Thursday, September 29, 2005

 

the child, one hundred three


With a nod, Walker reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of papers. 'While you lot were taking your sweet time getting here,' he said, 'I've been busy. I found several folks that are ripe to be rescued.' He shuffled through his papers, then read: 'Logan. Big bruiser. Sixth level down. Mean and vicious as they come. But his kid brother died lately, and he's starting to look for something more to life.'

'We'll take him!' Forest said confidently, snatching the paper from Walker's hand. 'Won't we, James?'

James gave a half-hearted smile, then winced as even that much movement sent a spasm of pain shooting through his beaten face.

'All right,' said Walker, going to his next paper. 'This one's Ginger. She's...'

'Ginger!' Lucy cried. She grabbed the paper from the man's hand and looked it over rapidly, her eyes devouring the information written there. 'Yes! This is the Ginger that lived down the hall from us, Starr! Why don't you, uh...' But even as she started to ask Starr to help her rescue Ginger. Lucy glanced over at her old friend. Starr looked so comfortable there at Stone's side, her fingers entwined with his. 'Uh... Linda,' Lucy said instead. 'Why don't you come with me?'

'All right,' said Linda.

'Good enough,' said Walker. He picked out the next page. 'Rob. He's well named; he's a thief. Morose fellow, never laughs. Some deep tragedy there. His only comfort is sneaking things that aren't his. He told me lately that he wanted to die.'

Jack put out his hand. 'I'll take that one.' He glanced over those who were left - Joy, the unknown Walker, the obvious couple, and the three men whom he didn't know were angels - and he chose, 'Morgen?'

The angel nodded.

'Moving right along,' said Walker. 'Another woman. Well, more like a girl. Talia. Spends most of her time mooning over one guy or another. She even had a crush on me for a bit there.' He made a wry face. 'The girl lies like you wouldn't believe. She's...'

'My age?' asked young Joy.

Walker looked up. 'Yeah, pretty much. You want her?' Joy put out her hand, received the paper, looked around, smiled, and said, 'Malachi.'

He smiled back.

Now there were only four left: Stone, Starr, Mac, and Walker himself. And Walker was looking embarrassed. 'I, um, I only have one paper left.' He held it up. 'Beatriz. And I've managed to develop a bit of a rapport with her. She trusts me, and she doesn't trust many. So...' He pointed. 'How about you? A woman, to help rescue a woman?'

He was pointing at Starr.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

 

the child, one hundred two


They slept all day, and most of the next night. And woke up hungry, and ate their apples.

'All right, spy,' said Forest, his mouth still full of apple, 'tell us what you've learned.'

They were sitting in a rough circle on the floor of the cave. Morgen was tending to the wounds the guards had inflicted on James, while Mac and Mal saw to any other injuries. Starr, sitting at Stone's side in the shadows towards the back of the cave, noticed that he was continually staring at the twelfth man, the look on his face unreadable.

'Well, to start with,' said the newcomer, 'my name isn't Spy. It's...' A movement at the back of the cave caught his attention. Startled, eyes bulging, he blurted out, 'Stone!'

'Your name's not Stone,' Jack commented. 'His name is Stone. Unless you both have the same name. Which is possible, I suppose. But not very likely. Not with an odd name like Stone. Now, if the name was Jack...'

The twelfth man had risen to his feet and was staring, pointing. 'You! It is you?'

Stone sighed at Starr's side. 'Yes. It's me, Walker.'

Walker? Starr frowned for a second, puzzled. And then her eyes flew open wide. Walker! Stone's old friend. The one who thought such awful things about him.

'You don't still have that crazy notion, do you,' Walker was saying, 'of going back and...?'

'Actually, I do,' Stone replied evenly.

Walker shook his head. 'There's no way,' he declared. 'No one walks out of that part of the dungeons. You're on a fool's errand, Stone.'

Stone looked intensely at his old friend in return. 'I didn't barge in on this trip,' he said. 'I was sent, same as all of us. We were all chosen - and so were you, Walker - by Josh himself, who knows the Master's mind far better than anyone else I know. So when you claim I'm on a fool's errand,' Stone shook his head, 'you just might be calling Josh a fool. And I don't think you want to do that.'

Walker's face twitched. He sat down again. He turned to Forest, opened and closed his mouth a few times, then said, 'Well. This is what I've learned.'

Swiftly he sketched out for them the ins and outs of the enemy's dungeons. There were several floors underground, each one darker and nastier than the one above it - a quick glance at Stone as he said that. Three entrances at ground level: the main one to the west, a smaller one on the south, and another small one on the east side in the northmost corner. 'All heavily guarded,' Walker said. 'Usually, that is. But right now... Well, two days ago, the word came down for half the guard to go into the valley to look for intruders.'

'Us,' said Jack.

'Right. I made sure I was in the half that went.'

Joy interrupted. 'Why were you a guard?'

'What easier way to spy out the enemy's defenses?' Walker answered. 'We came through the pass below, crossed over beyond the apple tree, and then headed up the valley. The first of you all but ran into our arms.'

James flinched and said nothing.

'The next three weren't as easy - especially this boy.' He nodded at Forest. 'It took four guards going after him all at once to subdue him. And then, as we continued on up the valley,' he shook his head,' there were the rest of you, just standing there in the roadway! If I hadn't thrown that spear to warn you...'

'Oh, you threw the spear?' said Stone.

'That I did.'

'You might have hit someone.'

'Never,' said Walker. 'What I aim for, I hit. And what I aim not to hit,' he smiled, 'I don't hit. Simple. It's just a good thing,' he added, 'that when part of you broke cover, the commander of the guards didn't figure out your little ploy. I knew there were supposed to be more of you, and I figured a few had gotten away. Good thing he didn't realize what you were doing.'

'Half the guards are gone now, eh?' said Forest, his eyes gleaming in the early-morning sunlight that was creeping into the cave. 'When do you expect them back?'

'I expected them back already,' Walker frowned, crossing to the cave's mouth and looking down. 'We got here quickly enough. I would have thought we'd see them coming through the pass by now, returning.' And he waved at the path below.

'They won't be coming back quickly,' said Mac. 'And when they do return, they will not be in any condition to fight.'

Stone and Starr exchanged glances. What had Mac done?

While Forest rubbed his hands together in glee. 'Half the guards gone - perfect! Let's make plans right away. And then we'll attack!'

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

 

the child, one hundred one


They walked all night, and into the grey of morning. Forest kept casting glances behind them, apparently expecting at any time for the troop of guards to appear, pursuing them. 'Shouldn't we be covering our trail?' he blurted out at last. 'Once they start tracking us...'

'There's not a man among them that could read a track,' said their guide with confidence.

'There are twelve of us,' Forest countered. 'A blind man could read our trail! The wake we're leaving behind us, it probably looks like an elephant came through here.'

'They won't be following us.' And that was Mac speaking. 'Not tonight, and not tomorrow either.'

'How do you know that?' said Forest. 'How can you be sure?'

But Mac only smiled.

Their guide was leading them southward. From the spot where he had cached their stuff, he had gone a bit uphill on that eastward mountain before striking for the south. After a couple of hours, he felt safe enough to bring them back down to the main path along the valley floor.

It was a relief, to walk here where it was easier. They were getting so tired.

As the dawn was gradually waking up in the east, their guide's steps slowed. Twice he stopped entirely, frowning at the left side of the trail.

'What's wrong?' asked Lucy.

The man peered behind, and then ahead. 'I don't think I've missed it,' he muttered, mostly to himself.

'Missed what?'

But his only answer was to wave them forward again.

On they went, footsore and weary. Forest was all but carrying James now, and both Jack and Linda looked like sleepwalkers. Malachi had long since set Joy on her own feet to walk for herself. But now he stopped and offered to carry her again.

'I can do it,' she answered, her voice dull and vague. 'Don't worry about... Oh!'

There was such a complete change in Joy's tone when she said the word 'Oh!' that Starr stopped and looked at her. The girl's eyes were radiant in the early dawn as she pointed eagerly. 'Look at that! I didn't know butterflies came out so early. Or is it a moth?'

Whatever it was, it had two of the largest, most shimmering white wings of any butterfly or moth that any of them had ever seen. Commanding their rapt attention, the beautiful creature fluttered and floated along, coming to rest at last, its wings opening and closing lazily, in the leaves of a gnarled old tree alongside the path.

There was something about that tree...

'Apples!' cried Joy. 'Look at the beautiful apples!'

'Apples!' cried their guide. 'This is the place!' And he led them off the path and over to the tree.

'See there?' he said, pointing beyond the tree. And, yes, vaguely seen, there was a path back there. 'That's the way to the dungeons. It's another couple of hours' walk...' Groans met that statement. '...so I suggest we gather some of these apples to eat on the way. They'll refresh us.'

And so they did. Some of the group were too worn out to pick apples, so the others picked enough for them all. 'But no throwing down apple cores,' their guide cautioned. 'Those guards may not know how to track, but even blind, they could figure out what an apple core along the trail means.'

Stone happened to be looking at Mac just then, and saw the brief smile that crossed the angel's face. What was that about? the man wondered.

Their brief rest over, they trekked on. Not far past the apple tree, the path opened wide. So wide was it that, for Starr at least, the way gave her an eerie feeling in her middle. It shouldn't be this wide, she thought. And there was - something - to the air that frightened her.

'What's wrong?' Stone's arm wrapped round her, comforting her.

'I don't like this,' she murmured.

He nodded. 'I feel it too. It's that we're getting closer to the dungeons, I'd say.' He sniffed the air and grimaced. 'I'm beginning to smell the old place for sure,' he quipped.

She sniffed too, but shrugged. 'I don't notice anything,' she said. 'Maybe your nose works better than mine.'

'Maybe so,' he agreed.

The rim of the sun was just breaking, blindingly, over the rim of the world ahead of them when their guide turned aside off the path again. Now he was leading them straight uphill, and at a lung-burning pace too.

'Can't we stop?' Lucy complained.

'Nearly there,' said the twelfth man.

'No offense,' said Jack, 'but I don't remember the enemy's fortress being up on top of any mountain.'

'It isn't,' the guide replied. 'It's over there,' and he waved toward the east, to the plain beyond the mountains entirely. 'But up here, there's... if I can find it again. I found it when I first came to scout out the dungeons, and I thought it would be useful then. Just a little way up here, and the entrance is hard to see... Ah!' Stopping and turning to the others, he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your lodgings. We can rest here, and then talk later about all that I've learned while I've been waiting for you. Go in, go in!'

It was a cave. Dangling ivy tendrils obscured the entrance. Inside, it was somewhat damp and musty. But it was a place to lie down and sleep, and in gratitude and exhaustion, that's exactly what they did.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

 

the child, one hundred


He did not lead them far before he dove into a bank of bushes and disappeared from sight. Forest, expecting the worst, grabbed automatically for his sword.

Which was, of course, not at his side. Their weapons, their packs, everything but their clothes - all had been taken.

The guard reappeared. 'Here,' he said, 'whose are these?' He tossed out a pack and a sheathed sword, then disappeared again.

It was astonishing. He had everything! Everything but the two tents. All was restored to them.

Mac was nodding. 'Then it was you.' he said.

The guard paused. 'Me?'

'Yes. While we were waiting for nightfall, while my two friends slept this afternoon, I saw someone slip off from the camp many times, carrying odd burdens. You were making off with their things, hiding them here.'

'So that after the escape, I could give them everything back, yes.'

'You were planning to help us escape?' said Forest. 'But, but you're one of them!'

'Not exactly,' the guard replied. 'I...'

'You're the twelfth man.' That was Stone. He sounded so strange, so strained.

'Yes. I'm the one the Master sent ahead of you, to scout things out, to find out who was ripe to be rescued and brought to the Master's house.' He paused. 'You've been a long time getting here,' he added. 'I don't know why. But, like I said to the big guy there earlier, here and now is still not the place and time to get into long explanations. Let's go.'

He led out, and this time there was little hesitation among the group to follow him. Only Stone held back for a moment.

Starr, noticing, turned back and came to his side. 'What is it, my love?' she whispered, those wide eyes searching his face.

Stone gave a hiccup of a chuckle. 'The big guy there. That's what he called me. Must be the lack of light.'

'I don't under...'

Stone wrapped his arm round her shoulder. 'It's just that he didn't recognize me. It's almost funny.'

'You recognized him?' she asked.

'Just now I did. Not in the corral, but here, while he was talking with Mac. Oh, yes,' and he sighed. 'I know that face.'

Starr asked the obvious question. 'Then who is he?'

But Stone only drew her closer and started walking after the rest.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

the child, ninety-nine


Stone was off himself now, running, vaulting over the fence. He only hoped that Mac had done whatever it was he'd been hinting at, to keep the other guards from noticing anything. The lone man ahead of him had dropped to his knees by the closest stake, the glittering blade in his hand.

And then a long arm was wrapped round the guard's throat, and the blade was suddenly in Stone's hand, the tip of it right under the man's chin.

'Don't move!' Stone hissed in his ear.

The guard in fact was frozen, tense in Stone's grasp.

'You're not going to touch another hair on their heads,' Stone promised the guard. 'We're taking our friends out of here and leaving. Cooperate, and you'll be fine. Give me an excuse, and I'll stick you right here.' He didn't want to or mean to hurt this guard, of course. But the guard had no way of knowing that.

Much to Stone's surprise, the guard's tension vanished. Instead, he began to shake, almost as if the man was having convulsions. And a slight sound escaped him, thin and reedy, like... like...

Laughter?

'A rescue?' the guard whispered. 'That's good. I was expecting there were a few more of you. Three avoided capture, right?'

Stone was stunned. How could he know that?

He tightened his grip, forcing the man's head back even further, letting the blade bite at his neck. 'You tortured that information out of them?'

'Me? No. I did no torture. And your friends never broke. Every time one came close, one of the two who had carried the tents always drew attention to himself. Those two can take beatings like nothing human! No, I have another reason to know the number of your group. And here and now is not exactly the place and time to discuss that. Let's get your friends free, and get out of here.'

Stunned, Stone wondered which was wisdom - to believe the guard's words and trust him? Or to slit his throat right away and leave him for the rest of the guards to find? Surprisingly, the impulse to gash the man's throat and see him bleed his life away was powerful, so powerful that he let the blade bite a touch deeper.

'Ow!' yelped the guard. 'What...?'

Aghast, Stone let him loose all at once, and the guard fell over into the sand, his hand going to his throat and coming away bloody. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' mumbled Stone, his head swimming. Staring at him, the guard reached for the knife that hung all but forgotten from Stone's hand. Scrambling up, the guard gripped the knife firmly, stood over Stone...

And turned to cut the first prisoner free.

Starr was suddenly at their side. 'What is this?' she whispered.

'An ally,' the guard replied. He moved to the next captive and sawed through the leather straps that held him to the stake as well. Interestingly, he had chosen to follow Mac's plan without even having heard it, for the first two he freed when Malachi and Morgenstern. Hopping up, the two moved quickly through the little forest of stakes, releasing one after another.

But they surely had no knives?

'Let's go,' said the guard, sheathing his knife. Malachi took up Joy in his arms, Morgenstern supported Linda, Forest helped the horribly beaten James. And quickly they were hurrying for the same part of the fence where Stone, Starr, and this curious guard had entered.

Starr helped Stone to his feet. He still seemed dazed, stunned, confused.

Mac met them at the fence and helped anyone who needed help to climb over it. He had with him the packs and canteens that Stone and Starr had left with him. Quickly Mac distributed among the group these packs as well as the extra one he himself had been carrying.

The guard waited till they were done with that, then said, 'This way.'

'But who are you?' Forest challenged. 'And where are you taking us?'

'Questions will have to wait,' the guard countered. 'And where I'm leading you, you'll want to go. Come on!'

They all glanced at each other as the man started off. He was heading around the east side of the corral and up the slope of that mountain into the darkness.

'What do we do?' Forest asked the others. 'Stone?'

'Come.' That was Maccabees. He started after the mysterious stranger. And so the rest, still puzzled, followed Mac.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

 

the child, ninety-eight


Dreaming, though - that she didn't do. It was full night when Maccabees woke them both. Quietly he brought them up-to-date on what had been happening while they slept. The camp was now settling in after their supper - little of which had been shared with the captives. Two patrols had been sent out to keep watch round the perimeter. And round the corral itself, five guards had been stationed.

'Do they know anything about us? Do they suspect a rescue?' asked Stone.

Mac shook his head. 'Hard to tell. With the way they have set up their guard round our friends, I would say that getting past them will be very simple. We need only remove one guard to get in.'

'And to get out?'

Mac smiled. 'I will see to that,' he said.

They started out, Mac leading the way, Starr just behind him, and Stone guarding their back. It took all of two hours to work their way down the mountainside and around to the hindmost part of the corral. Mac waved them to cover, and the three of them studied what there was to see.

'That one,' Mac pointed at the nearest guard. 'Once he is out of the way, the two of you can enter easily. Set Malachi and Morgenstern free first, and they will help to release the others.'

'And you?'

'I will make sure the other guards see nothing.'

'How?' asked Starr.

Maccabees only smiled. 'When all are free, I will rendezvous with you. And then we will make our escape.'

Stone nodded. Quickly he shrugged off the two packs he'd been bearing most of the day, along with the two canteens. Starr did the same, laying it all at Maccabees' feet.

'Ready?' Stone asked.

'Wait,' said Starr. Turning to the angel, she asked again the question she had asked Stone earlier. 'The guards - are they people? or demons?'

Maccabees regarded her, fathoming what lay behind the question. 'Do not be afraid,' he told her. 'When you look into their eyes, then you will know.'

Not exactly the answer she had expected. Not exactly an answer that made sense to her, either. But the only answer she had at the time.

'Let's go,' Stone said to her. 'No talking. I'll take the guard. And Starr...'

'Yes, dear?'

He touched her cheek fondly, his eyes lingering on her sweet, wide-eyed face. 'I love you, darling,' he said.

He could see her glad blush even in this darkness. 'I love you too,' she breathed.

He nodded. Holding up his hand, he counted off his fingers. One. Two. Three.

And they were away. Crouching, moving as silently as possible. At the edge of the brush, they stopped. Stone waved for her to keep concealed here, while he would slip up on this one guard and remove him.

But before Stone could move out, to their complete surprise, the guard made a quick furtive glance left and right - and removed himself.

That is, he placed a hand on the fence stake behind him and leapt over the corral fence, landing inside that area where the captives lay, each of them still bound to a stake. The guard, himself crouching, hurried cross the empty space between the fence and the nearest prisoner. As he ran, he put one hand to his belt, then drew it away again.

There was something in his hand now. Something long and slender. Something that, in the rising moonlight, reflected a sudden glint of light back to Stone's and Starr's eyes.

Stone's breath sucked in with a sharp hiss. 'He's got a knife!' he whispered.

A knife! And he was quickly closing in on one of their helpless friends!

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Saturday, September 17, 2005

 

the child, ninety-seven


Starr thought she was going to be sick. She had already seen what the guards had done to James. Were they doing that to the others as well? To Lucy? To Joy?

'Take us there,' said Stone grimly.

Mac led the way. He had scouted out a perfect spot for the three of them to hide, part way up the slope of this west-hand mountain where a deceptively small copse would allow them to see without being seen.

From there, they could see the whole camp. And camp it was now. The guards had set up tents - and the two tents that Mal and Morgen had been carrying had plainly been confiscated and were being used by the guards now, set up in the midst of the camp.

What else had the guards stolen? Stone wondered.

Starr was busy searching for their friends. Where could they be? Mac had said they were being... Ugh! Her mind spun away from that thought. The sight of James all battered came up unbidden in her thoughts. And a tear slid down her cheek.

A slight touch wiped the tear away. 'We'll get them out,' said Stone.

'I don't even see them yet,' she whispered back.

'You don't? I see them,' he replied. 'There.'

He pointed, and she looked. Oh! A small corral had been set up at the southern end of the camp. A number of stakes had been driven upright into the ground within it, and lashed to each stake was something that looked at first like a lump.

And then one of the guards kicked at one of the lumps.

Starr herself felt the explosion of pain from that vicious kick. Groaning, she began pleading inside her head for the Master to please do something - anything! - to help their friends.

The guard reached down and yanked the head upright of the one he had just kicked. He grabbed a handful of hair to do so. A handful of long hair.

One of the women. And somehow, Starr knew it was Joy.

'Do something,' she heard Stone saying.

'What do you suggest I do?' came the reply.

'I don't know. But you're an angel, Mac. Can't you... can't you blast them or something?'

Starr turned and stared. Stone knew?

'Once we have the cover of darkness, we will carry forth the plan. Until then...'

Starr interrupted him. 'What about Malachi and Morgenstern? They're down there. Can't they go ahead and do something?'

Maccabees nodded towards the group below. 'They already are,' he said.

And as Starr looked again, she realized that the guard who had been tormenting Joy had stopped, his hand still twisted in her hair, and seemed to be listening to one of the other captives. Suddenly he let go of the girl's hair and flung himself in a rage at that other prisoner. Kicking, buffeting, his face like a wild animal, he vented the full force of his anger against that captive. From where they sat up here on the mountainside, Stone, Starr, and Mac could hear the cracks and thuds of the blows the guard was raining on the hapless prisoner.

'Malachi,' said Starr. 'That's Malachi.' He had protected Joy. And was paying for it dearly.

'What do we do?' said Stone fiercely.

'Until nightfall, lie down and rest. Try to sleep. I will keep watch,' said Mac.

They saw the wisdom in that. It would likely be a long night, and they should sleep now while they could. But actually falling asleep was not easy. How could they sleep, Starr wondered, when their friends were suffering below?

A hand stole into hers. 'Don't worry,' Stone whispered. 'Of all people, Starr-my-girl, you should know not to worry.'

That brought a smile to her face, if only briefly. 'What do you think the guards are interrogating them about?' she asked softly. 'What could they expect to learn?'

'Why we're here, for one thing,' Stone replied. 'But besides that...'

She looked at him, wondering at the hesitation. 'Yes?'

'Well. It's possible the guards suspect they didn't round up everyone. They might be asking about us.'

Oh! That thought hadn't occurred to her. 'Do you think... do you think any of our friends told about us?'

'I don't know,' he answered.

Silence, for quite a while. And then Stone added, 'I don't think they have. That patrol that nearly caught us - if they had known for sure that someone was out here, they would have made a much more careful search. They weren't really searching. Just walking a watch, same as the guys and I do nightly. So I don't think they know we're here.'

That was a comfort. Slowly, gently, Starr relaxed. Slowly, gently, sleep was steeling over her...

'Starr?'

That was Stone's voice again, almost in her hair. Coming out of the fog of sleep with difficulty, she responded with, 'Yes, dear?'

A chuckle. 'I like when you call me dear. I just now thought of something, and I wanted to ask you about it.'

'Yes, dear?'

Another chuckle. 'About Mal and Morgen. Why did you ask Mac if they could do something? What did you expect them to be able to do?'

'Well, the same sort of thing you expected Maccabees to do,' she said, baffled.

A moment's silence. 'Then you're saying that Mal and Morgen are angels too.'

'Yes, I... Oh! Didn't you know?'

'Not till now.'

'But you knew about Maccabees.'

He squeezed her hand tenderly. 'Don't worry about it, Starr-girl. I won't say a word. Go on and sleep.' She felt his other hand now, rhythmically smoothing her hair. 'Sleep and dream, my love,' Stone said. 'Sleep and dream.'

She slept.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

 

the child, ninety-six


'But,' said Starr, 'I mean, I'm not trying to argue. But I thought you said we would wait for darkness.

'For the rescue, yes. But we need to find a spot before nightfall where we can keep watch over their camp from. For that matter...' Stone added, as a dawning look of horror crossed his face.

'The guard might have moved on while we've been sitting here making our plans,' Mac finished for him.

'Yes, they might have moved on!' said Stone. 'They hadn't made a camp before we slipped away. What if...?'

'Let's get back there and see,' said Mac.

He went on ahead of Starr and Stone, partly to check on the enemies and partly to scout out a place for their vigil. The angel moved silently in a way that the two humans could not. As they followed well behind him, Starr turned suddenly to Stone. 'The guards,' she said.

'Where?' he replied, hand reaching towards his sword hilt.

'No, I don't mean I see any. I just mean - well, they are human, right? People, not demons?'

'Why do you ask?'

'Because if they're demons, I don't have any problem about running them through with my sword. If they're people, though...'

'People are not the enemy; the enemy is the enemy,' Stone quoted. He remembered Josh the sword master saying that to them so very long ago.

'If they're people,' Starr agreed, 'then there is hope even for them, that they too might be rescued from the dungeons and find rest in the Master's house.'

Stone nodded. 'No killing then.'

'No killing.'

'Unless,' he added, 'we have no choice.'

She glanced sharply at him. 'You think we might have no choice?'

'I don't know,' he answered. 'I hope not.'

'Me too,' said she. And they both fell silent.

And maintained silence. They were getting too close now to where they had last seen the guards. Too much risk to speak anymore here.

Down.

The order, deep inside her being, was unmistakable. Without pondering on the word or where it had come from, Starr instantly dropped flat on the ground, landing behind a great dead log. Stone opened his mouth in surprise at her sudden disappearance, and came very near to calling out her name. Then he spotted her. Why was she lying on the ground like that? Had she...

Suddenly he understood. In a second, he was flat on the ground behind the log as well. And not a second too late.

A furtive crunch in the blanket of leaves on the ground beyond the log. A sigh of repressed breathing. A small creak of leather against leather. The guards!

An intense desire hit Stone. The desire to shift his head, to look up and see for sure if he was interpreting these small sounds correctly. Oh, but that desire was all but overwhelming! Nearly, very nearly, he gave in and followed the impulse to look.

Nearly. But he didn't. He clenched his teeth and kept his head down, face in the leaves, barely breathing himself.

Something with at least six legs found its way onto his neck, dancing a little dance up under his collar. Six legs, or was it eight?

Whatever it was, he hoped it wouldn't bite him!

The suspense was terrific. When would the guards move on? And how would he be sure if they had? How would he know when it was safe?

A hand was suddenly clasped over his mouth! He tensed his muscles, preparing to fight, preparing to throw off his attacker, to defend Starr!

'Stone.'

His own name, softly breathed into his ear. He paused. How would the guards know his name? And the voice - it was very familiar...

'Be not afraid.'

The hand over his mouth vanished, and Stone rolled over and spat out the leaves that hand had inadvertently crammed into his mouth. 'Mac.'

Starr was sitting up now also.

'It is well,' said the angel, 'that the pair of you hid here. A patrol of guards just now passed by.'

Stone glanced at Starr, wondering at that way she had of knowing things. Thanks be to the Master for such a gift!

And Starr sighed deeply. That explained the sudden word 'down' inside her head!

'Have they moved?' Stone asked, getting back to the business at hand.

Mac hesitated with his answer. 'No,' he said. 'No, they haven't moved. They haven't because...' And he sighed and did his best to meet the eyes of both of them at the same time.

'They've been interrogating their prisoners.'

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

 

the child, ninety-five


She felt the tugging well before she finally thought to turn and see. Stone. He had her hand and was pulling her away.

Away? But how could they leave? Their friends were over there, captives!

Then she saw that Maccabees too was moving away. Crouching, cautiously, the two of them were slipping away from the soldiers and their hapless prisoners.

Stone still held her hand. So Starr had to follow.

'Here,' Mac said softly at last. 'We can speak here.' They huddled together in a secluded grove of trees, well out of sight and sound of the soldiers in the valley path.

'Why did we leave them?' asked Starr, nearly in tears.

'So we can make plans,' said Stone.

'Plans?'

Maccabees nodded. 'To rescue them.'

Rescue. The three of them? Against so many? But...

'Starr?' That was Stone. He was looking into her face intently. 'Starr-girl, you would be the last of us that I would suspect would give up. Don't you think we can do this?'

'Just three of us?' she replied.

He smiled at her. 'No. Three of us, and all the Master's strength to back us up. Not to mention that army of angels you saw. Right?'

She blinked. Oh! She looked at her two companions, and then past them.

Faintly, waveringly, as if seen through tears - yes, she saw them. Each with a weapon in its hand. The angels. They were ready. How silly of her to doubt!

Dashing the tears away, she nodded. 'What do we do? And who were those soldiers?'

Stone's eyebrows climbed. 'You don't remember? Wait. No, of course you don't.' He pointed back through the trees, back the way they had come. 'Those are the guards. We used to live under their thumbs.'

'Guards?'

'Yes. From the enemy's fortress.'

Starr jumped slightly. 'Them? From the dungeons? But what are they doing here?'

'This must mean we are very close to the fortress now,' Stone went on, thinking out loud. 'But I sure don't know why we never saw any of the guard before...'

'We were never so close to the assault on the fortress before,' put in Mac. 'The enemy obviously knows this, and has sent out this troop to prevent us.'

Starr felt tears creeping up on her again. 'Oh, if only Joy and the others had been able to get away!' she said.

'But they weren't trying to get away,' said Maccabees.

She stared at him. They weren't? 'But... but...'

'They broke cover,' he said gently, 'to draw the guards away from us. So that we might stay free, and return, and set free them all.'

'But they gave themselves up before we knew that James and the rest had been taken,' Stone protested.

Mac nodded serenely. 'Malachi knew,' he said.

Oh. Starr nodded as well. Yes, surely Malachi had known.

Stone digested that revelation in silence for a few seconds. 'Well,' he said at last, 'How are we going to do this?' He frowned fiercely. 'We need to plan quickly, I think, and then get back there and find a good spot to keep an eye on them, while we wait.'

'Wait for what?' asked Starr.

The man glanced up at the sky. The sun was still not far past its height. 'For nightfall,' he said. 'A little cover of darkness will help us tremendously, wouldn't you think?'

No arguing with that. 'And after night falls, what then?'

'Then we'll need to distract the men guarding our friends - and discretely, so we don't draw the attention of the rest of the guards. Draw off the guards, set free our friends. And then vanish into the night.'

It was the sketchiest of sketchy plans. Stone and Maccabees spent nearly an hour refining it, thinking of as many things as they could that might go wrong, and coming up with emergency plans for each possible failure.

They mustn't fail. They all knew that. The whole mission was riding on whether or not they could pull off this rescue.

'All right,' Stone said at last. 'Let's go.'

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Sunday, September 11, 2005

 

the child, ninety-four


A spear! They all scattered, Stone pulling Starr after Mac and himself, while Mal and Morgen each caught hold of one of the other women and plunged into the underbrush.

In a moment the path along the valley floor was as still and empty and barren as could be. Starr crouched with Stone and Maccabees in the bramble along the western side of the path. So quickly had it all happened, that Starr wasn't entirely sure where the other four were now. Had they run for cover to the opposite side of the valley?

And yes! Just for a moment, a hand rose above the bushes on the other side across the path. The fingers waved briefly, then the hand vanished.

'Malachi,' whispered Maccabees. And he raised his own hand and returned the brief signal.

So they are over there, and we are over here, thought Starr. But the question is, who threw that spear?

To her amazement, that very question suddenly echoed out to them.

A harsh voice, gruff and gravely, called out the question. And then a body of men - soldiers? - came down the valley, marching out of the direction that Starr and the others had been just about to search.

Soldiers. Surely they were soldiers. They were dressed almost identically, all of them, with dark rough armor over dark rough clothing. But where would soldiers come from? she wondered. She and the others had been on this trail for so very long now, and this was the first set of people other than themselves that they had seen in all that time.

Had Forest and the others seen them as well? Was that why they stopped here and split up?

'I said,' came that gruff voice again, 'who threw this spear?' The foremost of the group, the darkest and most dangerous-looking of them all - he all but reeked of dark spirits! - laid hold of the spear and snatched it out of the ground. He turned and looked over his troops. None of them gave him an answer. Scowling, he snarled, 'Speak! Or when I find you out, I'll run this through you!'

A voice then lifted - the only man not carrying a spear, so it was well that he owned up; his empty-handedness would not have remained unnoticed for long. The leader snorted and flung the spear in such a way that it came nigh to impaling the man anyway.

'And why did you throw it?' barked the leader.

'I... I thought I saw...'

'I know what you saw. Idiot! If you hadn't warned them with this spear, we would have stolen up on them and taken the lot! Now. Spread out and search for them. They can't have gone far. You five - stay there and...'

Whatever else he was saying, Starr did not hear. The soldiers were coming! She gathered her feet under her, ready to flee. Stone caught her hand in his, pressed her fingers. And when she looked up at him, he mouthed silently and plainly, 'I love you.'

He had his feet under him as well, ready to spring off through the woods in a bid to outrun the soldiers. A near-hopeless bid, he knew. But they would surely catch them otherwise, right?

Mac's hand closed over Stone's arm. And the angel shook his head.

What?

Then Mac looked across the path, pointing silently with his chin.

'What are they doing?' Starr hissed in shock.

For the other two angels, and the other two women - their friends, Malachi and Morgenstern and Linda and Joy - had broken from cover noisily. They ran with all their might, running away, up the path.

Heart in her throat, Starr watched. Oh, please! They had to get away. They had to! They...

They didn't. The soldiers caught them up all too quickly. Binding all four, the men then led their prisoners back before their leader.

All the soldiers came back. The ones who had started in this direction, towards Starr and her group, also returned to where the leader stood with his cold dark glance.

Maccabees laid a cautionary hand on Stone's shoulder. Yes, they had to keep quiet.

The leader spat at the ground. 'Women! More women they send! What folly! Put them with the others.'

Others?

With their eyes, Stone and Starr followed their friends as they were shoved along by the soldiers. And there, at the rear, with five soldiers to guard them - there were Forest, Jack, and Lucy. And there as well, his face battered, great welts all over his cheeks and eyes...

Oh, no. James.

Starr's heart sank within her. Whoever this new enemy was, they had taken eight of their friends. And what, oh, what could she, Stone, and Mac do about it all alone?

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Friday, September 09, 2005

 

the child, ninety-three


Silence fell over them all like a slap in the face. They stood motionless, listening.

'Aha!' cried Forest suddenly. He snatched up James' sword from where Jack had impaled it into the ground, flung aside his remaining crutch, and took off limping at top speed. Jack raced after him, and so did Lucy.

Mac too whirled and ran. But not after those three. Instead, he ran to the pile of packs and bundles to sling on his backpack. Mal and Morgen hurried to do the same.

'What are you doing?' asked Stone, torn between following Forest and finding out what the angel was up to.

'I do not expect that we will return to this camp,' Mac explained briefly. He handed a packed tent and bundle of tent poles to each of his two companions, taking the third set for himself. 'If we are moving, then, we must take everything. We can track the others and try to catch up.'

Now Stone and the others saw what he meant, and hurried to snatch up packs as well. Since James, Jack, Forest, and Lucy had not taken their packs with them, some of the rest of them had to carry two. Stone caught the canteens from Starr's hand and quickly distributed them as well.

It was bare moments before all was cleared away and they were ready. With Mal and Morgen in the lead, and Mac bringing up the rear, Stone and the three remaining women set out to follow their friends and find out what had become of James.

'What did anyone hear?' Stone asked maybe ten minutes later, as Mal and Morgen paused to make sense of some tracks.

'I thought I heard a cry for help,' said Joy.

'And what Forest heard?' said Stone. For he himself had heard nothing.

Linda shook her head. 'I don't know. I didn't exactly hear anything. Not even what you heard, Joy.'

'Come,' said Morgen, cutting off any further discussion. The group jogged on.

The next time they stopped to be sure of the tracks, Morgen looked up at the rest and said, 'This is the same way that Jack and I came this morning, before we realized that instead of following James, we were chasing him away. This is where we stopped and turned back. Now...'

Mal interrupted him with, 'That way,' and pointed. Nods all around - many of them breathless - and they hurried on.

Before long, they broke from the woods lining the sides of the path along the valley floor, and began following the valley path itself. The tracks seemed to be harder to see here, but Mal was an expert in finding them anyway. Stone kept the sheath of his sword gripped in his left hand, ready on an instant to snatch the sword out with his right.

He kept his eyes open, scanning the mountain sides rising on either side of them. They all did. No one wanted to be caught by surprise if, for example, the wolves might be lurking in the woods to take advantage of them.

Of course, they were all wondering where these tracks would lead them. Stone especially was wondering - and also struggling to keep his mind from darting off on rabbit trails of speculation about what they might find. Where was James? Why had he fled from Jack and Morgen, instead of coming back? What had Joy heard, and what had Forest heard? And where were James and his pursuers now - why had none of them come back?

Questions he had aplenty. But answers?

The sun was passing its height overhead when Mal held up his hand to halt the group. His other hand he held to his lips, for quiet. And except for the unavoidable noises of catching their breaths, they complied.

Morgen waved Mac in. For some time, heads together, the three studied the tracks and consulted together. Finally they looked at each other and nodded all around.

Then stood and faced the others. 'We need to split up.'

'What?' said Linda. And then slammed her own hand over her mouth, for saying it so loud.

Mal pointed at the ground. 'The tracks split up, and so must we. See how they go this way, and that?' His hand swept off to the left, up into the trees, and then ahead of them, still following the path. 'They made two parties here.'

'Why would they do that?' asked Joy.

'They must have seen something,' said Stone.

Mac nodded. 'Exactly. Two continued on the path, and the one went up into the woods alone.'

'Forest went by himself, no doubt,' put in Stone.

Morgen grinned. 'Either you're learning to track, or you know our young Forest very well.'

The others smiled. If anyone was going to make a brave stand at single combat, it would be Forest - limp or not.

'Well, let's go then. Starr, Mac, you two come with me. The rest of you, follow Jack and Lucy. Mac,' and Stone paused. 'Well, I'm assuming you know how to read a trail.'

Mac smiled. Oh, yes. An angel would surely know how to follow a trail!

'All right then. Let's... uh,' and again Stone paused. 'Let's do this right. Let's pray and speak to the Master before we take another step. Starr?'

He held a hand out to her. She took it, and joined hands with Joy on her other side, while Stone joined hands with Mac. All seven were soon in a circle, standing hand-in-hand. Lifting her face to the heavens above them, Starr began, 'Dear Master...'

At that moment, something whizzed into the center of the group and stuck quivering in the ground.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

 

the child, ninety-two


'Tell James? How are we going to do that?'

Starr looked up at him. Oh, those wide and innocent eyes! 'Jack and Morgen went after him. Surely they've found him,' said she.

But they hadn't. When the pair of them returned to camp with the water, they found everything packed, and Jack and Morgen with the rest. But no James.

Forest was arguing with the two who had come back without James. Well, Lucy was arguing too.

Well...

The whole camp was in turmoil. Unity? Ha!

Starr turned those wide eyes towards Stone. As if he could do anything? he thought in exasperation. He couldn't even keep his own mind in check, much less keep this company in unity. What was he supposed to do?

He closed his eyes. And it flashed into his mind again: Starr dancing with the Master, and then that healing touch over his own heart.

And in the midst of the storm of squabbling voices all about him, he saw. Trust. Trust that follows. Love that heals. Peace that opens wide. His heart he had opened wide to the Master - was he then going to slam it shut and run?

Starr wasn't the only one who had ever run. Nor was James. He himself - he, Stone - had run plenty of times. At least on the inside. But no more.

He looked again. It wasn't as bad as he had first thought. Mac wasn't arguing. Nor was Mal. And Morgen, in the face of Forest yelling at him, stood quietly, making no harsh response. And while Jack was holding his own against Forest's and Lucy's tongue-lashings, Joy and Linda had both stepped back. They were even holding hands together and, if he wasn't mistaken, they were praying.

Good. Touching Starr's hand, he pointed at that quiet pair. She nodded and went to join them.

Now. Clearing his throat loudly, Stone said, 'So! What's going on?'

A moment's silence as they turned to stare at him. And then, instead of arguing at each other, they were suddenly all talking loudly at him.

He stood there, blinking, waiting...

Till embarrassment started to set in. One by one the voices dropped away, until only Forest was left, saying, '...and they came back without him!' His voice rang far too loud in the sudden silence, and abruptly he too stopped talking.

'Um, yeah. I noticed,' said Stone. 'Couldn't find him?'

'He was running from us,' said Morgen. 'The more we followed, the more he ran.'

'So we stopped,' said Jack. 'It seemed like we were only driving him farther from us all. Problem is...' And he swung his arm, stabbing his brother's sword into the ground. 'He's not armed.'

'Then we all need to...' Forest began.

When Joy gasped loudly and blurted, 'Did you hear that?'

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