Sunday, October 30, 2005

 

the child, part 3 chapter 2 - 'surveillance'


As morning dawned, Linda woke to find Lucy was gathering together cleaning supplies. It took Linda a moment to remember where they were and how they had gotten there. And then, groggily, she whispered, 'Um... what are you doing?'

'Who notices the cleaning crew, eh?' Lucy was all but chuckling over her cleverness. 'We'll be the charwomen, and that way we'll be able to go through every room on this level. What easier way to search for Walker?'

By noon, they both were sure there must be a dozen easier ways to search. But it was too late now. Lucy hadn't remembered the captives on this level as being so very messy! Still, the two of them pressed on with their self-imposed assignment, and just barely finished one corridor by the end of that first day.

They saw no signs of Walker, all day long. Nor did they see Ginger; she had not been in her room the whole time Lucy cleaned it. And Lucy took her sweet time about cleaning that room, too! She kept hoping and hoping the woman would come in. The prisoners up here had a great deal of freedom of movement, she remembered. Any time she had wanted to go here or there, she had simply gotten a guard to escort her wherever she wished.

That was how the prisoners here imagined they weren't even prisoners. That they were instead the elite, with guards as their servants. It took a great deal, sometimes, to get your eyes opened, Lucy reflected. And now Ginger's were opened. She could hardly wait to talk to her!

At last, when Lucy simply could not delay moving on to the next room any longer, she wrote out a note and slipped it under Ginger's pillow. Surely the woman would find it there.

And then Lucy left, locking the door behind her. It was still a marvel to her, how this one key that had been in her pack all this time, could open every door in this fortress.

At the end of the day, when they brought the cleaning supplies back to the closet, Lucy confided to Linda about the note she had left. And was surprised to see the look of doubt that flashed over her companion's face. 'Linda? What's wrong?'

'Oh, nothing,' Linda replied. 'Surely nothing. It's just that - we're taking Walker's word for it that Ginger wants to escape. What if he's wrong? What if she's changed her mind? What if...' and now her voice dropped off to a whisper. 'What if this whole thing is a set-up, and Walker went over to the enemy's side? What if contacting Ginger is part of a trap?' She looked at Lucy with large and hollow eyes.

The thought was horrifying, and for a moment Lucy was too stunned to answer. But then she steeled herself. 'Everything will be all right, Lucy. You'll see. The Master will take care of it.'

'Are you sure?'

'That the Master will take care of it? Of course he will,' Lucy smiled reassuringly.

'No, I mean... I mean, that everything will be all right. Will it? Will it really?' And oh! how much like a frightened child Linda looked at that moment! Lucy wanted so badly to give her a hug.

So she did.

'Don't worry,' she told Linda softly. 'We aren't being left dangling out here, without help. The Master will protect us. We'll just do the work he's given us, and trust him with the rest. Right?'

Mutely, Linda nodded.

Lucy smiled again, her face softening prettily. 'Good. Now,' and she glanced around. The guards had returned all the prisoners to their cells for the night, and the place looked all but deserted now. 'We need to go report in to Maccabees. Come on.'

Quietly, they snuck along one silent corridor and down the stairway to keep their daily appointment.

~~~~~~~

Piecing together the note Walker had shredded took Maccabees only a matter of seconds. By dawn, when Lucy and Linda were setting out to start cleaning the first corridor on the ground level two floors above him, Mac had already scouted all three hundred sixty cells on his level. No sign of Walker. He did, however, find Beatriz easily enough.

And now to befriend her.

Walker's notes about this woman were remarkably skimpy. Mac guessed it was because, once Walker had decided to rescue Beatriz himself, he had stopped writing down any details. Why would he need to make notes, when the notes would only be for himself?

No matter. Mac was good at observing, and would soon know all he would need to know.

He planted himself in the corridor near the woman's cell, made sure no one would be able to see him - no one could see him, unless he wanted to be seen - and spent that first day watching.

It wasn't long before Mac saw her. Beatriz. The guards were going up and down the corridors, unlocking all doors, throwing them open noisily, yelling for all prisoners to get out here and line up. Bleary-eyed and weary, they emerged - men, women, and children - to be shoved into line and marched away.

And there was Beatriz. She stood out from the rest, Mac noted. In this sea of hopelessness, she was different, for her eyes were darting furtively, now here, now there, glancing about in hope of seeing the face of the one who had given her hope of escape.

She and the rest were being marched off, all of them, to a huge workroom. There the guards chained them one by one to workstations, then left them to toil, toil, toil all day long. Mac followed the guards away first, to see what they would do once they had the captives chained in place. Then he returned to see what sort of routine these captives lived through daily.

Lunch was brought in at noon and all but hurled at the hapless captives. They ate it one-handed, still chained at the stations, still toiling away with the other hand. They dared not quit nor slow down.

Supper, when it came, was the same as lunch. Work, work, work - never ceasing.

Finally, well after the sun sank over the horizon outside - not that any of the captives ever saw the sun here below ground - finally the guards came back and unchained them all. Rudely they shoved the workers into line once more and marched them back to the long corridors, back to their cells. The captives, spent and weary, trudged meekly into the cells, dropping exhausted into their beds even before the guards could clang the cell doors shut.

And Mac took it all in. If this was the routine for every day, day in and day out, then the only time he could hope to speak with Beatriz would be at night, while the others slept.

All right. He had waited all day; he could wait a bit longer before attempting to contact her. In the meantime, he expected Lucy and Linda to come see him shortly from upstairs. And after hearing their report and giving them his, then would he need to go downstairs and pass on both reports to Jack and Morgen.

It would be great if someone had found Walker by now. Talking with Beatriz would be much easier with the man she already trusted standing at his side. But if not - he would simply have to do his best. The Master, of course, would do the rest. This was his Bride, after all, that they had come here to woo and rescue.

And, ah, what a thrill it always was, to see one of these helpless ones set free! Mac was greatly looking forward to that. Such a delicious sight, to see someone meet the Master and fall in love with him! If only angels could do what humans could...

Still, we get to share in the rejoicing, Mac thought. And with that precious thought lightening his steps, he hurried to the stairway for his meeting with the ladies from upstairs.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, October 28, 2005

 

the child, one hundred fifteen


Piecing together the note Walker had shredded took Maccabees only a matter of seconds. By dawn, when Lucy and Linda were setting out to start cleaning the first corridor on the ground level two floors above him, Mac had already scouted all three hundred sixty cells on his level. No sign of Walker. He did, however, find Beatriz easily enough.

And now to befriend her.

Walker's notes about this woman were remarkably skimpy. Mac guessed it was because, once Walker had decided to rescue Beatriz himself, he had stopped writing down any details. Why would he need to make notes, when the notes would only be for himself?

No matter. Mac was good at observing, and would soon know all he would need to know.

He planted himself in the corridor near the woman's cell, made sure no one would be able to see him - no one could see him, unless he wanted to be seen - and spent that first day watching.

It wasn't long before Mac saw her. Beatriz. The guards were going up and down the corridors, unlocking all doors, throwing them open noisily, yelling for all prisoners to get out here and line up. Bleary-eyed and weary, they emerged - men, women, and children - to be shoved into line and marched away.

And there was Beatriz. She stood out from the rest, Mac noted. In this sea of hopelessness, she was different, for her eyes were darting furtively, now here, now there, glancing about in hope of seeing the face of the one who had given her hope of escape.

She and the rest were being marched off, all of them, to a huge workroom. There the guards chained them one by one to workstations, then left them to toil, toil, toil all day long. Mac followed the guards away first, to see what they would do once they had the captives chained in place. Then he returned to see what sort of routine these captives lived through daily.

Lunch was brought in at noon and all but hurled at the hapless captives. They ate it one-handed, still chained at the stations, still toiling away with the other hand. They dared not quit nor slow down.

Supper, when it came, was the same as lunch. Work, work, work - never ceasing.

Finally, well after the sun sank over the horizon outside - not that any of the captives ever saw the sun here below ground - finally the guards came back and unchained them all. Rudely they shoved the workers into line once more and marched them back to the long corridors, back to their cells. The captives, spent and weary, trudged meekly into the cells, dropping exhausted into their beds even before the guards could clang the cell doors shut.

And Mac took it all in. If this was the routine for every day, day in and day out, then the only time he could hope to speak with Beatriz would be at night, while the others slept.

All right. He had waited all day; he could wait a bit longer before attempting to contact her. In the meantime, he expected Lucy and Linda to come see him shortly from upstairs. And after hearing their report and giving them his, then would he need to go downstairs and pass on both reports to Jack and Morgen.

It would be great if someone had found Walker by now. Talking with Beatriz would be much easier with the man she already trusted standing at his side. But if not - he would simply have to do his best. The Master, of course, would do the rest. This was his Bride, after all, that they had come here to woo and rescue.

And, ah, what a thrill it always was, to see one of these helpless ones set free! Mac was greatly looking forward to that. Such a delicious sight, to see someone meet the Master and fall in love with him! If only angels could do what humans could...

Still, we get to share in the rejoicing, Mac thought. And with that precious thought lightening his steps, he hurried to the stairway for his meeting with the ladies from upstairs.

~first~
~previous~ ~next~

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

the child, one hundred fourteen


As morning dawned, Linda woke to find Lucy was gathering together cleaning supplies. It took Linda a moment to remember where they were and how they had gotten there. And then, groggily, she whispered, 'Um... what are you doing?'

'Who notices the cleaning crew, eh?' Lucy was all but chuckling over her cleverness. 'We'll be the charwomen, and that way we'll be able to go through every room on this level. What easier way to search for Walker?'

By noon, they both were sure there must be a dozen easier ways to search. But it was too late now. Lucy hadn't remembered the captives on this level as being so very messy! Still, the two of them pressed on with their self-imposed assignment, and just barely finished one corridor by the end of that first day.

They saw no signs of Walker, all day long. Nor did they see Ginger; she had not been in her room the whole time Lucy cleaned it. And Lucy took her sweet time about cleaning that room, too! She kept hoping and hoping the woman would come in. The prisoners up here had a great deal of freedom of movement, she remembered. Any time she had wanted to go here or there, she had simply gotten a guard to escort her wherever she wished.

That was how the prisoners here imagined they weren't even prisoners. That they were instead the elite, with guards as their servants. It took a great deal, sometimes, to get your eyes opened, Lucy reflected. And now Ginger's were opened. She could hardly wait to talk to her!

At last, when Lucy simply could not delay moving on to the next room any longer, she wrote out a note and slipped it under Ginger's pillow. Surely the woman would find it there.

And then Lucy left, locking the door behind her. It was still a marvel to her, how this one key that had been in her pack all this time, could open every door in this fortress.

At the end of the day, when they brought the cleaning supplies back to the closet, Lucy confided to Linda about the note she had left. And was surprised to see the look of doubt that flashed over her companion's face. 'Linda? What's wrong?'

'Oh, nothing,' Linda replied. 'Surely nothing. It's just that - we're taking Walker's word for it that Ginger wants to escape. What if he's wrong? What if she's changed her mind? What if...' and now her voice dropped off to a whisper. 'What if this whole thing is a set-up, and Walker went over to the enemy's side? What if contacting Ginger is part of a trap?' She looked at Lucy with large and hollow eyes.

The thought was horrifying, and for a moment Lucy was too stunned to answer. But then she steeled herself. 'Everything will be all right, Lucy. You'll see. The Master will take care of it.'

'Are you sure?'

'That the Master will take care of it? Of course he will,' Lucy smiled reassuringly.

'No, I mean... I mean, that everything will be all right. Will it? Will it really?' And oh! how much like a frightened child Linda looked at that moment! Lucy wanted so badly to give her a hug.

So she did.

'Don't worry,' she told Linda softly. 'We aren't being left dangling out here, without help. The Master will protect us. We'll just do the work he's given us, and trust him with the rest. Right?'

Mutely, Linda nodded.

Lucy smiled again, her face softening prettily. 'Good. Now,' and she glanced around. The guards had returned all the prisoners to their cells for the night, and the place looked all but deserted now. 'We need to go report in to Maccabees. Come on.'

Quietly, they snuck along one silent corridor and down the stairway to keep their daily appointment.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Sunday, October 23, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 1 - 'into the fortress'


Mac led the way with Stone at his side. They skirted the foot of the mountain, keeping themselves hidden behind the underbrush as they went. They moved in silence, wary of where their feet landed, wary lest a stray crackle draw the attention of the returning guards. Blind those guards might be; deaf was another matter.

Soon they were at the point where the pass opened out into the plain. Most of the troop had already spilled out of the pass by now. The little group of eleven crouched in the bracken, waiting, watching, silent.

There was Walker. He looked both furious and humbled as he lurched along, his walking made strange and ungainly by the way his arms were bound so tightly behind him.

Stone, looking on the man, found suddenly that he profoundly loved him. The Master's love, he knew. Why had it taken him this long to see Walker with the Master's love? The upset of Walker's words - not the ones earlier today, but the long-ago words from when Walker had first learned of where Stone had come from - that upset had stayed with Stone all this time.

Well... He had let it stay with him all this time. He had thought he had forgiven Walker, had told himself that he had. But now, seeing the man bound up and being led back into the dungeons - only now did Stone's heart cry out for mercy on Walker. Only now did he really love the man, loving his old friend with the Master's love.

Please, Master! That we may succeed, and rescue him, and rescue them all!

He felt fingers curling with his own. A smile. Starr-girl, of course. He glanced down at her, as always at his side. I love you, she mouthed to him silently. I love you too, the squeeze of his hand said silently back.

The last of the troop was passing now. These in particular looked weary and wasted as they blundered along, stumbling very badly. A pang hit Stone's heart for them as well, and he wondered if perhaps some of them might not eventually find rest in the Master's house.

A tap on his shoulder. Forest. The boy jerked his chin towards the troop, mouthing, Go!

Softly, quietly, Stone and Starr slipped out of the underbrush. The others were right behind them, all moving slowly so as not to draw attention to themselves. They kept back from the troop ahead of them, leaving enough distance between them that (they hoped) they would not be heard following. But not so much distance (again they hoped) that they might attract the attention of the guards in the fortress.

It was a long trip, for covering such a short distance. They had to move every bit as slowly as the slow-moving guards ahead of them. Move slowly - no talking - try to blend in - try to be invisible.

The great concern Stone had personally, was that the one man in that troop whose eyes had not been affected by whatever Mac had done, might happened to glance backwards and see them. And what would Walker do if he spotted them following? Would he betray them? Had he done so already?

Stone glanced up at the mountain side, trying to make out where the cave was that they had just come from. From down here, he could see nothing of that hiding place - which was good. He also could see nothing of any guards climbing the mountain to find the cave. So maybe Walker hadn't given them that.

Yet.

On the other hand, with the guards so weary and uncertain in walking, perhaps he had told them of the cave, but none of this guard had been up to the dangerous task of climbing a mountain half-blind.

Half-blind? All blind? Just how badly had Mac stricken their vision? At least the angel had assured him that it wasn't permanent.

The fortress was drawing nearer. The closer they got, the larger and uglier it loomed. Stone really hoped their stay within it would be short and voluntary, and their escape complete!

Poor Walker though...

A commotion broke out ahead of them. They all peered ahead, trying to make out what was happening. The first of the returning troop had nearly reached the main entrance just ahead of them on this west side. Stone, with his advantage of height, had the best chance of seeing what was going on.

Ah! From within the fortress, more guards were emerging. One of them had the look of a high commander. Standing imperiously in the entrance way, he gestured and the commander of the returning guards came towards him. Then the two apparently engaged in conversation.

More of the returning guard came up to the entrance. Having nowhere closer to go just now, as the high commander was not yet allowing anyone inside, they got as close as they could and then stopped, milling about, weary beyond weariness.

Now the final section of the guards was arriving before the entrance. The returning commander gestured, and the prisoner was brought forward before the high commander. More conversation.

And now Stone and his group arrived last of all. He glanced back. Do as the occasion demands? But what did that mean? Did any of them know?

And then pandemonium seemed to break out. Guards were rushing out from within the fortress, grabbing the returning guards. What were they doing? Arresting them?

But no - they were supporting them, bearing them inside, helping them along. So many guards! Stone barely caught sight of Walker being taken inside, followed closely by both commanders.

And then a touch on his arm. Mac, pointing. And now Stone saw Forest. The boy was working his way round the edge of the confused crowd, heading north. But why? thought Stone.

Why didn't matter. If this was what the occasion demanded, then the only thing to do was to follow the boy. And so Stone did - they all did - trying their best to look casual and normal as they passed beyond the busy crowd of guards and round the corner.

There they flattened against the fortress wall and took a quick count. All eleven were here. 'Come,' hissed Forest. And he headed on eastward along this north wall.

'What's he doing?' Stone breathed to Mac at his side.

'What the occasion demands,' the angel replied. And he smiled as he said it.

Forest stopped at the corner and peered round it. Turning to James and Jack, he whispered something to them, then gestured for Jack to go tell the rest. Jack seemed to put up an argument first before turning away and backtracking, shaking his head as he went.

Coming to Stone, Starr, and Mac first, Jack said, 'With all the guards distracted at the front, Forest hopes to find this northeast door unguarded. Or nearly so. He'll go first alone, and we're to follow once he gives the all clear.'

'And if he doesn't give the all clear?' said Stone.

Jack rolled his eyes. 'Then we'll have one more person to rescue from these dungeons, won't we? And one less rescuer to do the job with.'

Jack hurried on to tell the remainder of the group. Then they all watched as Forest shot a glance towards heaven, then plunged round the corner. James peered round the corner after him, waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

~~~~~~~


Waiting.

Time was passing. The sun was setting. The sounds from before the fortress were fading as more and more of the guards were brought inside, and less and less of them were still outside, waiting to be brought in.

And the rescuers were waiting. Waiting.

'Do you think he got caught?' Stone whispered to Starr.

She was standing quietly, her lips moving in prayer. She looked up at Stone and shook her head. But whether by that she meant, No, or that she didn't know, he wasn't sure.

Suddenly, James was gesturing, motioning for them all to move up. As Stone, Starr, and Mac reached him, the badly bruised man whispered, 'Go,' and waved them on past him.

Cautiously they slipped round the corner and looked. Just steps away was a small door, and peering out that small door at them, signaling for them to hurry - Forest!

Stone hesitated but a moment, searching the boy's face for any sign of anything wrong. After all, it wasn't impossible that the boy might have been caught, and this was now a trap to lure them all in. But there was nothing strange about Forest's face or actions.

Was there?

'Let's go,' Stone said. The three of them rushed onward, swords out and at the ready just in case. They reached the door and Forest all but jerked them inside. The dark inside was momentarily blinding, but as his eyes adjusted, Stone saw that surrounding them within this entrance to the dungeons was...

No one.

He turned to Forest. 'No guards?' he whispered.

The boy frowned and made a gesture for silence as the remainder of their group hurried in the door. Closing the door quickly, Forest led them to a stairway - one of the staircases Stone had remembered? - and on downwards into greater and greater darkness.

Until there was no more down. Only dank musty miriness, scattered torches, and the muffled anguish of captive men.

They had reached the deepest dungeons.

~~~~~~~


It was almost unbelievable. How had they gotten in so easily? Unless...

Could this be a trap?

Stone made his way over to Forest. 'How'd you manage to get inside like this?'

The boy smiled. 'I knocked.'

'Oh, come on.'

'No, really. There was only one guard on duty. The rest had gone up front to help bring the helpless guards in. When he opened the door, I told him, "Didn't you hear the call for everyone to go help those poor guys in? Why are you still here? Go! Hurry!" ' Forest muffled a laugh, still amazed. 'And he went! Can you beat that?'

Jack frowned. 'You mean he mistook you for one of the guards? But how could he do that? You don't look a bit like any of the guards. You're not even dressed right.'

As Forest responded with a grinning 'No clue,' Stone and Starr looked at Mac. 'What did you do?' Stone asked him.

'Me? Nothing,' the angel replied innocently. But as he said it, he glanced in Malachi's direction...

'So - now we're in,' Lucy was saying. 'What do we do next?

They looked about. In the dim and wavering torch light, everything looked weird and a bit scary. The moaning of miserable men didn't improve the atmosphere. But as they stood, listening, trying to think what the next move should be, Stone tilted his head.

'What?' whispered Starr.

He pointed. 'This way.' Leading them away from the main part of this dungeon - and away from the bulk of the moans - he soon came to a door by itself.

'What is this?' asked Joy softly.

'Solitary,' Stone answered shortly. The play of emotions over his face as he stood looking at that door could barely be seen in the torch light. Only Starr truly looked and saw.

Then the man sighed and stepped closer. Putting his ear to the door, he listened.

No sound.

Glancing through the small barred window, he saw nothing but darkness. No movement, no anything.

'Who has a key?' he asked softly.

'We all do,' Linda replied at a whisper. 'Remember? That was one of the things each pack had in it, when we first got them from the house Jessie claimed.'

'Right,' Stone muttered back. He unslung his pack, rummaged inside for what seemed like forever, and finally produced a small and elusive key. Half-turning to Starr, he gave a crooked grin and said, 'Here goes.'

He fitted the key. Slowly turned it. Gritted his teeth, hoping the key would not make any noise in this deep place.

No, no sound. The merest small clunk as the lock turned over and opened. But would the hinges scream when the door was opened?

A tug. The beginning of a groan of protest from the hinges. Stone stopped. What now?

'Wait,' whispered Joy. Now she was rummaging in her pack, looking for... 'Ah!' She held up a small bottle, unstoppered it, and poured a little of the contents on each hinge. 'Cooking oil,' she said softly. 'Now try.'

This second tug went much more smoothly and silently. Jack took the nearest torch from the wall and shined it inside the room.

Empty.

'Perfect,' said Forest. 'This will be our first base of operations.'

'All of us, crammed into this tiny room?' Lucy objected.

'For now. We'll see what else we can do later. Now.' And Forest rubbed his hands together. 'The guards aren't expecting this room to be occupied. So they won't come by here. Right, Stone?'

'As far as I know.'

'So as long as no one down here gets thrown into solitary...'

'That's assuming a lot,' Lucy frowned. 'We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to.'

'And we won't,' Forest promised. 'We'll need to scout out our people - the ones Walker found for us - set them free, set Walker free...'

'Oh, very simple,' Lucy interjected.

'...and get out again. What do we do first?'

Mac spoke up then. 'First, we pray and ask the Master to give us direction. And then - whatever he says to do, we do.'

'Amen,' said Starr.

And so they prayed.

~~~~~~~


It was not a pleasant place, this deepest dungeon, not by a long shot. First and foremost, just as Stone had mentioned so many times before, there was the mire. Nearly two inches deep! There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lie down, nowhere to put down their packs - not without getting themselves and their things all coated with the mire.

And the place stank! Lucy and Linda especially spent the first hour or so holding cloths over their noses, trying not to breathe. After that, the smell became more tolerable.

'Probably because it's killed our sense of smell,' Jack remarked.

Forest and James spent quite a while consulting together by themselves, occasionally calling over Stone or Lucy, Morgen or Jack. And finally, they called everyone over.

'All right. Here's our plan,' said Forest. 'We split up into the six teams as originally planned, and we go for our people.'

'But what about...' said Stone.

James held up his hand in a 'hear him out' gesture.

'I know, Stone. On the one hand, you don't have someone to get out. And then on the other hand, maybe you do.'

Stone frowned. 'Meaning?'

'Well,' said the boy, 'you know, with Walker getting captured... Well, maybe the reason he didn't find a sixth person for you to rescue, is because the Master knew it would come out this way, with Walker himself needing rescuing. Maybe you and Starr will wind up needing to free him. Of course,' he added, turning to the rest, 'we'll all need to be looking for him. Each of the people he found for us lives on a different level of the dungeons. So each of our teams can search the level where we're assigned, to see if Walker is also being held on that level. As for you, Stone, Starr - we'll leave it up to the two of you what you want to do. Hunt for Walker on all the levels, or try to find someone down here to rescue, someone that Walker missed.'

The big guy nodded, as did the woman at his side.

'Now,' Forest went on. 'We'll need to keep in touch. Once a day, I'd like us to touch base with each other. James and I talked this over, and it seems to us that the easiest way to keep in touch, unless we come up with an even easier way later, is for the team on the top floor to come down to see the next team below them. Exchange information, and the top floor team goes back up. Next team, then you go down to meet with the team below you. And so forth. Each team waits to hear from the team above, then relays to the team below. Once a day, without fail, right after nightfall. Clear?'

Nods all around.

'Fine.' Forest looked at James, then at the rest. 'Don't get caught. Don't give up. Keep loving, keep seeking the Master. Pray for us, pray for each other. Pray for each person we're going to take out of here. Pray for Walker.' A pause. 'Love. That's the vital thing. The Master's love. Amen?'

'Amen,' they chorused softly.

'I love you all,' Forest went on, and there were tears in his eyes. 'If anything goes wrong, get out. Head for... well, for the cave, I guess. But don't go in blindly. Scout it first to be sure it's not a trap. And if you can't get out, rendezvous here, at this room. Right?'

They all nodded.

Forest drew in a large breath, then blew it out again. 'Well. Let's go for it then.' And he smiled. 'For the Master's love.'

'For the Master's love,' Starr echoed back.

And with hugs and handshakes, the others melted away into the darkness to move cautiously back up the stairs. Leaving Stone and Starr alone.

Alone had never before felt so very, very alone.

~~~~~~~


They took the stairs as silently as they could, wary for anyone coming down them. This would not be the best place to be discovered, they knew.

Of course, nowhere in the dungeons would be a good place to be discovered...

At the landing for the sixth level down, Forest and James made their brief and quiet farewells, and slipped away through the door. It felt so strange for the others, to suddenly be without that pair! They had grown used to James' leadership, and the boy's as well. In a way, going on up the stairs without them felt something like blundering on without a head.

At the next level up, Joy and Malachi departed to search for the girl Talia. The next level up from that, it was Jack and Morgen's turn to peel off, for this was where they would look for Rob.

Two levels up from that, and two levels below the ground floor where Ginger lived, Lucy and Linda stopped to say good-bye to Maccabees. But instead of going through that door and away to find Beatriz, Mac said, 'I'll see you upstairs first.' And so the three of them made their cautious way up the last two flights of the stairway, listening at every step.

They reached the top. Remembering that the back door by which they'd snuck into the fortress was not that far off, they slowly and noiselessly slipped into the nearest corridor, away from the guards at that door.

Silvered moonlight streamed in here. The long corridor stretched away ahead of them. Very familiar this was to Lucy. There were four more long corridors just like this one on this level - Lucy wondered if the lower floors shared the same layout? Five long corridors, each with three dozen doors on either side. Three hundred sixty cells. And one of them Ginger's.

And Walker - where was he? Had they brought him to an empty cell here? Or taken him downstairs?

Linda looked to Lucy. 'What do we do now?' she whispered. And Lucy, not really meaning to, glanced at Mac.

He pointed. 'There is likely to be a broom closet at the far end,' he whispered.

Yes, of course there was. Sometimes for punishment, Lucy had been assigned to fetch the cleaning supplies from that broom closet and clean a whole corridor of cells. And one memorable time, she had been sent to a lower level to clean a corridor down there. Ugh - she shuddered at the memory.

Why, though, would Mac be pointing out the broom clo...?

Oh.

'Come on, Linda. Let's go hide in the broom closet,' Lucy whispered. Hand in hand, they hurried down the hall, hoping to avoid being noticed.

And once the women were hidden from sight, Mac turned away and returned to the floor he and Walker should have gone to together. He had with him the handful of shredded papers that Joy had rescued from the cave floor. Now he would find Beatriz. And, if the man had been brought to this level, Walker as well.

There was plenty of night left, and Mac had no need to sleep. He began his search right away.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Saturday, October 22, 2005

 

the child, one hundred thirteen


They took the stairs as silently as they could, wary for anyone coming down them. This would not be the best place to be discovered, they knew.

Of course, nowhere in the dungeons would be a good place to be discovered...

At the landing for the sixth level down, Forest and James made their brief and quiet farewells, and slipped away through the door. It felt so strange for the others, to suddenly be without that pair! They had grown used to James' leadership, and the boy's as well. In a way, going on up the stairs without them felt something like blundering on without a head.

At the next level up, Joy and Malachi departed to search for the girl Talia. The next level up from that, it was Jack and Morgen's turn to peel off, for this was where they would look for Rob.

Two levels up from that, and two levels below the ground floor where Ginger lived, Lucy and Linda stopped to say good-bye to Maccabees. But instead of going through that door and away to find Beatriz, Mac said, 'I'll see you upstairs first.' And so the three of them made their cautious way up the last two flights of the stairway, listening at every step.

They reached the top. Remembering that the back door by which they'd snuck into the fortress was not that far off, they slowly and noiselessly slipped into the nearest corridor, away from the guards at that door.

Silvered moonlight streamed in here. The long corridor stretched away ahead of them. Very familiar this was to Lucy. There were four more long corridors just like this one on this level - Lucy wondered if the lower floors shared the same layout? Five long corridors, each with three dozen doors on either side. Three hundred sixty cells. And one of them Ginger's.

And Walker - where was he? Had they brought him to an empty cell here? Or taken him downstairs?

Linda looked to Lucy. 'What do we do now?' she whispered. And Lucy, not really meaning to, glanced at Mac.

He pointed. 'There is likely to be a broom closet at the far end,' he whispered.

Yes, of course there was. Sometimes for punishment, Lucy had been assigned to fetch the cleaning supplies from that broom closet and clean a whole corridor of cells. And one memorable time, she had been sent to a lower level to clean a corridor down there. Ugh - she shuddered at the memory.

Why, though, would Mac be pointing out the broom clo...?

Oh.

'Come on, Linda. Let's go hide in the broom closet,' Lucy whispered. Hand in hand, they hurried down the hall, hoping to avoid being noticed.

And once the women were hidden from sight, Mac turned away and returned to the floor he and Walker should have gone to together. He had with him the handful of shredded papers that Joy had rescued from the cave floor. Now he would find Beatriz. And, if the man had been brought to this level, Walker as well.

There was plenty of night left, and Mac had no need to sleep. He began his search right away.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 

the child, one hundred twelve


It was not a pleasant place, this deepest dungeon, not by a long shot. First and foremost, just as Stone had mentioned so many times before, there was the mire. Nearly two inches deep! There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to lie down, nowhere to put down their packs - not without getting themselves and their things all coated with the mire.

And the place stank! Lucy and Linda especially spent the first hour or so holding cloths over their noses, trying not to breathe. After that, the smell became more tolerable.

'Probably because it's killed our sense of smell,' Jack remarked.

Forest and James spent quite a while consulting together by themselves, occasionally calling over Stone or Lucy, Morgen or Jack. And finally, they called everyone over.

'All right. Here's our plan,' said Forest. 'We split up into the six teams as originally planned, and we go for our people.'

'But what about...' said Stone.

James held up his hand in a 'hear him out' gesture.

'I know, Stone. On the one hand, you don't have someone to get out. And then on the other hand, maybe you do.'

Stone frowned. 'Meaning?'

'Well,' said the boy, 'you know, with Walker getting captured... Well, maybe the reason he didn't find a sixth person for you to rescue, is because the Master knew it would come out this way, with Walker himself needing rescuing. Maybe you and Starr will wind up needing to free him. Of course,' he added, turning to the rest, 'we'll all need to be looking for him. Each of the people he found for us lives on a different level of the dungeons. So each of our teams can search the level where we're assigned, to see if Walker is also being held on that level. As for you, Stone, Starr - we'll leave it up to the two of you what you want to do. Hunt for Walker on all the levels, or try to find someone down here to rescue, someone that Walker missed.'

The big guy nodded, as did the woman at his side.

'Now,' Forest went on. 'We'll need to keep in touch. Once a day, I'd like us to touch base with each other. James and I talked this over, and it seems to us that the easiest way to keep in touch, unless we come up with an even easier way later, is for the team on the top floor to come down to see the next team below them. Exchange information, and the top floor team goes back up. Next team, then you go down to meet with the team below you. And so forth. Each team waits to hear from the team above, then relays to the team below. Once a day, without fail, right after nightfall. Clear?'

Nods all around.

'Fine.' Forest looked at James, then at the rest. 'Don't get caught. Don't give up. Keep loving, keep seeking the Master. Pray for us, pray for each other. Pray for each person we're going to take out of here. Pray for Walker.' A pause. 'Love. That's the vital thing. The Master's love. Amen?'

'Amen,' they chorused softly.

'I love you all,' Forest went on, and there were tears in his eyes. 'If anything goes wrong, get out. Head for... well, for the cave, I guess. But don't go in blindly. Scout it first to be sure it's not a trap. And if you can't get out, rendezvous here, at this room. Right?'

They all nodded.

Forest drew in a large breath, then blew it out again. 'Well. Let's go for it then.' And he smiled. 'For the Master's love.'

'For the Master's love,' Starr echoed back.

And with hugs and handshakes, the others melted away into the darkness to move cautiously back up the stairs. Leaving Stone and Starr alone.

Alone had never before felt so very, very alone.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Sunday, October 16, 2005

 

the child, one hundred eleven


It was almost unbelievable. How had they gotten in so easily? Unless...

Could this be a trap?

Stone made his way over to Forest. 'How'd you manage to get inside like this?'

The boy smiled. 'I knocked.'

'Oh, come on.'

'No, really. There was only one guard on duty. The rest had gone up front to help bring the helpless guards in. When he opened the door, I told him, "Didn't you hear the call for everyone to go help those poor guys in? Why are you still here? Go! Hurry!" ' Forest muffled a laugh, still amazed. 'And he went! Can you beat that?'

Jack frowned. 'You mean he mistook you for one of the guards? But how could he do that? You don't look a bit like any of the guards. You're not even dressed right.'

As Forest responded with a grinning 'No clue,' Stone and Starr looked at Mac. 'What did you do?' Stone asked him.

'Me? Nothing,' the angel replied innocently. But as he said it, he glanced in Malachi's direction...

'So - now we're in,' Lucy was saying. 'What do we do next?

They looked about. In the dim and wavering torch light, everything looked weird and a bit scary. The moaning of miserable men didn't improve the atmosphere. But as they stood, listening, trying to think what the next move should be, Stone tilted his head.

'What?' whispered Starr.

He pointed. 'This way.' Leading them away from the main part of this dungeon - and away from the bulk of the moans - he soon came to a door by itself.

'What is this?' asked Joy softly.

'Solitary,' Stone answered shortly. The play of emotions over his face as he stood looking at that door could barely be seen in the torch light. Only Starr truly looked and saw.

Then the man sighed and stepped closer. Putting his ear to the door, he listened.

No sound.

Glancing through the small barred window, he saw nothing but darkness. No movement, no anything.

'Who has a key?' he asked softly.

'We all do,' Linda replied at a whisper. 'Remember? That was one of the things each pack had in it, when we first got them from the house Jessie claimed.'

'Right,' Stone muttered back. He unslung his pack, rummaged inside for what seemed like forever, and finally produced a small and elusive key. Half-turning to Starr, he gave a crooked grin and said, 'Here goes.'

He fitted the key. Slowly turned it. Gritted his teeth, hoping the key would not make any noise in this deep place.

No, no sound. The merest small clunk as the lock turned over and opened. But would the hinges scream when the door was opened?

A tug. The beginning of a groan of protest from the hinges. Stone stopped. What now?

'Wait,' whispered Joy. Now she was rummaging in her pack, looking for... 'Ah!' She held up a small bottle, unstoppered it, and poured a little of the contents on each hinge. 'Cooking oil,' she said softly. 'Now try.'

This second tug went much more smoothly and silently. Jack took the nearest torch from the wall and shined it inside the room.

Empty.

'Perfect,' said Forest. 'This will be our first base of operations.'

'All of us, crammed into this tiny room?' Lucy objected.

'For now. We'll see what else we can do later. Now.' And Forest rubbed his hands together. 'The guards aren't expecting this room to be occupied. So they won't come by here. Right, Stone?'

'As far as I know.'

'So as long as no one down here gets thrown into solitary...'

'That's assuming a lot,' Lucy frowned. 'We shouldn't stay here any longer than we have to.'

'And we won't,' Forest promised. 'We'll need to scout out our people - the ones Walker found for us - set them free, set Walker free...'

'Oh, very simple,' Lucy interjected.

'...and get out again. What do we do first?'

Mac spoke up then. 'First, we pray and ask the Master to give us direction. And then - whatever he says to do, we do.'

'Amen,' said Starr.

And so they prayed.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, October 14, 2005

 

the child, one hundred ten


Waiting.

Time was passing. The sun was setting. The sounds from before the fortress were fading as more and more of the guards were brought inside, and less and less of them were still outside, waiting to be brought in.

And the rescuers were waiting. Waiting.

'Do you think he got caught?' Stone whispered to Starr.

She was standing quietly, her lips moving in prayer. She looked up at Stone and shook her head. But whether by that she meant, No, or that she didn't know, he wasn't sure.

Suddenly, James was gesturing, motioning for them all to move up. As Stone, Starr, and Mac reached him, the badly bruised man whispered, 'Go,' and waved them on past him.

Cautiously they slipped round the corner and looked. Just steps away was a small door, and peering out that small door at them, signaling for them to hurry - Forest!

Stone hesitated but a moment, searching the boy's face for any sign of anything wrong. After all, it wasn't impossible that the boy might have been caught, and this was now a trap to lure them all in. But there was nothing strange about Forest's face or actions.

Was there?

'Let's go,' Stone said. The three of them rushed onward, swords out and at the ready just in case. They reached the door and Forest all but jerked them inside. The dark inside was momentarily blinding, but as his eyes adjusted, Stone saw that surrounding them within this entrance to the dungeons was...

No one.

He turned to Forest. 'No guards?' he whispered.

The boy frowned and made a gesture for silence as the remainder of their group hurried in the door. Closing the door quickly, Forest led them to a stairway - one of the staircases Stone had remembered? - and on downwards into greater and greater darkness.

Until there was no more down. Only dank musty miriness, scattered torches, and the muffled anguish of captive men.

They had reached the deepest dungeons.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

the child, one hundred nine


Mac led the way with Stone at his side. They skirted the foot of the mountain, keeping themselves hidden behind the underbrush as they went. They moved in silence, wary of where their feet landed, wary lest a stray crackle draw the attention of the returning guards. Blind those guards might be; deaf was another matter.

Soon they were at the point where the pass opened out into the plain. Most of the troop had already spilled out of the pass by now. The little group of eleven crouched in the bracken, waiting, watching, silent.

There was Walker. He looked both furious and humbled as he lurched along, his walking made strange and ungainly by the way his arms were bound so tightly behind him.

Stone, looking on the man, found suddenly that he profoundly loved him. The Master's love, he knew. Why had it taken him this long to see Walker with the Master's love? The upset of Walker's words - not the ones earlier today, but the long-ago words from when Walker had first learned of where Stone had come from - that upset had stayed with Stone all this time.

Well... He had let it stay with him all this time. He had thought he had forgiven Walker, had told himself that he had. But now, seeing the man bound up and being led back into the dungeons - only now did Stone's heart cry out for mercy on Walker. Only now did he really love the man, loving his old friend with the Master's love.

Please, Master! That we may succeed, and rescue him, and rescue them all!

He felt fingers curling with his own. A smile. Starr-girl, of course. He glanced down at her, as always at his side. I love you, she mouthed to him silently. I love you too, the squeeze of his hand said silently back.

The last of the troop was passing now. These in particular looked weary and wasted as they blundered along, stumbling very badly. A pang hit Stone's heart for them as well, and he wondered if perhaps some of them might not eventually find rest in the Master's house.

A tap on his shoulder. Forest. The boy jerked his chin towards the troop, mouthing, Go!

Softly, quietly, Stone and Starr slipped out of the underbrush. The others were right behind them, all moving slowly so as not to draw attention to themselves. They kept back from the troop ahead of them, leaving enough distance between them that (they hoped) they would not be heard following. But not so much distance (again they hoped) that they might attract the attention of the guards in the fortress.

It was a long trip, for covering such a short distance. They had to move every bit as slowly as the slow-moving guards ahead of them. Move slowly - no talking - try to blend in - try to be invisible.

The great concern Stone had personally, was that the one man in that troop whose eyes had not been affected by whatever Mac had done, might happened to glance backwards and see them. And what would Walker do if he spotted them following? Would he betray them? Had he done so already?

Stone glanced up at the mountain side, trying to make out where the cave was that they had just come from. From down here, he could see nothing of that hiding place - which was good. He also could see nothing of any guards climbing the mountain to find the cave. So maybe Walker hadn't given them that.

Yet.

On the other hand, with the guards so weary and uncertain in walking, perhaps he had told them of the cave, but none of this guard had been up to the dangerous task of climbing a mountain half-blind.

Half-blind? All blind? Just how badly had Mac stricken their vision? At least the angel had assured him that it wasn't permanent.

The fortress was drawing nearer. The closer they got, the larger and uglier it loomed. Stone really hoped their stay within it would be short and voluntary, and their escape complete!

Poor Walker though...

A commotion broke out ahead of them. They all peered ahead, trying to make out what was happening. The first of the returning troop had nearly reached the main entrance just ahead of them on this west side. Stone, with his advantage of height, had the best chance of seeing what was going on.

Ah! From within the fortress, more guards were emerging. One of them had the look of a high commander. Standing imperiously in the entrance way, he gestured and the commander of the returning guards came towards him. Then the two apparently engaged in conversation.

More of the returning guard came up to the entrance. Having nowhere closer to go just now, as the high commander was not yet allowing anyone inside, they got as close as they could and then stopped, milling about, weary beyond weariness.

Now the final section of the guards was arriving before the entrance. The returning commander gestured, and the prisoner was brought forward before the high commander. More conversation.

And now Stone and his group arrived last of all. He glanced back. Do as the occasion demands? But what did that mean? Did any of them know?

And then pandemonium seemed to break out. Guards were rushing out from within the fortress, grabbing the returning guards. What were they doing? Arresting them?

But no - they were supporting them, bearing them inside, helping them along. So many guards! Stone barely caught sight of Walker being taken inside, followed closely by both commanders.

And then a touch on his arm. Mac, pointing. And now Stone saw Forest. The boy was working his way round the edge of the confused crowd, heading north. But why? thought Stone.

Why didn't matter. If this was what the occasion demanded, then the only thing to do was to follow the boy. And so Stone did - they all did - trying their best to look casual and normal as they passed beyond the busy crowd of guards and round the corner.

There they flattened against the fortress wall and took a quick count. All eleven were here. 'Come,' hissed Forest. And he headed on eastward along this north wall.

'What's he doing?' Stone breathed to Mac at his side.

'What the occasion demands,' the angel replied. And he smiled as he said it.

Forest stopped at the corner and peered round it. Turning to James and Jack, he whispered something to them, then gestured for Jack to go tell the rest. Jack seemed to put up an argument first before turning away and backtracking, shaking his head as he went.

Coming to Stone, Starr, and Mac first, Jack said, 'With all the guards distracted at the front, Forest hopes to find this northeast door unguarded. Or nearly so. He'll go first alone, and we're to follow once he gives the all clear.'

'And if he doesn't give the all clear?' said Stone.

Jack rolled his eyes. 'Then we'll have one more person to rescue from these dungeons, won't we? And one less rescuer to do the job with.'

Jack hurried on to tell the remainder of the group. Then they all watched as Forest shot a glance towards heaven, then plunged round the corner. James peered round the corner after him, waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

~first~
~previous~ ~next~

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

 

the child, part 2, chapter 19 - gone awry


Silence. Finally, Joy stepped forward and gathered the scraps of paper Walker had thrown down. 'You think maybe we can still rescue her?' she said, turning the bits this way and that, trying to reassemble it like a jigsaw puzzle.

Forest was studying the sketch Walker had made on the floor of the dungeons. He frowned, thinking. 'Hey, Stone,' the boy asked suddenly. 'You were in the deepest dungeon, right?'

'Yes.'

'You remember how to get down there? And back?'

'Well...' He came and looked at the sketch. 'I remember staircases. I never got to go up and down them much. But I think they were here, and here.'

Forest nodded. 'How about you, Jack? What floor were you on?'

'Second down,' he replied. Carefully, so as not to disturb the original drawing, he marked some features he remembered. Lucy recalled the layout of the ground-level cells where she and Starr and the still-captive Ginger lived. Joy added what she remembered from her area.

And gradually, a bit at a time, they built up a working knowledge of the fortress and its dungeons. And from that, a working plan to get in, and get back out again.

'What time is it?' said Forest.

Stone, who was now standing closest to the entrance, glanced out at the day. 'Noon, or a bit past.'

'Noon,' Forest repeated. 'Hmm. I think we should go in right away. No telling when the rest of the guard will return, and we don't want to lose that advantage. Right?'

No dissent.

'All right. Let's gather our things and get out of here. Leave no signs anyone was ever here.' And he swiped his hand across the sketch of the dungeons, obliterating it. Looking down at what he had just done, he laughed. Wouldn't it be great, he thought, if it would all be as easy as that?

'Um - Forest...'

That was Stone. And there was something in his tone of voice that brought everything they were all doing to a halt.

'What is it?' said Forest warily.

Stone nodded out the entrance, looking down at the pass below them. 'There,' he pointed.

The boy limped over, James just behind him. In moments, all the others were in the cave's mouth, seeing what Stone had seen. There, coming up the pass from the west, from the direction of the valley they had spent so many long months in - there was a troop. Men, all dressed alike, moving slowly. Very slowly.

The guards.

All the breath went out of Forest. 'They're back,' he said.

'And see that?' Stone asked, pointing again.

Hmmm. Towards the back of the troop, surrounded by the others, was one man walking oddly, his arms bent unnaturally behind his back. And then he stumbled. Well, all the guards were stumbling, to be sure. But when this man stumbled, he pitched forward - and fell down.

He managed to twist a bit in the fall, so that he landed on his shoulder instead of on his face. But he didn't put his hands out to break his fall.

He couldn't; his arms were bound together behind him.

'They have a prisoner!' Lucy exclaimed.

'And three guesses who it is,' added Jack.

They didn't have to guess. As a pair of the guards wrenched the captive ungently back to his feet, the man looked up. Straight up, right up the mountain face to where they all were standing. Even at this distance, it was impossible to miss the dark anger twisting his face.

It was Walker.

~~~~~~~


'They took Walker?' said Joy. 'But why?'

'He must have run back towards the valley,' said Starr. 'Perhaps he thought he could just return to the Master's house,'

'But I thought Mac said that the guards wouldn't be in any condition to fight,' put in Lucy.

'And they aren't,' Mac agreed. 'But in the blindness of his anger, Walker could have been easily taken even by blind men.'

Starr and Stone exchanged glances. Now Mac himself was using - even overusing - the word 'blind.'

'But why would they capture him?' Joy asked. 'Wouldn't they have still thought he was one of them?'

'He disappeared the same time we captives did,' said Linda. 'Likely the guards put two and two together, and came up with the truth.'

Forest was frowning heartily, thinking. Suddenly, the boy turned to Stone and said, 'You know Walker pretty well, right? How angry do you think he was when he left here?'

'As angry as I've ever seen him.'

'Angry enough to betray us?'

The question was like a punch in the guts. Everyone froze for a moment, pondering it. And then they came to urgent life again, grabbing up the last of their gear. 'Out. Quickly. Now,' said James, grimacing at the pain it cost him to say just those three words.

'We can't go down the way we came up,' said Forest. 'If he gave us away, he would have told them how to get here, right? So how do we...?'

'This way,' said Malachi. He led them out of the cave's mouth and off to the left, through a line of trees, and then on up the mountain side. Forest supported James, following right behind Mal. Morgen and Mac formed the rear guard, obscuring their trail behind them as they went. The rest hurried along just behind Forest, their hearts racing, trying not to panic.

'He could compromise the whole mission,' said Forest. 'He knows the names. He knows everything.'

'Not quite everything,' said Stone.

'Meaning?' asked Jack.

Stone himself was surprised at what he said next. 'He doesn't know the deep dungeons. If we can get in there...'

'Stone!' cried Lucy. 'Are you mad?'

'Oh, don't start with that,' put in Jack.

'If we can get in there,' Stone repeated, 'we can hide, do a bit of scouting on our own, then go after the people Walker found for us.'

'But they'll be expecting us to go after those people,' Lucy objected. 'They'll know the exact names.'

'I can't help that. We can't just leave them. Not with them so close to freedom!' Stone paused, then added, 'We can't just leave Walker either.'

'After he...!' said Lucy.

'We don't know that he's betrayed us. Yes, we have to assume he has - but we don't know, not for sure. At any rate, we can't just leave him. If nothing else...' And again Stone paused. 'If nothing else, I need to stand before Walker and look him in the eye - and ask his forgiveness. And give him my forgiveness, as well.'

Starr's fingers squeezed his, and she smiled up at him.

Malachi came to a halt then. 'Here we begin the descent,' he said. 'And from here, silence. No talking.'

They all nodded. And with Mac and Morgen still hiding their tracks behind them, they slipped through the woods and down the mountainside to reach the plain below.

~~~~~~~


The trees thinned out as they reached the foot of the mountain, and it became harder and harder for them to keep their eyes on where their feet were going. For ahead of them, maybe half a mile distant and impressive even through the screen of trees - there rose the enemy's fortress.

Tall. Massive. Burly stones built up and up to tall spires that raked at the sky. Fierce. Proud.

Sickening.

Starr gaped. She, of course, had no memory of ever seeing this edifice before.

The rest did remember it, but for the most part, not the outside. Most of them had spent years inside it; the one best memory of the place that they shared was seeing it dwindle in the distance behind them as the Master and his people whisked them away to new life in the Master's home. Now they looked on it again - the old 'home' they had all been glad to leave.

They shuddered.

Malachi brought them to a halt under the last fringe of mountain trees, the spindly underbrush concealing them from view from the fortress. Forest leaned up against a tree, drawing up his bad leg, catching his breath. The others were catching their breath too, some of them all but gasping from the exertion of coming down that last steep part without falling.

Mac touched Stone on the arm and gestured off to the left. A brief walk, and the two of them came upon a fresh stream gurgling down the slope. Swiftly they refilled their canteens, then returned to gather the other canteens and fill them as well.

Stone was just finishing with the last of the canteens when he realized he was alone. Looking around - and dropping his hand to his sword hilt - he called softly, 'Um, Mac?'

'Right here.' Mac was emerging from the woodland beyond the stream.

Relaxing, Stone asked, 'Where'd you go?' And then he blinked, 'Uh - where's the tent?' For Mac no longer had the twin bundles of tent and tent poles he had carried since they had all run from their last camp in the valley.

'I hid them. Back there,' he gestured, 'in the undergrowth.' And with a shrug he added, 'What need will we have for a tent, once we are inside the fortress?'

Inside the fortress. Stone glanced off through the trees at that imposing stronghold. Now that it came right down to it, the thought of going inside was pretty intimidating. But inside they must go, if the captives were to be set free.

Mac set a hand on Stone's shoulder. 'The Master knows,' he said reassuringly. 'He wouldn't have sent you, Stone, if he didn't have confidence in you.'

Stone gave a wry smile. 'It's my confidence in me that gets shaky. I know he's trustworthy. But I sure am weak at times. A lot of times.'

'But his confidence stands, Stone. So will yours.'

Gathering the now-full canteens, they made their way back to the others. Forest, James, and Jack stood a bit apart from the rest, staring out at the barren expanse between their present position and the fortress. Whispering together, the men pointed and nodded, or else shook their heads and pointed some more. The women were sitting down, resting, and Mal and Morgen were standing, waiting.

Stone and Mac distributed the canteens, then joined the men. The looks on their faces were not very encouraging, thought Stone. 'What do we do next?' he asked softly.

'Not sure,' Jack replied. 'I mean, look at that!' His arm took in the whole scene before them. 'Not enough cover to hide a field mouse! We could wait for nightfall...'

'And run into patrols,' said Forest.

'We don't know that they have patrols!' Jack whispered fiercely.

'We don't know that they don't. Don't assume stupidity on the part of the enemy. That could be fatal.'

'And I suppose the other half of the guards are in there now?' Stone remarked.

'Actually, no - not yet,' said Mac at his shoulder. 'See there?'

Surprised, Stone looked off towards the valley where they had last seen the returning guards. Yes, here they came, heading for the fortress, moving so very slowly. Peculiarly slowly. Almost groping along as they came.

'Mac,' Stone said, asking at last the question he'd been longing to ask since shortly after they'd run from the corral at the guards' camp, 'just what did you do?' He kept his voice low and private, just between the two of them.

'They are recovering,' Mac said simply. 'In a week's time, they will be fully recovered.'

'Recovered from what?'

Mac only looked at him. And then Stone recalled that word he had heard so very often - too often - since the escape from the corral a day and a half before.

'Blind,' he said. 'You made them blind?'

'Not completely. Enough for our purposes. Blind men will not see who follows them.'

And he gave Stone a sharp look. Stone frowned in reply. What could Mac be saying? Blind men won't see who follows them...?

And then he got it.

'Umm...' Stone turned and spoke to the other men, stepping out blindly on Mac's suggestion. 'What if we follow the returning guards? We can pretend to be with them, and get close to the fortress that way.'

The three men blinked at him. 'What if they turn and see us?' said Jack.

'Do they look like they'll see us if they turn?' said Stone.

The men considered. 'The guards inside, though,' said Forest. 'What if they see us?'

'By the time this troop draws close to the fortress,' said Mac, 'it will be nearly sundown. We will be coming from due west, and will be hard to recognize for the glare of the setting sun.'

The three men consulted together. 'All right,' said Forest. 'That will get us very near to the fortress. But surely they'll recognize that we aren't any of their people once we get that close. Especially,' and he nodded towards the women. For there had been no women among the guards they had met in the valley.

'Once we get that close,' said Malachi, coming to join their discussion, 'we will do as the occasion demands.'

All the men stared at him. Forest, frowning, said, 'And what is that supposed to mean?'

Looking the boy deeply in the eye, Mal said, 'When we get there, you will know.'

Forest turned to James, and then to Jack. They both shrugged. 'What else do we have?' Jack said, putting voice to all their thoughts.

'All right then,' said Forest slowly. 'Gather the others. We're going to go with this. Only... well... may the Master go with us. Because unless he does, we'll get into the dungeons all right. But as prisoners again, just like Walker.'


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Monday, October 10, 2005

 

the child, one hundred eight


The trees thinned out as they reached the foot of the mountain, and it became harder and harder for them to keep their eyes on where their feet were going. For ahead of them, maybe half a mile distant and impressive even through the screen of trees - there rose the enemy's fortress.

Tall. Massive. Burly stones built up and up to tall spires that raked at the sky. Fierce. Proud.

Sickening.

Starr gaped. She, of course, had no memory of ever seeing this edifice before.

The rest did remember it, but for the most part, not the outside. Most of them had spent years inside it; the one best memory of the place that they shared was seeing it dwindle in the distance behind them as the Master and his people whisked them away to new life in the Master's home. Now they looked on it again - the old 'home' they had all been glad to leave.

They shuddered.

Malachi brought them to a halt under the last fringe of mountain trees, the spindly underbrush concealing them from view from the fortress. Forest leaned up against a tree, drawing up his bad leg, catching his breath. The others were catching their breath too, some of them all but gasping from the exertion of coming down that last steep part without falling.

Mac touched Stone on the arm and gestured off to the left. A brief walk, and the two of them came upon a fresh stream gurgling down the slope. Swiftly they refilled their canteens, then returned to gather the other canteens and fill them as well.

Stone was just finishing with the last of the canteens when he realized he was alone. Looking around - and dropping his hand to his sword hilt - he called softly, 'Um, Mac?'

'Right here.' Mac was emerging from the woodland beyond the stream.

Relaxing, Stone asked, 'Where'd you go?' And then he blinked, 'Uh - where's the tent?' For Mac no longer had the twin bundles of tent and tent poles he had carried since they had all run from their last camp in the valley.

'I hid them. Back there,' he gestured, 'in the undergrowth.' And with a shrug he added, 'What need will we have for a tent, once we are inside the fortress?'

Inside the fortress. Stone glanced off through the trees at that imposing stronghold. Now that it came right down to it, the thought of going inside was pretty intimidating. But inside they must go, if the captives were to be set free.

Mac set a hand on Stone's shoulder. 'The Master knows,' he said reassuringly. 'He wouldn't have sent you, Stone, if he didn't have confidence in you.'

Stone gave a wry smile. 'It's my confidence in me that gets shaky. I know he's trustworthy. But I sure am weak at times. A lot of times.'

'But his confidence stands, Stone. So will yours.'

Gathering the now-full canteens, they made their way back to the others. Forest, James, and Jack stood a bit apart from the rest, staring out at the barren expanse between their present position and the fortress. Whispering together, the men pointed and nodded, or else shook their heads and pointed some more. The women were sitting down, resting, and Mal and Morgen were standing, waiting.

Stone and Mac distributed the canteens, then joined the men. The looks on their faces were not very encouraging, thought Stone. 'What do we do next?' he asked softly.

'Not sure,' Jack replied. 'I mean, look at that!' His arm took in the whole scene before them. 'Not enough cover to hide a field mouse! We could wait for nightfall...'

'And run into patrols,' said Forest.

'We don't know that they have patrols!' Jack whispered fiercely.

'We don't know that they don't. Don't assume stupidity on the part of the enemy. That could be fatal.'

'And I suppose the other half of the guards are in there now?' Stone remarked.

'Actually, no - not yet,' said Mac at his shoulder. 'See there?'

Surprised, Stone looked off towards the valley where they had last seen the returning guards. Yes, here they came, heading for the fortress, moving so very slowly. Peculiarly slowly. Almost groping along as they came.

'Mac,' Stone said, asking at last the question he'd been longing to ask since shortly after they'd run from the corral at the guards' camp, 'just what did you do?' He kept his voice low and private, just between the two of them.

'They are recovering,' Mac said simply. 'In a week's time, they will be fully recovered.'

'Recovered from what?'

Mac only looked at him. And then Stone recalled that word he had heard so very often - too often - since the escape from the corral a day and a half before.

'Blind,' he said. 'You made them blind?'

'Not completely. Enough for our purposes. Blind men will not see who follows them.'

And he gave Stone a sharp look. Stone frowned in reply. What could Mac be saying? Blind men won't see who follows them...?

And then he got it.

'Umm...' Stone turned and spoke to the other men, stepping out blindly on Mac's suggestion. 'What if we follow the returning guards? We can pretend to be with them, and get close to the fortress that way.'

The three men blinked at him. 'What if they turn and see us?' said Jack.

'Do they look like they'll see us if they turn?' said Stone.

The men considered. 'The guards inside, though,' said Forest. 'What if they see us?'

'By the time this troop draws close to the fortress,' said Mac, 'it will be nearly sundown. We will be coming from due west, and will be hard to recognize for the glare of the setting sun.'

The three men consulted together. 'All right,' said Forest. 'That will get us very near to the fortress. But surely they'll recognize that we aren't any of their people once we get that close. Especially,' and he nodded towards the women. For there had been no women among the guards they had met in the valley.

'Once we get that close,' said Malachi, coming to join their discussion, 'we will do as the occasion demands.'

All the men stared at him. Forest, frowning, said, 'And what is that supposed to mean?'

Looking the boy deeply in the eye, Mal said, 'When we get there, you will know.'

Forest turned to James, and then to Jack. They both shrugged. 'What else do we have?' Jack said, putting voice to all their thoughts.

'All right then,' said Forest slowly. 'Gather the others. We're going to go with this. Only... well... may the Master go with us. Because unless he does, we'll get into the dungeons all right. But as prisoners again, just like Walker.'

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storyblogging carnival XXIX is here!


Welcome to the 29th edition of the biweekly Storyblogging Carnival. We are now well into our second year, and going strong with 13 entries this time. Read and enjoy!

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Mark A. Rayner of 'The Skwib' has three entries this time. The first is Thag not like mornings! About 200 words, rating PG 13.

Author's comments: The continuing adventures of Thag the caveman.

The second is Special Agent Mulva. About 300 words, PG 13, some sexual content.

[This one is a bit of a take-off on a particular cult-classic TV show.]

And the third is Alternative History Fridays: Dr. Tundra in the Dock About 500 words, rated PG 13.

Author's comments: A fiction about Dr. Tundra, the teaching of evolution, and how a court case about that might look in a fundamentalist America. (Not humor this time, though there is a mention of the FSM.)

[Um, um, um... Well, I'm a creationist/young-earther... :-)]

~~~~~

Lee Zanello from 'See The Donkey' offers "God's Children". 400 words, rated G.

Author's comments: Another entry in a series of short vignettes, this one about a Godchild still in his omnipotent infancy, learning about who he is and what it is exactly he can do.

[Interesting concept.]

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Goemagog of This space for sublet submits the Epic of Bob. Word count is 513; rating PG.

Author's comment: Nature Vs. Nature

[Sobering.]

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Lori Moore of North to AK presents A Pirate Looks at 28. Word count is 562; rating is G.

Author's comments: This post came about when thinking about outsourcing and the companies using cruise ships to port software developers around the world. What if there were outsourcing pirates?

[Piracy never really goes away. And she gives a link for finding your own pirate name.]

~~~~~

From 'Atlas Shrugs,' we have 'A Yiddish Tale!' About 600 words, rated G.

The original author is unknown. Meyer, a lonely widower, buys a parrot who speaks Yiddish...

[This is a story that I have read and enjoyed on the web before. Timely (Rosh Hashannah was this past week) and funny.]

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Andrew Ian Dodge of Dodgeblogium has a new 'Sage of Wales' tale: Romero is a Pain. Word count is 887; rating PG.

Author's comments: Rupert is stuck on an island full of idiots. But not the normal kind.

[Rupert is going to have quite a tale to tell, once he gets himself out of this one.]

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From Dave Gudeman of Doc Rampage, Scale 7 Artifact, part 13. Word count is 1212 of 21,149; rating is PG.

Author's comments: the romantic subplot thickens, but I throw in some hardware to placate the male readership.

[One of the reasons I *really* do not like matchmaking...]

~~~~~~~~

Theron Marshman from Harkonnendog offers CLOWN Chapter 28: Boxing. 1368 words; rating is PG-13.

Author's comments: In which Clown argues about what an artist is, describes the different levels of poets, and wonders if it would be morally okay to kill his boss.

[Interesting analysis of what makes a poet a poet.]

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The Colossus presents the latest post (excerpt #19) of 'The Spy Novel.' (Archive file of the entire novel to this point can be found here.) Word count, 2508 of 37,209 so far; rated PG-13 for combat violence.

Author's comments: Here is Eric Ashley's summary, which I thought was apt: "Cold, controlled, paranoid, and searching speculation based on tiny clues, this story sucks you in, and grabs you. Who are your friends? Is the hero that, or simply a protagonist of questionable virtue, although undoubted skill? When will the betrayal come, and who will do it? Crisp writing style, and more questions than one can shoot with a full clip of ammo."

[I can't improve on that.]

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Donald S. Crankshaw from Back of the Envelope has posted Flight, Chapter 8 of Fire. (You can read the full story so far here.) 3,322 words of a 90,110 word novel; rating is PG-13.

Author's comments: Gaius's cohort is being hunted by the Orcs. The Dominus may be the only one who can keep him alive, but does Gaius dare trust him?

[I like the scene at the end of this chapter too.]

~~~~~

And my own entry, from Tales by Sheya: the next seven chapters of 'the child.' (first chapter here) Chapters 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, and 107. Word count: 4572 of 82,799 so far; rating PG.

Author's comment: Just when the Enemy's fortress is at last within view, plans go deeply awry.

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And there you have it. Please join us in two weeks at Back of the Envelope for Storyblogging Carnival XXX. Feel free to link to the Carnival on your blog, tell all your friends, and consider hosting an upcoming Carnival as well.

Thanks.

Friday, October 07, 2005

 

the child, one hundred seven


'They took Walker?' said Joy. 'But why?'

'He must have run back towards the valley,' said Starr. 'Perhaps he thought he could just return to the Master's house,'

'But I thought Mac said that the guards wouldn't be in any condition to fight,' put in Lucy.

'And they aren't,' Mac agreed. 'But in the blindness of his anger, Walker could have been easily taken even by blind men.'

Starr and Stone exchanged glances. Now Mac himself was using - even overusing - the word 'blind.'

'But why would they capture him?' Joy asked. 'Wouldn't they have still thought he was one of them?'

'He disappeared the same time we captives did,' said Linda. 'Likely the guards put two and two together, and came up with the truth.'

Forest was frowning heartily, thinking. Suddenly, the boy turned to Stone and said, 'You know Walker pretty well, right? How angry do you think he was when he left here?'

'As angry as I've ever seen him.'

'Angry enough to betray us?'

The question was like a punch in the guts. Everyone froze for a moment, pondering it. And then they came to urgent life again, grabbing up the last of their gear. 'Out. Quickly. Now,' said James, grimacing at the pain it cost him to say just those three words.

'We can't go down the way we came up,' said Forest. 'If he gave us away, he would have told them how to get here, right? So how do we...?'

'This way,' said Malachi. He led them out of the cave's mouth and off to the left, through a line of trees, and then on up the mountain side. Forest supported James, following right behind Mal. Morgen and Mac formed the rear guard, obscuring their trail behind them as they went. The rest hurried along just behind Forest, their hearts racing, trying not to panic.

'He could compromise the whole mission,' said Forest. 'He knows the names. He knows everything.'

'Not quite everything,' said Stone.

'Meaning?' asked Jack.

Stone himself was surprised at what he said next. 'He doesn't know the deep dungeons. If we can get in there...'

'Stone!' cried Lucy. 'Are you mad?'

'Oh, don't start with that,' put in Jack.

'If we can get in there,' Stone repeated, 'we can hide, do a bit of scouting on our own, then go after the people Walker found for us.'

'But they'll be expecting us to go after those people,' Lucy objected. 'They'll know the exact names.'

'I can't help that. We can't just leave them. Not with them so close to freedom!' Stone paused, then added, 'We can't just leave Walker either.'

'After he...!' said Lucy.

'We don't know that he's betrayed us. Yes, we have to assume he has - but we don't know, not for sure. At any rate, we can't just leave him. If nothing else...' And again Stone paused. 'If nothing else, I need to stand before Walker and look him in the eye - and ask his forgiveness. And give him my forgiveness, as well.'

Starr's fingers squeezed his, and she smiled up at him.

Malachi came to a halt then. 'Here we begin the descent,' he said. 'And from here, silence. No talking.'

They all nodded. And with Mac and Morgen still hiding their tracks behind them, they slipped through the woods and down the mountainside to reach the plain below.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

 

the child, one hundred six


Silence. Finally, Joy stepped forward and gathered the scraps of paper Walker had thrown down. 'You think maybe we can still rescue her?' she said, turning the bits this way and that, trying to reassemble it like a jigsaw puzzle.

Forest was studying the sketch Walker had made on the floor of the dungeons. He frowned, thinking. 'Hey, Stone,' the boy asked suddenly. 'You were in the deepest dungeon, right?'

'Yes.'

'You remember how to get down there? And back?'

'Well...' He came and looked at the sketch. 'I remember staircases. I never got to go up and down them much. But I think they were here, and here.'

Forest nodded. 'How about you, Jack? What floor were you on?'

'Second down,' he replied. Carefully, so as not to disturb the original drawing, he marked some features he remembered. Lucy recalled the layout of the ground-level cells where she and Starr and the still-captive Ginger lived. Joy added what she remembered from her area.

And gradually, a bit at a time, they built up a working knowledge of the fortress and its dungeons. And from that, a working plan to get in, and get back out again.

'What time is it?' said Forest.

Stone, who was now standing closest to the entrance, glanced out at the day. 'Noon, or a bit past.'

'Noon,' Forest repeated. 'Hmm. I think we should go in right away. No telling when the rest of the guard will return, and we don't want to lose that advantage. Right?'

No dissent.

'All right. Let's gather our things and get out of here. Leave no signs anyone was ever here.' And he swiped his hand across the sketch of the dungeons, obliterating it. Looking down at what he had just done, he laughed. Wouldn't it be great, he thought, if it would all be as easy as that?

'Um - Forest...'

That was Stone. And there was something in his tone of voice that brought everything they were all doing to a halt.

'What is it?' said Forest warily.

Stone nodded out the entrance, looking down at the pass below them. 'There,' he pointed.

The boy limped over, James just behind him. In moments, all the others were in the cave's mouth, seeing what Stone had seen. There, coming up the pass from the west, from the direction of the valley they had spent so many long months in - there was a troop. Men, all dressed alike, moving slowly. Very slowly.

The guards.

All the breath went out of Forest. 'They're back,' he said.

'And see that?' Stone asked, pointing again.

Hmmm. Towards the back of the troop, surrounded by the others, was one man walking oddly, his arms bent unnaturally behind his back. And then he stumbled. Well, all the guards were stumbling, to be sure. But when this man stumbled, he pitched forward - and fell down.

He managed to twist a bit in the fall, so that he landed on his shoulder instead of on his face. But he didn't put his hands out to break his fall.

He couldn't; his arms were bound together behind him.

'They have a prisoner!' Lucy exclaimed.

'And three guesses who it is,' added Jack.

They didn't have to guess. As a pair of the guards wrenched the captive ungently back to his feet, the man looked up. Straight up, right up the mountain face to where they all were standing. Even at this distance, it was impossible to miss the dark anger twisting his face.

It was Walker.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

 

the child, one hundred five


'Stone came from the deepest parts of the dungeons. He just said so. Maybe not in so many words, but he said it.'

Starr. Sweet Starr-girl, her voice so quiet and gentle. Stone's heart was pierced with love for her once again.

'And what was it that you just said, Walker?' she added. 'You said that the Master plucked him out of those dungeons? Well, if you really believe the Master plucked him out of there, then he can pluck others out too. So why are you acting this way?'

'You don't understand!' the man cried in frustration.

'What don't we understand? Stone was in the dungeons, same as all of us. The Master set him free, same as all of us. What don't we understand?'

'But it's not the same! That part of the dungeon is... different.'

'Different? It may be deeper than the rest - harder to escape from. But different?' Starr asked.

'You don't understand,' Walker repeated.

'What I understand,' said Jack slowly, 'is that you were supposed to come here first, scout out the dungeons, find one person for each of the six teams to rescue - but you only found five. And that's apparently because you refused to go to the deepest dungeon. And that... is apparently because you don't think they can be rescued. That somehow, the Master's love isn't strong enough to break their chains.'

'That's not it!'

'Oh. Well. Is it maybe that the Master's love is strong enough - but yours isn't?'

Walker's look was dangerous. 'What are you saying?'

'You tell me. Does the Master love these people? Or are they so disgusting that not even he could love them? And that means you don't have to love them either?'

'I love them!'

Jack shook his head sadly. 'Only at a distance, I'm afraid.'

'Fine!' Glaring at the whole lot of them, Walker took the final page left in his hand, tore it to shreds, and flung it to the floor. 'I'm not good enough for your little holiness club. Do the job yourselves then!' He stormed out the cave entrance and away.

And then he was back. 'But just you try to get into the fortress all by yourselves, without me to help you. Ha!'

And he was gone.

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storyblogging carnival XXIX


I will be hosting the next Storyblogging Carnival, number XXIX, (29, if I'm translating that correctly) on Monday 10 Oct 2005. Deadline for submissions is 11:59 pm Saturday 8 Oct 05 (central time). If you would like to submit a story from your blog to the Carnival, please e-mail me at sheyajoie~at~yahoo~dot~com (or post in my comments). Please include the following information:

* Name of your blog
* URL of your blog
* Title of the story
* URL for the blog entry where the story is posted
* (OPTIONAL) Author's name
* (OPTIONAL) A suggested rating for adult content (G, PG, PG-13, R)
* A word count
* A short blurb describing the story

The post may be of any age, from a week old to years old.

And now, the fine print:

1. The story or excerpt submitted must be posted on-line as a blog entry, and while fiction is preferred, non-fiction storytelling is acceptable.
2. The story can be any length, but the Carnival will list them in order of length, from shortest to longest, and include a word count for each one.
3. You may either send a complete story, a story in progress, or a lengthy excerpt. By lengthy excerpt, I mean that it should be a significant portion of the story, at least 10% of the whole thing. You should indicate the word count for both the excerpt and the complete story in the submission, and you should say how the reader can find more of the story in the post itself.
4. If the story spans multiple posts, each post should contain a link to the beginning of the story, and a link to the next post. You may submit the whole story, the first post, or, if you've previously submitted earlier posts to the Carnival, the next post which you have not submitted. Please indicate the length of the entire story, as well as the portion which you are submitting.
5. The host has sole discretion to decide whether the story will be included or not, or whether to indicate that the story has pornographic or graphically violent content. The ratings for the story will be decided by the host. NOTE: I tend to be a bit more sensitive about potentially offensive material (especially sexual content) than some of the other hosts. Just to let you know.
6. The story may be the blogger's own or posted with permission, but if it is not his own work he should gain permission from the author before submitting to the Carnival.

If you'd like to be added to the e-mail list, please let me know. Also, feel free to advertise the carnival on your own blog. Finally, let me know if you want to host a carnival in the future.

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