable doing it. Jack. I shouldn't have said the word crazy. And I shouldn't have implied that you were being a, well...' Slowly, he brought forth the word, '...coward. What I meant by what I said - what I should have said instead of what I said - is that there's not that much difference in being here from being back there beyond the ridge. Also, that it's a bit dark to go trying to make a move now anyway. Let's just sit down where we are and camp here. If that's agreeable to everyone?'
Jack held out his hand. 'Yeah, I'm sorry too, James. No hard feelings, buddy?'
James reached out his own hand and gripped Jack's. 'None, buddy. None at all.'
'Good,' Jack replied as he dumped off his pack. 'Not like we haven't called each other much worse things than that, back when we were kids...'
'Don't remind me,' said James. And then, as they all began to lay down their packs, James added, 'Besides, we came into the valley to find Forest and apologize to him. We haven't done that yet.'
'Yes,' Joy put in. 'Where is Forest, anyway?'
It was a very good question, and one that none of them seemed to have the answer for. Peering about in the dark for him would do no good. They were just going to have to wait for morning light to look for him now.
'I sure hope he's safe,' Stone whispered to Starr as they laid down their packs.
'Me too,' she agreed. And wondered - without saying anything aloud to anyone, not even to Stone - if it was possible...
...that Forest perhaps did not want to be found.
They made camp quickly. It was too dark to gather firewood, so they made a short cold supper of some of the rations from their packs. Then, after a brief discussion (and a cordial one), they decided not to try to set up their tents in the dark, but to simply have the four women sleep in a group together, with the six remaining men making a circle around them for safety's sake.
And soon they were all asleep.
All? Or not? For as Starr drifted off, she opened her eyes more than once to see if in fact Malachi and his companions would sleep. They did lie down like the rest. But if they slept, she did not discover. For she fell asleep herself first before she could find out.
Dreams she had none. Morning light awakened her. As did a sound.
She stirred, sat up. Rubbed at her eyes. And heard the sound again. A rattling sound, like... pebbles? One pebble, falling among others?
She looked. Yes, there! Even now, a little rock came bouncing into the camp, making that slight sound once again. And then a handful of pebbles, making a bigger sound.
And then, a voice.
'Man! It's a good thing no one wanted to attack you lot in the dark! Didn't you even think to set a guard?'
Starr gasped and turned towards the voice. The rest of the company awoke as well. It was Joy who said it first.
A clamor then, as they all hopped up and mobbed the boy. Questions, so many questions! Where he had been, how he had fared during the night, how he had found them. And whether he would, uh, forgive them...
He scowled. 'Forgive, huh? Those were some pretty nasty things you said. But,' and he grimaced, 'I guess I'd be a skunk, wouldn't I, if I didn't forgive. So, yeah - I forgive you all. James, Jack, Lucy.' And he shook their hands, each of them. 'Stone...'
'You were, uh, right. And I was wrong. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to you all.'
And solemnly, they forgave him as well.
'How I fared last night... I climbed a tree and slept like a squirrel. No problems.'
'Really?' said Joy. 'Weren't you afraid you'd fall out?'
Forest gave a lopsided grin. 'I'm never afraid,' he said. Then, glancing at Starr, who had seen him the day before when he had been hard-pressed by that demon, he amended it to, 'Well. Hardly ever. Now. That other question, about how I found you.' He shook his head. 'A five-year-old child could have found you lot in the dark. You snored like a herd of elephants!' That brought a round of denials, before the boy added, 'Besides - there was a full moon. No one noticed that? It got so bright about midnight once the moon came up over the mountain, that it woke me right up. So I used the light of it to backtrack up the valley. And here you were, right in the middle of the road. Who wouldn't have been able to find you, eh?'
Sheepish glances back and forth.
'But I say it again: didn't any of you think to set a guard during the night? Two-hour shifts, one awake watching while the others sleep, then get the next one up? No one thought of that?'
'Um - no...' said Jack slowly.
Forest shook his head. 'Pitiful,' he said. 'Josh warned us the enemy knows we're coming. Don't you suppose he might try an attack in the dark of night?'
Lucy started to object to the word pitiful, then thought better of it. Really, the boy was right. Their actions the night before had been pitiful, and in more ways than one.
'Well,' said James, 'daylight is wasting. We should go.'
'Yes, you're right there,' said Forest. And James resisted mightily the urge to ask the lad sharply if that was meant to imply that James was usually not right. Let it go, the man told himself. Give the boy the benefit of the doubt.
They made a sketchy breakfast, then started out. After about an hour's walk, Forest pointed to a tree partway up the leftward slope. 'There,' he said. 'That's where I spent the night. And just a bit farther up here...' he added, leading the way off the path.
He led them to a spring of fresh water, where they were all glad to drink and wash up a bit. Then they refilled their water bottles and so were soon on their way again.
The terrain this morning was no better than it had been the night before, the only improvement being that they could see it better in the daylight. And even that was not a great improvement, for the high mountains to either side blocked direct sunlight for most of the day, keeping the valley for the most part in a state of perpetual gloom.
Gloom. It was like a living beast, stalking them. Like a poison, trying to seep into their bones. It tried continually to worm its way into their hearts, from whence to spring forth out of their mouths, and so infect the next person.
The Master had warned them not to let melancholy attach to them. It was a subtle and constant danger, here in this valley. And one they often forgot to be on their guard against.
Only Malachi and his companions seemed unaffected by the gloom. They generally brought up the rear of the little group, their swords loosened in their sheaths, ready to be drawn on an instant at the first whiff of danger. Starr had finally learned that one of the companions, the shortest of the three, was named Maccabees. And the third - she wasn't quite sure, but she thought she heard his name as Morgan.
And while those three regularly brought up the rear of the band, Forest and James generally took the lead. Stone liked to walk behind the rest, just before the three companions, where he could keep an eye on the rest of the group. And Starr was at his side.
She was not yet aware of it, but she was now entering her own personal dark valley. One that would test to the fullest her promise, made so long before in the sunshine on the Mountain of Spices, to ever trust the Master, no matter what.
And it wasn't as if the Master had not warned her of what was coming. For he had warned her, and that with tears. But in the light of Stone's smiles, and in the comfort of his loving arm about her - she had quite forgotten the warnings.
She was about to be painfully reminded.
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