Wednesday, August 17, 2005

 

the child, ninety-one


'What happened?' said Joy.

Stone had gone to Forest and helped him up. Starr fetched the boy his crutches, but Forest only accepted one of them, tucking it under his left arm. He sheathed the sword Jack had retrieved for him. And for a moment, they all just stood, not quite sure of themselves. Joy's question was echoing within them all: what had happened?

Lucy broke the silence. 'Well,' she said, 'Jack said to break camp, so let's get on with it.'

'But what happened?' said Linda. 'Why did James do that? He could have hurt Forest!'

And Forest, who had seen for himself up close the look in James' eyes, knew but did not say what he had seen in them - the sudden lust to not just hurt the boy, but to...

Forest shook his head. He didn't even want to think that word!

'Does it matter what happened?; Lucy said sharply. 'Can we do anything about it? No, we can't,' she added, giving no one time to answer. 'Jack and Morgen will see to James. And while they do,' and she set to work collapsing a tent, 'Jack said to break camp. So let's do it!'

Linda planted her fists on her hips, her eyes flashing, obviously offended at Lucy's bossiness-as-usual. 'Oh! You haven't changed a bit!' she accused.

'I...!' Lucy retorted. Or began to. She stared back at Linda, anger flaring in her eyes. Flaring. Dying. Drowning into tears.

'Oh! Oh, Linda! I'm sorry...'

And as suddenly as the contention sprang up, it was over, as Linda and Lucy forgave each other with hugs.

They broke camp then. Collapsed each tent. Pulled up the stakes, knocked the dirt from them, then piled then in the center of the tents they came from. Coiled the ropes and piled them in as well. Reserved two ropes from each tent, one to bind up its tent poles, the other to tie round the tent once they had folded it up into a tight package.

Stone and Starr went to fetch fresh water as the rest finished the packing. The memory of her vision of wolves from that other time they went for the water flashed into his mind. But he thrust it aside. No more wolves! he told himself gladly. For after last night, that wolf was dead too.

He sighed happily, in freedom.

They reached the stream quickly. Sword drawn, Stone stood guard as Starr rinsed and filled the canteens.

She was silent as she worked. He was sorry that she wasn't talking. He would have preferred to hear her voice just now, for her to prattle on, happy as a child, chattering on about inconsequential things, her sweet voice echoing in his ears.

Silence echoed in his ears just now instead. Not surprising. The events of this morning had them all a bit stunned yet.

What had happened? What had James been thinking? Stone wondered how many of the others had spotted that flash of fear in the boy's eyes, and how many had realized what it meant. He had realized, and the realization had paralyzed him in his seat.

James had nearly killed Forest. Had come to his senses just in time. Had fled.

But why? The rivalry between the two of them had been settled weeks ago. Why start back now?

And Lucy and Linda. They too had started in with a quarrel. At least they had caught themselves quickly. But again - why?

Silence echoed in Stone's ears. It took a moment for it to dawn on him that this silence was more complete than a few minutes before. He frowned.

The water. He no longer heard the sound of water bubbling into canteens. Confused, he looked around and down.

Starr was staring up at him.

And suddenly his face was burning in a blush. He'd done it again! Wool-gathering! His sword was in his hand, supposedly to guard them both. But his mind - where had it been? Not here!

'You know what's happening, don't you?' said Starr. She rose to her feet, a cluster of canteens dangling from the fistful of straps in her hand.

'It's the enemy,' she said. 'We came into unity, so he's doing his worst to shatter it again.' She shook her hair back out of her eyes and reached for Stone's hand.

'We've got to go tell James,' she said.

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

 

the child, ninety


Stone was feeling fine in the morning, far better than he had felt in ages. He and Mac saw nothing out of the ordinary on their watch, then woke the others at dawn. Breakfast, and cleaning up afterwards. And then, before breaking camp - sword practice.

Forest surprised them all by throwing down both crutches this time. He stood, sword drawn, balancing with most of his weight on his good leg. 'Let's go, James!' he cried.

James rose to the challenge. The boy was as agile as ever, putting more and more weight on his wounded leg as the exercise progressed. And suddenly, to everyone's shock - the boy sent James tumbling, sprawling. The man's sword flew from his hand.

In a trice, Forest was on him, pinning him, his own blade held to James' throat. The boy's eyes sparkled with glee. 'Yield?' he crowed.

James gaped up at Forest in shock. And then, suddenly, the man's eyes too sparkled - but not with glee. Fury flamed up in them.

Abruptly, almost too fast for eye to follow - everything was reversed. James flung off the boy, sending Forest's sword spinning. And now it was Forest pinned, with James atop him, his forearm jammed against the boy's neck.

'You mutt,' James breathed, his voice rasping. He was pressing harder, harder against Forest's neck, and still harder...

'Ah... ah... yield!' the boy sputtered. 'J-james... I yield...' Forest's eyes were wide, and just a hint of fear dawning in them. For James did not let go.

And then he did. Sat back. Fear was in his own eyes, at what he had just done, and almost done. He stared at Forest - Forest stared back - for a very long moment. Then the boy stuck out his hand. 'Help me up?'

James sprang up. But he did not reach to grasp Forest's hand. Instead, his face ashen, he bolted from the camp.

Alone. The very thing he had ordered everyone not to do.

Jack leapt to his feet. 'Forest? You all right?' James' brother asked as he swiftly scooped up this fallen sword and that one.

'Um... yeah,' said Forest, his hand feeling of his throat.

Jack passed the boy's sword to him, keeping hold of James'. 'Morgen, you come with me. Everyone else, break camp and be ready to go when we return.' And off they went, Jack and Morgen, in the direction they had last seen James take.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

 

the child, eighty-nine


Stone had a restless night. If his eyes were closed more often than open that whole long night, it would have surprised him very much. He wanted to sleep, of course, since his watch with Mac would be the last one before dawn this time, and he didn't much care to be sleepwalking through it. But sleep fled him.

He stared into the darkness of the tent, listening vaguely to Forest's light snoring. James and Forest were no longer quarreling. And today Lucy had set things right with Starr and with Linda.

So that left him. As far as he could see, among this whole group, he was the last major obstacle. The last flaw in the unity: him, and his inability to control his mind.

And even now, thoughts were flinging about through his head. He groaned and clutched at his ears - as if that would block anything out! He felt like there was a, a dark something, attached to his back, whispering constantly into his brain, jerking him around with its flow of thought-scattering nonsense.

'Get out of my head!' he muttered.

And thought he heard a chuckle in reply.

Well! That made his eyes spring open wide. And - was that the faintest whiff of - man! - some truly obnoxious smell lingering near him?

'Master,' he breathed.

Again the chuckle. Like the Master would care to hear from him? Mean-hearted. Cold-blooded. Abuser of Starr's sweet affection for him. There was his own voice again, echoing in his memory, snapping out ugly words at her till she fled. Fled to the wolves!

But then the Master healed her. And...

And healed me.

But what was the healing?

Healing! For him? How his mind scoffed. As if he would ever be healed!

He felt and saw again the touch of the Master's hand, laid over his heart.

The Master loves me.

Loves you!

And it dawned on him: This was the enemy! These whispers. This scorning voice. This was the wolf of Starr's vision, the one that was still circling him, still looking to crush his throat with its slavering jaws. Still out to kill him.

'The Master loves me.' He said it aloud this time, into the surrounding darkness. He expected to hear back another scoffing remark. But what he heard instead was:

Surrender.

His eyes snapped open again. Surrender. That was the same word he had heard inside the other day, just before he had given in to frustration and snarled at Starr.

Surrender. He knew what it meant. Giving up. Giving up on any of his own efforts, in his own strength. Giving up to the Master, to let him do it all. To let the Master work, while he simply loved and trusted. Like a child.

Like Starr.

Really, though, he didn't know how to love and trust like a child. He had never had the chance to just be a child. Childhood had been stolen from him; he had been flung into the deep part of the dungeons at an early age, where love and trust were as foreign as the far side of the moon.

All this he remembered far too well. Sometimes he envied Starr. To have no memories of the dungeons, as she did - that would be a blessing!

Forgive. Forget.

Frown. He thought he had forgiven? He knew that unforgiveness was as real a dungeon cell as the dank room the Master had set him free from.

Had he forgiven?

Mercy.

Where had that word come from? Mercy - was that what he lacked yet? - to ask the Master to have mercy on those who had hurt him, those who had stolen his childhood, those who had been locked in the same dungeons with him, hurt and hurting.

Didn't he want mercy for them? He thought he did. Wasn't the longing of his heart to go and set them free as well?

To set them free. Not in his own strength, but in the Master's. Surrender.

Ah.

Maybe that was it. That for all he had surrendered in the past, he still had in him some last bit of relying on his own strength.

The strength that had surged through him to strangle the wolf flashed into his memory. Yes, that had not been his own strength!

He needed that strength now. Continually.

'Master, what do you want me to do?'

The scoffing voice came, overpowering, trying to distract and confuse. But deeply, under that voice and far quieter, he heard it: not do, but be.

Not doing. Being. Meaning?

Being. He thought of Starr. And now he chuckled at himself. He was always thinking of Starr! But he thought of the dance in that dream. Her confidence in the Master's arms - how the being in his arms, flowed into the doing of following him in the dance.

Stone nodded. He could see that. Being. That was the same as loving and trusting the Master. The doing - all the doing - all the obedience, the ability of go into the dungeons and rob them of their victims - all that would flow from the being of being in love with the Master.

Slightly odd concept for him, as a man, to think of being in love with the Master. And he had never really known the love of family.

But now he would.

'Master,' he whispered. And slowly, deliberately, Stone opened wide his heart.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

 

the child, eighty-eight


Lucy was strangely quiet all day long. Supper was finished and evening breezes were beginning to play, when she stood up before them all. 'I need to say something. I...' She looked around at the faces of her ten companions, hesitated, then blurted, 'I'm sorry. I have been rude, and mean, and heartless, and superior. And I am sorry. I'm especially sorry to you, Starr.' She came over to where Starr was sitting, then knelt down before her and looked up into Starr's face. 'I've been hateful to you,' she whispered. 'Ever since you tried to talk to me about love. I... I thought you were acting like you were better than me. That you were saying that you were loving, and I wasn't. And I got angry.' She snorted. 'And do you know what? It wound up, you were loving. And I certainly wasn't!'

She glanced at Stone. 'It took seeing him carry you in, all bloody,' she said, 'to break my proud heart. I'm sorry, Starr. I'm so very sorry.'

Starr slipped from her seat and knelt with her, wrapping her arms around Lucy. 'I forgive,' she said gently, gladly.

'Thank you,' Lucy returned. Then, clearing her throat, she rose to her feet. 'Linda,' she began. But her voice broke down.

She tried again. 'Lin...' But still she couldn't quite speak.

Linda sprang to her feet, and hurried to her side. Embracing the proud woman, Linda said gently, 'It's all right, Lucy. It's all right.'

'But it isn't all right,' Lucy insisted, the tears now beginning to flow.

'No, I suppose you're right, Lucy. It isn't all right.' Linda leaned back and looked Lucy straight in the eye. 'At least, it wasn't all right - till now. But now,' she added, 'now - we wipe out all the past. It's forgiven, and it's gone. Thanks to the Master, and his sacrifice for us. Now we start over, clean and fresh.' She paused, and then with a twinkle in her eye, she added, 'Sis.'

Lucy's eyes sprang wide at that last word. 'Sis,' she repeated. And smiled tentatively. 'Yes. Sis. That's what we are.' Her smile broadened. 'My sister,' she said. And embraced Linda - really embraced her - for the very first time.

There wasn't a dry eye in the camp.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

 

the child, eighty-seven


In the midst of the clamor of her companions, Starr stood dazed still, holding out her arm, touching the new skin. 'I dreamed this,' she repeated over and over. 'I dreamed the Master was healing me - and he was!'

Understandably, they were a bit late starting out that morning. Breakfast, the morning sword drill, the breaking of camp - and when they were ready to go, James gathered them first. 'Change of march,' he said. 'No more straggling out,' and Stone knew he meant him. 'We need to keep closer together. No running off from the group,' and here Starr blushed and ducked her head. 'Especially not alone. Mac?'

'Yes?' said Maccabees.

'I want you to take the rear guard. From now on, no one walks behind you. Everyone understand?'

Yes. They all assented.

James nodded. 'Good. Because we don't want any more wolf attacks. Right? All right, let's move.'

And they did. Mac hung back, waiting, while the rest started out. Mal and Morgen waited with him. A bit self-consciously, Stone took Starr's hand and followed the main group.

'Well,' said Stone, still a tinge of a blush on his face, 'I guess James told us, huh?'

Starr's cheeks turned bright pink again. 'I guess. I'm so very sorry, Stone.'

'Don't worry about it, Starr. You already apologized. You're forgiven. I forgave you; the Master forgave you.'

She looked again at her arm. 'It's good as new,' she said. 'Better, even.'

He smiled and took her arm, then tucked it through his. 'Tell me your dream,' he said.

She began to describe it: the light, the voice, the Master, the healing.

'The dance?' put in Stone.

Her eyes went wide. 'How could you know that?' said she.

'Well,' he replied. 'Last night, I dreamed too.' And as he told her his dream, her eyes just got wider and wider. And when he was done, she smiled and said, 'Wow, you dreamed my dream with me! But I wonder what your healing was?'

'I hope it was what I've been dealing with lately. My attention span. All these thoughts blasting through my head all the time, playing havoc with me.'

'I guess,' she answered slowly, 'that not all the thoughts that come into our heads, are our thoughts. Are they?'

'True,' said Stone.

'That's why I saw a helmet. It was for your head, to block the enemy's thoughts.'

'True again.'

'Meaning?'

'Meaning - I don't know yet. I was trying to think it through yesterday, when I got frustrated and took it out by yelling at you.'

She walked at his side, looking thoughtful. 'If it was your thoughts he was healing,' she said at last, 'then why touch your heart?'

Stone frowned, thinking that over. That was a good point. 'What are you getting at?'

'I'm not sure yet.' Long pause. 'Stone, where do thoughts originate, anyway? In the heart, or in the head?'

'Oh, ask an easy question!' said he. Silence, for a long time. 'You would think they start in the head. But maybe not. Maybe the heart is where they start. Maybe I need protection over my head, from the enemy shooting in his thoughts, and healing for my heart, for the thoughts I come up with on my own...'

Somewhere, deep in her own heart, there stirred a memory. Starr frowned, pursuing it. What was it? Something from long ago - the Master speaking to her, speaking of Stone. Of how love was hard for Stone to receive, or to give. Of the man's heart, and how it had been so wounded till it had been splintered into thousands of sharp pieces, like glass. And of how the Master wanted to heal Stone.

Through her. Through her loving Stone, and allowing the Master to love him through her.

She had forgotten that. She hadn't thought of it in months.

Healing Stone's heart. Had that happened for him last night, as the healing of her arm did? Or was this still a slow process, only just begun - like Forest's leg?

Stone shifted, changing from having her arm tucked through his, to having his arm wrapped round her shoulders. 'I think,' he said softly and seriously, 'that I still have a long way to go. A long way.'

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

 

the child, eighty-six


The men of course found no traces of the wolves, only the stains of Starr's own blood. The women with Malachi fared better, finding both the water and the plant. By the time Mal and Lucy got the wild geranium prepared and applied to Starr's arm (so that Mac could at last let go), the day was well spent.

Starr was spent too. So James made the decision to make camp here for the night.

Joy's shade was taken down, and the three tents set up. Once the women's tent was ready, Stone himself took up a wan-looking Starr and carried her into it. Lucy crowded after, insisting that she must stay at Starr's side and look after her.

A brief and silent meal that evening. And then the subdued group went to their beds.

Stone and Mac drew first watch that night. And long after they finished their turn and gone to bed, Stone lay wrapped in his blanket, staring up at the tent roof above him. He had to. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the wolves again - and the second one, ripping and shredding sweet Starr's arm.

His fault. His fault. He heard it ringing in his ears even now. His fault.

He had no awareness of finally slipping over into sleep. He saw again that awful wound. Felt again her head lolling against his leg all that long afternoon, while the others toiled to make the medicine to at last stop the bleeding. Again he was gathering her up, her arm newly bandaged in fresh cloth, to take her gently into her tent for her to rest and sleep.

That afternoon after placing her softly on her blanket, he had paused only a moment to look down on her face before he left the tent. So pale she had been! But now, in the dream that he was not yet aware was a dream, he lingered. Stooped. Pressed the stray hairs away from her forehead. Whispered, 'I love thee, darling. I'm so, so sorry.'

Her eyes opened. She smiled sweetly up. He was returning the smile when he realized - she was not smiling at him, but past him. He turned.

Light. He squinted, shielding his eyes with an arm. Starr, though, did not squint. Slowly, calmly, she rose from her pallet. Raised her good arm towards the light.

'My girl.'

The voice was beyond a voice. Soft, gentle, yet piercing. Majestic.

Holy.

Stone found himself on his knees, still with his arm raised against the intensity of the light. Starr was reaching out her hand. And a hand of light was there, taking hers, holding hers.

He saw him, sort of. The impression Stone had, besides the wondrous light, was of gentleness, of joy, of patience, of delight. And of love.

It was overwhelming.

He - the one Stone saw - drew Starr close. And then, to Stone's amazement, he realized that this one, this holy one, was leading Starr in a, in a dance!

How graceful they moved, he leading, she following. Beautiful, flowing, as one. She smiled confidently into his face, her eyes only on him, only for him. As they danced.

He was holding her right hand, the uninjured one, in his hand right from the first. Gradually, Stone recognized that he had taken her other hand as well. And when he realized this, Stone peered closer against the radiance, trying to see - what had become of her bandages?

They were gone. Her arm he saw plainly now. The raw wounds, seeping still a bit, great patches of skin gone, and the badly gnawed underlying muscles looking like so much uncooked sausage. Stone winced at the sight; surely she was in great pain?

She didn't look like she was in pain. She was only looking into that face of the one who held her in his arms, sweeping her in the dance.

And then he stopped, and she stood still on an instant with him. He shook his head, and Stone saw now that his hair was glittering as with the dew. The shaking of his thick locks freed the drops to spatter about, shining, shimmering, sprinkling over her. Her eyes closed as she drank this in.

Then, taking her arm, he bowed his head over it, kissing each wound - here, and now here, and now here. And at each kiss, the skin appeared, fresh and pink and new as a baby's. Till all the ravages of the wolf's mouth were but a memory.

And now he kissed her again, on the forehead. He breathed over her, and she convulsively drew his breath into herself. Her eyes flew open again at that.

Looking her into her eyes, he said, 'You forgive?'

'Yes. Thank you. Apart from you...'

'...you would not be able to. Nor would any.' He smiled on her. 'Your petitions for mercy were heard and are granted, dearheart. For you, and for him.'

Stone dropped his own eyes, feeling like an interloper, an eavesdropper on the most private sort of conversation that ever could be.

'Son?'

Surprised, Stone looked up to see the same face now looking at him, gazing into his eyes.

'Sir?' Stone squeaked.

'Would you like to be healed too?'

Stone held out his arms, turning them to show that he bore no such injuries. 'But I wasn't hurt,' he said.

'Weren't you?' said he. And he reached forth his hand, pressed it over Stone's heart. 'Be healed,' he breathed.

Stone woke in the midst of a shuddering, convulsive gasp, drinking the air before his face deep into his lungs. He looked about, stunned. Not the rich blanket of light of his dream, but the soft beginnings of dawn filtering through the tent fabric met his eyes. He lay still for a moment, then glanced around. Forest there, by the door - Jack in his corner - James' blanket empty, telling that it was now his watch.

And even then, the tent flap sprang open as James came in. Seeing that Stone was looking at him, the man started to greet him with, 'Morning.'

When a screech rang through the camp. Instantly, all sleepers woke and flew from their beds. 'The women's tent!' cried James.

As they were converging on it, Joy ran out of the tent, her eyes the size of the plates they ate their meals from. Pointing back towards the tent she'd come from, she gasped out, 'You'll never believe it! Starr! Starr!'

'Starr what?' cried Stone, grabbing the girl's hand. 'What about Starr?'

'Her bandages - they disappeared during the night. And her arm...' She looked about at the seven men facing her. Shaking her head, scarcely able to believe what she was saying, Joy told them all:

'Her arm is totally healed!'

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