Thursday, June 30, 2005
the child, seventy-six
Joy triumphantly helped fix supper that night, and many nights afterwards, Her days she mostly spent with Forest. He was convalescing grumpily, annoyed that his broken leg kept him totally immobile. The others could - and did - escape the hot camp daily: Lucy and Linda to find more wild geranium, Jack and James to scout the perimeter for any signs of more wolves (or worse).
And Stone and Starr spent their days strolling, holding hands, quietly talking, contentedly smiling. They had not yet announced their betrothal to the rest - but it wasn't hard to guess that something had changed deeply between them. Anyone with two eyes and a three-second attention span could tell that!
While Forest was stuck in the tent. And Joy sacrificed her own comfort to attend to him. Of all the group, she knew what it was to be in a hot tent all day with no way to leave - so she stayed with him.
Slowly, two weeks passed. And at breakfast the morning of the fifteenth day, it became very clear that Forest had been counting every one of those days.
The company had gotten into the habit of taking their meals right outside the men's tent, so that Forest could join in the conversations. Stone had found yet another sturdy stick to use to prop the tent flap open.
And on that fifteenth morning, once they all had gathered to eat breakfast, and Jack had prayed the Master's blessing over their food, Forest's voice rang out of the tent.
'What?' frowned Lucy.
'The two weeks are up now, James,' Forest went on. 'So now we move on. Right?'
James paused with a forkful of food halfway to his mouth. 'Well, that depends on your leg, you know. If you can get up and walk out here - then, yes, we'll pack up and move on.'
To Stone's surprise, Starr suddenly dropped her own fork to her plate and reached over to grab his hand. 'What is it?' he whispered. She shook her head, her lips moving silently, her face pale.
Praying. She was praying. But why?
Inside the tent, grinning with anticipation, Forest rocked first to his right, then hard to his left, gaining momentum to roll over onto his stomach. It was something like the way a door moves on its hinge, with his injured leg for the hinge pin.
And once he was on his stomach, he gathered his two hands and one good knee under him, to push his way upright.
There! Oh, he'd been living for this day!
Swinging his splinted leg forward, the boy prepared to shift his weight. It wouldn't feel good, he knew, to put his weight on the leg that had snapped two weeks before. But it would only be for less than a second, and then he would be on his good leg again. And he was tough! He could handle it.
The first step on the way again to the dungeons! thought Forest.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Monday, June 27, 2005
the child, seventy-five
'I don't know why this is so hard,' Linda was saying. She and Starr were making some lunch for the camp, while Stone and Jack sat nearby, occasionally lending a hand. Usually, it would have been Starr in the women's tent right now, assisting Malachi to tend to Joy's wounds - but Lucy had insisted on taking over Starr's job this time. After all, she had found the wild 'german' plant; she should be the one to help Malachi prepare and apply it.
'What is so hard, Linda?' Starr asked.
Linda sighed and nodded towards their tent. 'Being nice to her.'
Starr nodded in reply. 'I had noticed you've been trying.'
A slow tear melted down Linda's cheek. 'Why isn't it working?'
'Well, it worked for James and Forest! Once James started being nice to Forest, Forest started being nice right back. They're friends now. So how come that doesn't work for me? I'm being nice; Lucy just gets nastier.' She glanced at the others. 'Is she always like this? She didn't use to be like this, did she?'
'Not that I recall,' put in Jack. 'She was pretty nice back at the Master's house. Well, yeah - a bit bossy. But not like this.' He looked at Starr. 'But you knew before that, didn't you?'
Starr didn't answer at first. 'She doesn't remember,' Stone said quietly, when Starr just stood for a long time, looking at her own feet. 'There are many things that Starr doesn't remember. Her life before the Master's house is one of them.'
'Really? But Lucy told us that she and Starr had been best friends before...'
'Yes, but...' Stone started to reply. When Starr spoke up.
Starr looked up at them all. 'I remember. I had this blanket, and Lucy - Carol - she was Carol back then - wanted it. It was a silly thing; it was just a blanket. But it happened to be blue, and no one else on our level had a blue one. She wanted it.' A long pause. 'She wore me down about it. Wouldn't stop pestering me about it. If I was really her friend, I wouldn't be so selfish. I'd want her to be happy. I wouldn't be so cruel...' She shrugged. 'I finally gave it to her. I was so tired of hearing about it...'
Starr did a bit more work on the lunch. And then she said, very softly, 'Two days later, she wanted my bowl...'
The tent door behind them boiled open, as Lucy swept out. 'Water,' she said briskly. 'Hand over your canteen, Jack.'
He blinked at her. And took off the canteen and passed it over.
To their surprise - for they all assumed she was asking for water to use for Joy's wounds - Lucy upended the canteen and drank deeply, then splashed the water over her head and hair. 'What a horrid hot place!' she complained. 'You'd think James could have at least had the sense to pick a shady place to camp for days on end!'
'Oh, yeah. That is so true,' Jack replied breezily. 'But then, Joy and Forest were so inconsiderate in not picking a more idyllic spot... to fall off a cliff!'
Lucy's eyes narrowed at the sarcasm. 'Well,' she said at length, tossing back the canteen, 'I have work to do.' And she turned and strode back to the tent.
Another tear slid down Linda's cheek. 'She is so mean!' she whispered.
'Do you love her?'
She glanced up, startled. 'What?'
'Do you love her?' It was Stone asking. He leaned forwards, something intense in his eyes. 'Why is it you want her friendship? Because you love her? or because you just don't want to be treated badly anymore?'
'I... I never thought about it.' Her face twitched. 'So I... won't be treated badly anymore, I guess. Why?'
Stone studied his own two hands for a bit. 'What do you think,' he said at last. 'Is that the best reason you could have?'
'Well - since you already asked do I love her, and I couldn't give you the answer, yes - well, I guess it's not the best reason I could have.' She thought for a bit. 'Are you saying that there's some sort of love between James and Forest?'
'When Forest fell off the cliff,' Stone replied, 'James changed. He even called the boy buddy. Yes, there's a friendship there between them now - a brotherhood. When James started treating the boy as his friend, his brother - Forest responded with the same. But that's because there was already a foundation there. In the midst of the rivalry, there was a, well, a respect of sorts, I guess you would call it.' He looked up at Linda. 'Is there already a foundation like that between you and Lucy?'
Linda shook her head. 'No.'
'Then that's where to begin,' said Stone. 'You think?'
Linda thought. And then her head came up, and she turned to Starr, realization dawning in her eyes. 'Love! That's right. It keeps coming back to this. You - all that time ago - you said that we needed to start loving each other, to start acting like we are all parts of the same body together. And I brushed you off.'
A bit more thought, and Linda added, 'But it goes back even further. That first night, when we argued, and Starr saw the vision of wolves...' Stone's head snapped up then. Wolves! He had forgotten about that. 'Even back then. We were warned back then. No arguing. Treat each other right, with respect. We lost track of that.' She turned to Starr and said, 'No wonder you heard Jessie laughing. She's probably been enjoying every bit of this.'
And then Linda smiled. 'But not anymore. With the Master's help, which I pray for right now,' and she nodded, 'I want to learn to love. Like the Master loves. I want him to awaken my heart to love Lucy the way he loves her.'
'Amen,' said one of them. And, 'Amen,' said they all.
Linda sighed, and then smiled. 'Well. Let's get this lunch finished, eh?'
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Friday, June 24, 2005
the child, seventy-four
Joy in particular looked nervous, clenching and reclenching her fingers round the hilt of her weapon. Starr moved to shield the wounded girl, placing her own body between Joy and the thrashing underbrush.
The noise was getting louder and nearer. If he had thought Joy was capable of running, Stone would have ordered the two women to bolt for the camp. As it was, he knew her best effort at running this day would not outpace anything like the wolves he had faced lately. And so he too moved to shield Joy with his own body. And to shield Starr as well.
With a loud crash, the underbrush parted. And into the clearing by the pond there came...
Lucy. With Linda close on her heels.
And the two were arguing. So intent on their own disagreement were they, that at first they didn't even notice the three already standing by the pool. And they didn't notice the drawn swords at all.
With sighs of relief, the three sheathed their swords. And Joy called out to them, 'Oh, what is it now?'
Startled, Lucy looked around at the three of them. 'What are you doing here?' she scowled.
'Getting out of the hot tent,' said Joy.
Glancing about, Lucy then fixed her eyes on Starr. And her scowl deepened. 'With her?' she hissed, as if 'her' was a filthy word.
'Yes,' said Joy evenly.
'Hmph. Well, we,' and she nodded towards the long-suffering Linda accompanying her, 'finally found that wild german flower...'
'Wild geranium,' Linda mouthed silently.
'...and we're taking it back to Malachi. For you, of course! So come along now, Joy. This is going to make you feel better.'
Linda came and helped Joy to put her shoes back on again, and then wrapped her arm round the girl to support Joy for the short trip back to camp.
Lucy waited impatiently. And then, with a brief sniffing glance back at Starr, the woman led the others away, leaving Starr and Stone still standing by the pond.
'Well!' said Stone with a chuckle. 'Alone at last.'
Starr just stood there, tears brimming in her eyes.
'That was a bit a joke, dearie. To cheer you up,' said he.
Slowly, she turned to look at him. 'I'm sorry,' she whispered.
'Starr,' he said gently. 'I know it hurts. She was your close friend, and from a long time back.'
'I barely remember our friendship before. I know that hurt her. But now...'
His arms went around her. 'Don't worry about it, honey,' he said.
Worry. She smiled, like a hiccup. 'I'm trying not to worry,' she answered.
'That's my good girl,' said Stone. 'You don't have to worry, and you don't have to defend yourself. The truth always comes out, sooner or later. She has no reason to be hateful. And you know,' he added, 'the fact that the Master had Josh include her in this company, shows that there is something in her that will overcome all her hatefulness, and fill her with love instead.' He tilted Starr's sad little face up so she could see his smile. 'And hopefully soon,' he added with a wink.
When he looked at her that way, she couldn't help but smile back. 'Thank you,' she whispered, even as twin tears slipped down her cheeks.
Stone gently took her hand in his. 'Actually, Starr-girl,' he said, 'I wasn't kidding about us being alone at last. There's... something I want to talk to you about. Or, well, to ask you.'
And, to her surprise, he suddenly took a step back from her and dropped to one knee. Catching both of her hands now in both of his, he said, 'Starr - my darling - my love...'
'Stone?' she squeaked in awe. What was he doing?
'Will you,' and his face broke into the most beautiful smile ever, 'marry me?'
How wide her eyes flew! And how she both blushed and blanched in nearly the same moment! 'Stone?' she said again.
'I mean it,' he said earnestly. 'No more confusion. No more hesitation. I love you. I'm sure now.' And when she still could reply with nothing other than, 'Stone?' he added, 'You don't have give me the answer now. Think about it. Pray about it. I can...'
The most extraordinary sound welled up out of her then, a sound like pure and undiluted joy! And then she flung herself into his arms - nearly overbalancing him, since he was still on one knee. 'Yes!' she laughed, squeezing him as hard as her little arms could squeeze. 'Oh, yes, Stone! I don't need to think, or pray - I already did, and have, and - oh, Stone!'
He squeezed her back, but more gently, knowing his arms were a lot stronger than hers. 'All right - so, that's a yes...' said he.
'Yes,' she said, more quietly now. She looked into his face, her eyes sparkling, lively, joyous. 'Thank you, dear Master,' she added.
'Amen,' said Stone. He stood back to his feet now, looping his arm round her shoulders. 'I was figuring,' he said, 'that once we return home to the Master's house, after we go to the dungeons - we'll get married then. Is that all right?'
'Whatever you want is fine,' she responded. 'Mmm - Stone, I love you.'
'Starr,' he whispered, drawing her so close, so close. 'I love you too.'
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
the child, seventy-three
Starr woke the next morning to a stunning sight: Joy, standing up!
It took a second for it to register in Starr's brain that there was something astonishing going on - and then she jumped to her own feet and sprang to the girl's side. 'Joy?' she cried. 'Are you sure you want to be up?'
'Did Malachi say I wasn't supposed to get up?' Joy responded.
'Well... Not that I recall.'
'Then I'd like to get up today. It's boring, just lying here all the time. Not to mention, nasty hot!'
Hot it was; no doubt about that. It was much nicer to go over to the nearby woods under the shade. And when they asked him, Malachi agreed that, yes, the exercise would be good for her. So once he and Starr were done tending to Joy's wounds that morning, Starr offered to take the girl into the woods to sit by the stream.
It was slow going for Joy, after spending most of the past two days lying down. Her muscles and bruises complained to her loudly as she carefully stretched them out. She and Starr had barely covered half the ground between their tent and the bend in the small valley that led to the woods, when a voice called out to them.
'Where are you ladies going?'
They turned - which was far easier for Starr to do than it was for Joy - to see a tall figure loping their way.
And Starr broke out in a lovely smile. Stone!
He caught up with them easily and slipped an arm around the injured girl's other side. 'Where to, ladies?' he asked again.
'Into the woods. Into the shade,' Starr replied.
'Sounds good to me. Nice to see you up and about, Joy. How do you feel today?'
'Sore from head to toe,' she replied. 'But glad to be able to get up and about. Poor Forest, though!'
'Poor Morgen, you mean,' Stone answered. 'He came in to check on Forest's leg this morning - and now he's having to all but sit on the kid to keep him from hobbling off for the dungeons already!'
Starr nodded. 'Sounds like Forest!'
'I feel so bad about that,' added Joy. 'He was trying to help me when he fell...'
'Come on, Joy,' Stone interrupted. 'Like you set out to fall off a cliff?'
'Actually,' said Starr soberly, 'if it's anyone's fault that you and Forest got hurt,' she sighed, 'it's mine. I never should have forgotten to say anything. I should have warned you, and everyone, about that slope...'
'Starr,' said Stone gently, 'it's not like we couldn't all see for ourselves how steep it was.'
'Oh, yeah,' said Joy. 'Lucy was saying something about that - about how we've been going in circles all this time, and that you knew about it, Starr? Is that true?'
'Yes...' Starr said softly.
'Lucy was really angry,' Joy added.
'Are, um, are you angry?' Starr asked slowly.
Joy's answer came slowly as well. 'I'm not sure. I mean, it's upsetting to know that we've been out here all this time, and gotten nowhere. On the other hand - well - how is it different, knowing from not knowing? We're still in the exact same spot. Right? I mean, knowing we're back where we started doesn't make a bit of difference in where we are. Does it?'
'I... hadn't thought about it that way...' said Starr.
'Me neither,' put in Stone. 'Is this where you wanted to go, ladies?'
'Oh!' Joy gasped. For they had arrived at the pond. 'Oh, it's so lovely!' she squealed.
Stone and Starr eased her to the ground beside the quiet pool. Starr helped her out of her shoes, and Joy sighed delightedly as she dipped her painful feet and legs into the soothing waters. They all relaxed for a while in the woodsy silence, listening to the rustling of the leaves and the calling of small birds.
'It does make a difference, you know,' Stone said at length.
'What does?' asked Starr.
'Knowing, as opposed to not knowing,' he replied. 'What Joy was asking earlier. It does make a difference, and I know what the difference is. And you know what it is, too, Starr.'
'Really?' said Joy. 'What is it?'
'Well. We've been circling all this time, and we've been doing the same thing all this time too. Arguing - bickering - quarreling. Right?'
Joy frowned, thinking. Starr nodded, and looked glum.
'We've been circling all this time because we've been bickering, and quarreling, and at odds with each other,' Stone added.
'You think so?' asked Joy, really frowning now. 'But how can the two things be related? We circle and circle, and we can't break out because we're arguing?'
'That's how it looks to me,' said Stone. 'And that's obviously what you were thinking, too, Starr. Even before you told anyone about the circling, you were searching for the key to unity in this group. You knew once we could come into unity, then we could finally stop circling. And not before. Am I right?'
Starr was frowning now, thinking, trying to remember. Trying to recall exactly what Maccabees had told her all that time ago, the day after she first saw the demon army. He hadn't quite said the very same words as Stone was saying - but it had been the same thought.
'Once you knew we were circling the mountain,' Stone continued, 'you wanted to find a way out. Now that we all know, we can all work towards finding that way out. And the way out is...' And he reached a hand out to Starr, to let her finish the thought.
'Is love,' said she.
'Love?' Joy looked at her. 'You said something about love to me a long time ago. I remember that. And I, well...' The younger girl blushed. 'I said I wasn't the problem, so don't talk to me about it.'
'Yes, you did,' said Stone.
Joy's eyes flashed wide. 'You told him?'
'Only him. In confidence.'
'And I said nothing of it to anyone. Which makes me wonder how Ma...'
But the rest of Stone's sentence was lost. For just then there came a loud rustling in the undergrowth upstream, much louder than mere breezes. As one, the three of them leapt to their feet.
And drew their swords.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Saturday, June 18, 2005
the child, seventy-two
Stone felt as if there was a stone inside him, weighing him down in the pit of his stomach. He really, really did not want to be anywhere near Mac just now! He stood where he was irresolutely, part of him still wanting to go get James to switch partners for him for the nightly watch - and part of him wanting to just deck Mac and get it over with. He had suspected for a long time that Mac had been cozying up to Starr behind his back. But he hadn't realized until now just how deep the friendship between the two of them ran.
Nor how deeply it bothered him.
'Good evening, Stone,' Mac said cordially.
'Yeah,' Stone replied curtly. And without another word, they set out on the slow work of walking round the camp, keeping guard over it while the others slept.
They walked on silence for a long time. Stone found that he was seething inside, and he didn't trust himself to be able to say anything to Mac without winding up wanting again to deck the guy. He kept catching his hands curling themselves into fists; it was an effort to force them to relax. It was an effort also to keep walking calmly, quietly, as he circled the camp at the side of his rival.
Rival. Yeah, that was the word for Mac, wasn't it? His rival for Starr's affections...
'Do not be afraid,' Mac said suddenly.
Stone's head jerked around to stare at him. 'What do you mean?' he demanded gruffly. 'Afraid of what?'
'Of losing her. To me.'
Stone's eyes hardened. 'I'm not,' he said shortly.
'She ran off into the rain that day, away from the camp. If someone had not gone out to find her, she would have become lost out there.'
'What are you...' And then Stone realized what Mac was talking about. He saw again the sweetness in Starr's face giving way to horror when he had told her to go away and closed the tent door in her face. And then he had turned away and gone back to his conversation, never checking to be sure if she had in fact gone back to the women's tent as he had ordered. He had soon been deep in conversation with Morgen and Mal...
And where had Mac been that day? He had been by the door when Stone sent Starr away. And then what?
'You went after her?' he asked Mac, his mouth suddenly dry.
'To bring her back to the camp, yes. She needed help; I went.'
'How did you know she needed help?'
Mac smiled slightly. 'Because that is what I do.' At Stone's uncomprehending glance, he added, 'I know what I am to do, and I do it.'
Then he's ahead of me on that count! thought Stone.
'It was never my intent,' Mac went on, 'to steal her from you. To become your rival, or to be as it were a ravening wolf to tear her away from the man she loves.'
Stone started at the word 'wolf.' Why did Mac have to choose that idea?
'Well,' Stone asked slowly, 'if that wasn't your intent - what was?'
'To be a friend to her, at a time when she felt very much alone.' Mac looked at him - not a look of accusation, but a look of... compassion? 'To be a friend through a time of temporary apartness.'
'Temporary apartness. From me, you mean.'
'You knew this would be temporary? You knew I would come back to her?'
'And you told her that?'
'Not in so many words. But yes.'
'How? How could you know?'
'I told you. That is what I do. I know what I am to do, and I do it.'
Silence. They walked the watch under the silent stars.
Until at last Stone added, 'I don't understand. How can you know such things? Who are you? What are you?'
Mac gave a small tight smile. 'That is the question, isn't it?' he said. And then he said, 'Look.'
Stone was going to say, 'Look at what?' But before he could frame the question, Mac had turned his face away.
Stone broke out in a cold sweat. Mac had turned his face away. He was looking at Mac's back. But the back of Mac's head...
Was looking back at him.
And so was the side of Mac's head. Three faces! No - four!
And the eyes! So many eyes!
'What are you?' Stone cried in a strangled whisper. And what had become of his voice?
And now - wings. Great white wings unfurled around Mac, the wings as full of eyes as the faces.
Stone fell to his knees, his legs simply collapsing under him from the shock of what he was seeing. He slammed his hands over his eyes to block out that vision.
'Do not be afraid.'
Mac's voice. And now a hand touched him, lifting Stone to his feet again.
Stone didn't want to, but he, well, he couldn't not look. Slowly he peeled his hands away from his eyes, peered out again.
There was nothing there but Mac, looking frightfully ordinary. Eyes, wings, extra faces - he saw none of them now.
'Do not be afraid,' Mac repeated once again.
'Who...? What...? What did I see?'
'You saw me as Starr sees me, when she really looks.'
'But... what are you?'
Mac smiled. 'I am only thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets.'
Those words! Somehow, they were familiar to Stone's ears. 'An angel?' he hazarded at last.
'And Starr knows this?' What am I saying? Stone added within himself. Of course Starr knows this! This is why... Ah - this is why she kept saying that Mac had never had that kind of interest in her.
And he hadn't believed her. He believed her now!
Mac turned and went on walking, calmly, serenely. Stone hurried to catch up. 'Why are you here?'
'There are angels about much more often than people know,' he replied. 'We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation. There are many who have, by welcoming strangers, welcomed angels unawares.'
'But why are you here?'
'This is where I was sent. Among this group. To accompany; to help; to protect.'
Stone passed a shaking hand over his face. 'Does anyone know?'
'Yes, but... Man! Mal and Morgen - they share a tent with you. Do they know?'
Mac chuckled - which seemed suddenly weird to Stone - the idea of an angel chuckling! 'They know, yes. The others do not. Please keep it that way.'
Patiently, as he had so long before with Starr, Maccabees explained about the change in behavior that people were prone to affect, once they knew an angel was in their midst. 'But it is a mere show, a mask,' he said. 'And that will not do. It is not masks but reality that this party needs, for them to become who they must be, to accomplish the work they have been sent forth to do.'
'Oh,' said Stone. 'Then... why did you tell me?'
'To put your mind to rest,' Mac replied.
Their eyes met and locked for a moment. And then Stone nodded. 'All right. Yeah. You're right. I've been jealous, and I've been letting it tear me up.' And suddenly he stuck out his hand to the angel. 'I'm sorry, Mac. Please forgive me.'
Strange how the thing that had seemed so impossible that afternoon, was now so simple for him.
'Of course,' Mac replied. Solemnly, he gripped Stone's hand, shook it.
And to Stone, it was as if that stone in the pit of his stomach had suddenly vanished into smoke, and wafted away. Lightness came over him. He smiled, deeply, richly. Freely.
'Well!' he said, stretching out his arms as if awakening out of sleep. 'Now what?'
Mac smiled. 'She loves you. You know that. And you?'
Stone beamed, picturing her. Starr with her wide, trusting, child-like eyes. The sweetness of her hand in his; the sweetness of her voice confessing, 'I love you, Stone.'
He sighed contentedly. 'Yeah,' he said.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Wednesday, June 15, 2005
the child, seventy-one
In the commotion that followed, Stone took Starr's hand once more and quietly eased her out of the tent. Away he took her, out of the camp entirely, off to the shade of the nearby woods.
'All right,' he said once they were completely alone, 'explain that to me. Mac's been telling you stuff?'
'He was the one who pointed out to me that we've been going in circles, yes,' she replied.
'And the armies? The demons and angels? They have been following us around, like he said?'
'Yes. I saw the demons first. That was a long time ago. And when I asked him about them, he told me to take another look, and then I saw the angels.'
'A long time ago, huh?' said Stone. 'And you never said a word about them?'
She shook her head. 'No. At first, I didn't want to frighten the others. And then, after a bit, I... well...'
'Yeah. You forgot. Man, Starr!'
She stared down at her hands unhappily, wondering why she had never remembered to tell the others about the armies till now.
'Oh, Starr-girl,' Stone added. And his fingers curled under her chin, gently raising it. 'Starr-my-girl, you know you have the most amazingly forgetful forgetter of anyone I've ever met! Sweetheart...'
Sweetheart! He called her sweetheart!
'...do me a favor. Anything and everything you do remember - please tell me?'
'And...' he added.
'Yes, dear?' said she. Oh, those wide and guileless eyes!
Stone paused. 'Look - I feel like a heel for saying this, but - don't hang around with Mac anymore. All right?' He saw the hurt in her eyes, but he pressed on. 'I know I said I needed to forgive him, but... that's harder than I thought. And knowing that you are so close to him...' He shook his head. 'It's not that I don't trust you, Starr. It's just - for me. Keep away from him.'
He was shaking! Starr laid a hand gently on his arm. 'Stone. There's nothing to be afraid of. He doesn't have that kind...'
'...of interest in you. I know; you've told me that before. But, Starr-girl... Oh, Starr-girl, you're such a sweet, innocent, trusting little girl, aren't you? But I'm a guy, and I know how guys think. Trust me on this.'
She started to protest further, but the words he used just then, asking her to trust him! Ah, that stirred up her memory of the Master telling her - oh, so long ago - to trust Stone by trusting the Master, and to trust the Master through trusting Stone.
Even when Stone was making a mistake.
And now was the time to obey that. She shut her mouth on her protests of Maccabees' innocence. Instead, she said, 'All right, Stone. What you tell me to do, I will do.' And she smiled up at him, her heart firmly settled on trusting. The Master would see to this. She knew he would.
In the meantime, there was only one thing she could think of that she hadn't yet told Stone, and that was who and what Maccabees truly was. But before she could tell Stone that, she would need to ask for permission. And since she would need to receive that permission from Maccabees, and she was no longer permitted to, as Stone had put it, hang around with Maccabees - well, she was rather stuck, wasn't she?
That night at supper, as Forest always used to, now James pointed across the fire and announced, 'Stone, Mac - you two have first watch tonight.'
Stone glanced over at Mac. It had been bad enough to have to walk the watch with Maccabees the night before. But now, after what had happened today with Starr, after finding out just how close the two of them had become...
Frowning, Stone got up from his seat and started around the fire to have a quiet word with James. Maybe James would be willing to let him swap so he could share the watch with one of the others instead.
But as he was coming around the fire, Stone saw Starr with her hands full, gathering the dirty plates from the meal. All the forks suddenly slipped from her fingers and spilled all over the ground. He hurried to pick them up for her.
And the next thing he knew, he was helping her wash the dishes. And the next thing he knew after that...
It was full dark. Everyone else had gone to bed. He had just seen Starr safely to her tent for the night.
And here was Mac coming to join him for the first watch.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Sunday, June 12, 2005
the child, seventy
To her surprise, instead of leading her directly to the men's tent, just steps away - Stone took her aside first. 'Starr,' he said, running his fingers through his hair, 'I am so sorry. I think I just got you into deep trouble with James - and maybe with everyone else as well.'
She stared up at him, wide-eyed. 'How?'
'Do you remember Forest scratching a letter F on a rock at the first spring we found on this trip?'
Blank stare, followed by a slow shake of her head.
'Yeah, well, I didn't remember either. But Jack did. When we went back to that spring this morning - the place where I first saw the wolf - Jack spotted that F on the rock. And from that he figured out where we are, that we've been making circles round this mountain. And when he realized I already knew about it - oh, man!'
He reached for her hand. 'But I brought you into it, Starr. He asked me how I found out, and without thinking, I said you told me. And now... now James is angry. At both of us.' He took her other hand as well. 'I am so, so sorry, Starr.'
She swallowed hard, smiled up sweetly at him. 'I forgive you. Always, Stone. I love you. My beloved Stone!'
He looked her in the eye. 'You forgive me now. But wait till James is through yelling at you...' And at last he turned and led her to the tent where the rest of the men awaited them.
Three sets of angry eyes glared at her as she entered the tent. Well - at them, for Stone kept hold of her hand and stuck close to her side. 'Here we are,' he announced unnecessarily.
'You don't have to be here,' James said pointedly to Stone.
'Well... Yes, I do,' Stone replied. 'I'm the one who opened my big mouth and got Starr in trouble...'
'Starr got herself in trouble by withholding vital information from the group,' James interrupted. 'And the question is: why?'
She looked around at the angry men - James, and Jack, and Forest. She glanced up at Stone, so steadfast at her side. She had told Stone she hadn't mentioned the circling to anyone because she had forgotten. And that was true; she had forgotten. But before she had forgotten... Before that, she had said nothing because Maccabees had asked her not to mention that he and his two companions were angels.
So what answer was she to give these angry men now? How was she to tell how she knew about the circling, without having to tell how Maccabees knew it?
'I too have a question,' came a voice. Surprisingly, the voice came from behind Starr and Stone. From the tent doorway.
'What do you want, Mac?' said James shortly - very shortly.
'I want to ask you how you can accuse Starr of withholding vital information from this group - for when she gave this group vital information, she was ignored and derided for it.'
James frowned. 'What are you talking about?' he demanded. 'She never said a word to any of us about how we were walking in circles around this mountain. And we certainly never ignored her or made fun of her for telling us - because she never told us.'
'That is not the vital information I am referring to,' said Maccabees, coming inside with the rest. 'I am speaking of the time when she received the following responses.' And he ticked them off on his fingers.
'From Lucy: Are you saying that I'm not loving? From Joy: Why are you telling me all this? I'm not the problem. From Linda: Look - I'm willing to stop arguing if Lucy will - but she's going to have to stop it first.'
The men stared at each other, wondering what he was talking about. 'From Forest,' Maccabees continued, 'Hey, I never get into an argument unless I'm right. And if I'm right, why should I have to bow? From Jack: Look - I like what you're saying, but I'm not going to be holding my breath expecting it to ever happen. And from James...' The cherub paused. 'Do you really want me to repeat the response you gave her, James?'
And now the three caught on. Especially James. The memory of his own voice declaring, Somebody needs to take that boy down a notch or three! echoed in James' ears. Slowly, he shook his head. No. He didn't want that response repeated.
'Now. You tell me,' said Maccabees, 'what the vital information was that Starr did not withhold from the group that day.'
'She...' Jack's voice failed him, and he had to start over, 'she said we needed to love each other.'
'Like members of the same body...' added Forest.
'Anything you want to add to that, James?' asked Maccabees.
'Uh... no,' the man replied.
'Starr,' and the cherub now turned to her, 'there is something else you need to tell the others. More vital information. Look out the door right now, and tell them what you see.' And as the rest looked around at each other in bafflement - and Starr glanced up at Stone in bafflement as well - Maccabees held open the tent door wide and nodded towards the outside for her to look well.
At first, she saw nothing but what any of them saw or expected to see: the cliff wall opposite, and the scrub bushes and clearing between the cliff and this tent. And then...
They could all tell when that small shift of vision came over her. For her back stiffened, and she gave a small gasp.
'What do you see?'
That was both Stone and Forest, in nearly the same breath. Stone's hand landed softly on the middle of her back, steadying her, as she watched.
The armies. Both of them. The demons, every bit as ugly as she remembered. And the angels, every bit as fierce and noble. The demons making an outer circle round the camp, with the angels an inner circle, facing out, keeping the enemy at bay.
She described it to the men with her, giving them every detail she could see.
'This is a bad place to camp!' said Forest. 'Just like I said! First the wolves, now this. They've found us! We shouldn't have stopped here!'
'It's not like we had a choice on where to camp...' James began, but Maccabees interrupted.
'It is not that the demons have just now found us today, young Forest. They have been dogging our steps the entire trip.'
'They... they have?'
'As has the angelic army, to protect this group from the demons.'
'Wait,' said James, frowning, his face darkening. 'How do you know all these things, Mac?'
'Yeah,' Jack challenged. 'What was Starr doing, telling you this stuff, when she wouldn't tell it to the rest of us?'
'Starr did not need to tell me,' Maccabees replied. 'What Starr knows, I know...' and Starr held her breath, wondering would he reveal himself to the others that he was an angel, 'not because Starr told me - but because much of it, I told Starr.'
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Friday, June 10, 2005
the child, sixty-nine
When Stone and Jack had left that morning, carrying so many canteens with them to be refilled, they had first emptied the canteens into the cooking pot again, leaving the water behind for Malachi to tend to Joy's wounds.
She looked like one big bruise this morning, her skin turning livid under the bandages from head to toe. It hurt for her to move; it hurt for the others to even look at her. Starr in particular found that her heart ached for the poor girl. If only she could bear Joy's wounds in her place!
With nothing to do with themselves once the clean-up from breakfast was over - for though Forest had insisted on the group practicing with their swords, no one seemed to be doing so today, and Lucy was certainly not going to remind anyone! - Linda and Lucy drifted back to their tent and watched as Malachi and Starr tended to the wounded girl. 'Is there anything we can do to help?' Linda asked after a long time of idly watching.
'Thank you, no,' replied Malachi. 'Too many hands would become quickly too crowded.'
'Well,' Linda added, 'would you like us to go searching again for that little plant? We might find some today.'
Malachi paused in his work and looked at the pair of them. After considering for a bit - they were not arguing now, but who knew what the next few minutes might bring? - he responded with, 'I will let you know.'
The morning wore on. The slow work of removing the bandages one by one, cleansing each scrape, then rebandaging, went on. The tent, which had been made for a shelter through nighttimes and through rain, had no windows for daytime use, and so was soon hot and sweaty inside. It was not surprising, then, that a heated word would soon be spoken to touch off heated tempers.
It was a silly argument, of course, as arguments so often are. Lucy suddenly stood up and declared that she was going outside; it was simply boiling in here.
'But where will we go?' asked Linda, reluctantly getting to her feet as well.
'No one said you have to go,' Lucy retorted.
'Ah, but James said no one was to leave the camp alone,' put in Malachi.
Lucy looked ready to snap out a sharp retort, but instead shut her mouth, fury blazing out from her eyes. 'Fine!' she muttered at last. 'Come along if you have to, Linda. I'm going into the woods to look some more for that wild german flower. At least the woods have shade.'
'Wild geranium,' Linda corrected.
'Wild gera...!' Linda broke off suddenly, as the frown on her face shifted into a different sort of frown. 'Never mind,' she said. 'It doesn't matter. Whatever the name of the flower is, let's just go look for it.' And she went to the tent door and held it open for Lucy.
Shooting an odd look Linda's way, Lucy went out, and Linda followed her.
Quiet in the tent.
'Thank goodness,' Joy sighed.
'Thank the Master,' Malachi said.
'Thank you, Master,' whispered Starr. For she had just witnessed something remarkable: Linda, who had once told her she wouldn't stop arguing unless Lucy stopped first - had in fact just stopped first, even while Lucy was arguing on!
Starr felt within her a stirring of hope.
And then a moment later, she felt a different stirring within. For Stone suddenly appeared in the tent door, his voice ragged and his face pale. 'James wants to see you, Starr,' he said tightly.
Yes, a very different stirring rose up within her, a feeling very unlike hope. Quickly, trembling, she rose up to follow Stone.
What was stirring inside her just then, was fear.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
storyblogging carnival XX is online...
... at Hermitville. Ten entries this time. Go have a read!
Monday, June 06, 2005
the child, sixty-eight
They set out early the next morning, right after sun up. Stone led the way back to the stream, Jack following along, both of them keeping a sharp look-out for anything that might sneak up on them. Between them they were carrying most of the canteens from the camp, to refill them after they had inspected the site of Stone's battle with the wolves.
The stream flowed into a small picturesque pool within easy sight from the path along the valley floor, so that Stone was doubly perplexed that he hadn't spotted it the day before - had never seen it at all until the wolves had chased him into it. Now he and Jack followed the stream up from the pool, stepping carefully to avoid destroying any of yesterday's tracks.
'Here,' Stone said at last. And stopped. They both stopped. Both surveyed the site first without moving, sweeping the ground with their eyes, looking for anything out of the ordinary. And spotting nothing.
'All right,' said Jack. 'Let's take a closer look now. I'll check this side of the stream, and you look over there.'
Stone splashed across the stream and began searching the places where the two wolves had stood the day before. These were the right spots; he was sure of it. The whole scene was certainly burned into his memory forevermore. And yet now, just like yesterday after the battle, there was nothing here to show that any of it had ever happened.
'There ought to be something,' Stone muttered to himself. 'Something. Paw prints. Tufts of hair. Blood.' He snorted. 'Bodies!'
But there was nothing.
'Uh...' said Jack.
Stone bounded back across the stream. 'Find something?' he asked eagerly.
'Something, yeah,' said Jack. 'Something the flies like.'
He pointed. There by the side of the stream was a small pile of nastiness with a swarm of flies buzzing all around it.
'Ick,' Jack added.
'Oh,' Stone answered. 'That's, um... yeah... That's from after the battle...'
'Oh, yeah!' Jack agreed. 'I remember now. That's where you generously donated your lunch to the great outdoors. Got it.' Looking around, he added, 'But that's all I've found. Lots of your footprints, and no others.'
Stone nodded glumly. 'I guess that's it, huh?'
'For here, yeah. I'd like to have a look at the spring as well.'
'All right.' Stone unslung one of the canteens. 'After we refill these...'
But Jack stopped him. 'And carry all that water to the spring and back? That'll get heavy in a hurry. Check the spring first; refill the canteens when we get back here.'
'Well...' Slowly Stone recorked the canteen and put in back over his shoulder. 'I guess we can do it that way. All right - the spring is further on. I'm not sure how far.'
Jack chuckled. 'Yeah. It's kinda hard to judge distances when you're passing through them running for your life.'
They followed the trail of crashed-through bushes; it wasn't a bit hard to read that! Stone had left a very obvious path through the underbrush that lead all the way back to the spring.
They reached that smaller source of water in about ten minutes. It was refreshing to plunge their hands into it and splash the icy water all over their faces and hair.
'Where were you exactly when you first saw the wolf?' Jack asked.
'Here,' said Stone, pointing.
'Yeah, I see your footprints...' Jack came and stood in that spot, hunkered down as if filling a canteen, glanced up across the spring. 'And the wolf was there?' he pointed.
Jack stepped across the spring, pointed out the spot where Stone had planted the walking stick for the vault, then took another long stride beyond it. 'Should have been about here then,' he said, looking closer. 'Hmm.'
Jack pointed again. 'That looks pretty smashed,' he said.
Stone smiled in relief. Yes! There was a depression in the bracken over there that certainly looked as if something heavy had landed in it lately, breaking over stalks and stems.
'So you believe me now?'
Jack glanced at him. 'I never said I didn't believe you,' he said. 'Yeah, it's a bit of a weird story. But, um, that's what this whole journey has been. Weird.'
Coming back to the spring, Jack hunkered down again, splashing more water onto himself. 'Man, but it's getting hot already!' he complained. Plunging his hands in once more, he suddenly froze, hands in the water, face going pale, so pale.
'What's wrong?' said Stone, instantly on the alert.
Jack lifted his hands from the spring, his finger pointed shakily at something right there. 'Where did that come from?' he stammered.
Stone looked closer. The F! It was the letter F scratched onto the rock that he had noticed the day before. 'Oh, yeah,' he said. 'I saw that yesterday. Something else weird, huh?'
Jack turned hollow eyes towards him. 'You don't know what that is?' he asked.
Stone shrugged. 'An F?'
'F, yeah. F for Forest!'
Stone stared at him, shaking his head. 'I don't get it.'
Jack closed his eyes. 'That first full day of the journey. After we had all that row with Forest the first night, and then he woke us up pitching pebbles into the camp. Remember that?'
'And then he was showing off, showing us where he had spent the night up a tree. And then he showed us a spring of water. You remember that?'
Jack was nodding.
'I mean Forest carved that F on the rock. I saw him do it with my own two eyes. And if we go back that way just a little further...'
Now Stone was nodding. 'Yeah. The entrance to the valley.'
There was something about the way Stone said that, that caused Jack to take a second look at him. 'Stone? You're not surprised about all this?'
'You do understand what this means, right? That where we are now - this camp at the base of the cliff - is a day's walk from the start of the valley, and two days from the Mountain of Spices. Months of walking, and we're right back where we started!'
'Um, yeah. I knew that.'
'And you didn't say anything?' Jack's face was red, and his eyes all but popping from their sockets.
'Well, I only found out yesterday myself.'
'How - from finding this spring? No,' he answered himself. 'You didn't know about Forest's mark. So how did you figure it out?'
'I didn't. Starr told me.'
'Starr? Starr knew this?'
Too late, Stone realized that answering that last question had been a bad idea. 'Um... yes...' he said slowly.
'And how long has she known?'
'Um... a while, I guess.'
'And she never said anything? What's up with that?'
'Well, she told me that she, um... forgot.'
Jack closed his eyes. 'Forgot!' he muttered. 'Oy! Well, we gotta go back and tell James about this. Oh, man! and he is not going to be happy!' He covered his face with a hand for a long minute. Then finally said, 'All right. Let's go back. Man!'
And he led the way back, muttering to himself most of the way. He almost forgot to stop at the stream to refill the canteens, he was so upset.
And then when they got back to the camp and he told James - a lot more people got upset.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~
Friday, June 03, 2005
the child, sixty-seven
Stone was still shaken by the whole event, even as he finished recounting it to the rest of the group. They were all, with the exception of Joy who was sleeping, gathered at the men's tent, listening to him tell the tale. Forest was propped up on a backpack, peering out through the tent door that Morgen was holding open for him.
'I couldn't even find the footprints of the wolves,' Stone went on. 'And I looked. Especially the one that was circling around me. My footprints were all over that bank of the stream. But only mine.'
A chill went through them all. 'Maybe...' Starr said softly.
'Yes, Starr?' said Stone, grasping at her words.
'Maybe,' she said slowly, 'they weren't wolves...'
'What do you mean, they weren't wolves?' he retorted sharply. 'Of course they were wolves! I saw them! Do you think I'm lying?'
She looked up into his face, reading the woundedness in his eyes of him thinking she didn't believe him. And he looked down into her face - and read woundedness there as well.
Shame colored his face. 'I... I'm sorry, Starr. I...'
'I do believe you, Stone,' she said fervently. 'I'm not saying they weren't real. I'm saying - well...'
'She's saying,' came Forest's voice, 'that this is like the little house on this side of the Mountain of Spices. When I used the sword against the enemy there, it vanished too.'
A murmur through the rest of the group. 'That's right!' said Jack. 'Spooky, but right!'
'Demons then,' said James.
Starr nodded. 'I think so.'
Stone ran his fingers through his hair. 'I fought demons?' His face went pale. 'I, uh, I think I would have rather gone on believing they were just wolves...'
'Well,' said James. 'Whatever they were, hmm...' He thought for a moment, then said, 'All right, we're going to need to make some changes. To start with, no one leaves the camp alone anymore. No one. Not till we have a clearer idea of what's out there. Now, tomorrow, Stone, I want you to go back to the stream and take, um,' he considered, 'Jack with you. Make another inspection of the battle site; see what the two of you can find. Also, I think we need to double the watches at night. Three watches, two men each. Morgen with Jack, me with Mal, Stone with Mac.'
Stone blinked - hard. James was pairing him with Mac? Again?
'So the watches will last twice as long?' Jack was asking.
But before James could answer, Forest interrupted with, 'I want a watch!'
Surprisingly, where once James would have frowned and told the boy sharply to be quiet, he now said, 'When your leg is better, you'll have one, Forest. I promise you that. Now. Anyone have any questions?'
'Not a question, but another change we need to make,' said Forest. 'Sword practice.'
'Sword practice?' echoed Lucy. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean we haven't been doing it. And we need to. No offence, Stone,' the boy added, 'but it shouldn't have happened that using your sword was the last thing you thought of. It should have been the first. I mean, beating the wolves with a stick helped a bit - and I guess there are times when running for your life is a good idea,' his voice betrayed that he really didn't believe that last part, 'but for destroying the enemy, there's nothing like the sword. And we haven't been practicing with our swords, this whole long journey.'
'He's right,' said James.
Lucy started to protest, but the wonder of James agreeing with Forest so distracted her, she said nothing.
'Easy to see how we sloughed off on the practice,' put in Jack. 'When we first started out, we thought the journey would be so short, we didn't bother to set up a practice schedule. Why, we'd be at the dungeon in a matter of days. Who would have time to get rusty?'
'But then the journey stretched on and on,' James agreed. 'And we simply forgot.'
'Not all of us forgot,' said Forest. 'I didn't forget. I just - didn't do it. And I need to apologize to you all for that.'
Silence. Forest apologizing? Forest?
'Umm,' said James, 'speaking of apologies - I need to apologize to you also, Forest. And I do so right now, in front of everyone.' James paused, then said, 'Well. In all these arguments you and I have had all this time - I was often wrong. And you were right about things - many things. But I wouldn't admit it. I argued with you instead. I'm sorry for doing that. I won't do it again. Or, at least,' and he glanced at his brother, who in the whole company knew him best, 'I'll try to not do that again. And I give you permission to call me on it if I do.' And then James offered his hand to the boy, who took it solemnly.
'I forgive you,' said Forest.
Silence again. The others just stood there, stunned at what they were seeing. Lucy especially was flabbergasted.
Linda, standing a little apart, looked back and forth between the reconciling men and her own rival. And she then turned and walked away to the foot of the cliff for a bit, to have a seat by herself and think.
~first~ ~previous~ ~next~