Friday, December 30, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 11 - 'stephen... and beatriz'


'Roll call!'

The smash of a fist on the cell door accompanied the massive voice growling out, 'You, Rob! Roll call in five minutes! Get a move on in there!'

The former Rob stared, hollow-eyed, across at Jack, who for his part was also a bit shaken by the onslaught of that voice. Only Morgen seemed unaffected by it. The tromp of heavy feet out in the corridor told them that the guard was moving on to the next door down the hall. They heard him hammer on that next door and rumble out his merry wake-up call at the next poor bloke stuck in these cells.

Stephen let out his pent-up breath. Then he turned to Jack and whispered, 'He's not going to do it again, is he?'

'Do what?' said Jack.

'Take my place, the way he did yesterday morning. You think Morgen's going to do that again?'

'I have no clue,' Jack replied. He too had been stunned the previous morning when one of the guards had unlocked the door. Stephen had been glumly heading for the door when Morgan stopped him and strode up to the guard instead. And the guard, apparently without ever noticing the real Stephen (or Jack either, for that matter), had grabbed Morgen by the arm and hauled him off in Stephen's place.

'How could that guard have mistaken him for me yesterday?' the much-shorter Stephen added, nodding over at stately Morgen. 'How could anyone?'

'Beats me,' said Jack. 'He woulda had to been bli...' And then, in the middle of the word 'blind,' Jack remembered the vast army of guards staggering their way back to the fortress. And he said no more.

A key scraped into the lock. 'Continue the search,' said Morgen quietly. He stepped towards the door as it opened. Though Morgen easily towered over the guard who now entered, the guard barely glanced at him. 'C'mon, Rob,' he grunted, propelling Morgen out the door and away.

Stephen just stood there, shaking his head. 'Off to the grind he goes again,' he said after the door closed them in once more. 'And in my place.'

'The grind?' asked Jack.

'Oh yeah, you know - the work they make us do.'

'What kind of work?'

Stephen shrugged. 'Hard work. But dumb. Just busy work. Makes you feel like you're accomplishing a lot, but it's all meaningless.' Absently he picked up a figurine from the top of the dresser next to him, turning it over in his hand. 'Like hamsters running in a wheel,' he said.

And then he realized what he had done. He stood there, frowning down at the little figurine he was holding. Then, looking up, he took in the piles and piles of stuff clogging his cell. His frown deepened. 'You know what?' he muttered.

'I know a few things,' quipped Jack.

'Hmm? Oh. Sorry. Thinking out loud, I guess.' Gesturing at all the stuff, he added, 'Most of this ain't mine, you know. I stole it. Snuck around here, there, and everywhere, making off with whatever caught my eye.' Gently he set the figurine back in its place. A nod. 'I gotta give it all back.'

Jack whistled. 'That's a big job.'

'Yeah, but - I can't keep it all. Right? Not when the stuff isn't mine.'

'True.' Jack dropped into the cell's only chair, plopping himself down on it backwards so he could rest his arms on the back. 'But if you start doing all that, when will we have time to search for Walker?'

Stephen sighed, closed his eyes, rubbed at the bridge of his nose. 'Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Walker comes first. And besides...' He looked over the accumulation of many years once more. '...soon as we can find him, we'll be out of here. And once I'm gone, everyone I took the stuff from can just come here and get it back.' Reaching up to spin a gaudy bauble hanging from the ceiling, he added, mostly to himself, 'Not like I remember half the names of who all I nicked the stuff from anyway...'

For a moment, they both fell quiet. And in that quiet, they heard all too plainly the clamor still going on out in the corridor. Roll call must now be finished, for the guards were roughly herding the prisoners away, taking them off to the workrooms for this day's grind.

Listening, Stephen winced in sympathy. Up until two days ago, that would have been him as well...

And then Stephen stiffened.

'What's wrong?' asked Jack.

For now a grimace had spread over Stephen's face. 'Idiot,' he muttered darkly.

Jack glanced round the empty room, then looked back up at Stephen. 'Um... there ain't no one here but you and me. So, unless there's someone hiding under the bed there, I'm guessing - I'm the idiot...?'

Stephen sighed. 'No, I am. I mean, look at me, Jack! Here I was, throwing accusations at the Master about him letting people he loves rot in these dungeons. And I was about to do the very same thing. My brother!'

Jack shook his head, confused. 'Brother? You mean Walker? We're just about to go look for him, remember?'

'No, no, not Walker. My brother. My own flesh-and-blood.' And Stephen pointed at the floor under his feet. 'He's been down there for years now, and here I was just going to walk away from these dungeons without giving him a single thought. He's gotta go with us!'

A spark lit inside Jack for some reason. 'Down there? Down where?'

'All the way down,' said Stephen.

'The lowest level? Really?'

'Yeah. Though I don't know see why that should start you grinning like that.'

Jack was all but laughing out loud. 'Happens we've got a team down there,' he replied. 'All the way down on the lowest level, ready to bring someone to the Master and get them out of these dungeons forevermore.' And then he sat and watched in delight all the emotions that splashed over Stephen's face.

'A, a team?' Stephen managed at last. Oh, the man could barely talk! 'Who...?' he stammered. 'Who...?'

'Starr and Stone. You haven't met them yet.'

'No,' Stephen shook his head. 'Not that. I didn't... I mean, who...?'

'Oh, who are they going after? Well, that's the part we don't know. Walker never got down that far. So they're searching the lowest dungeon for anyone they can find who's ready to get out of there.'

Tears hit Stephen's eyes as his face fell. 'Oh, man,' he whispered. 'Oh, I hope they find my brother! And I sure hope he wants to leave with us! Can you imagine,' he added fervently, 'can you imagine how wonderful it would be, to get see your own brother set free too?'

'Actually,' said Jack very quietly, very soberly, as a long-ago memory swelled into his mind, 'I can imagine it very well.'

~~~~~~~

Silence at length reigned out in the corridors. Jack popped up from the chair and crossed the cell to stick his ear to the door. Nothing. 'All right,' he said, 'I think it's time. Let's go.'

Together they headed out into a silent world. With everyone hauled away to the workrooms for the day, the corridors were echoingly empty. So Jack and Stephen did all they could to keep from creating any echoes.

Two at a time, the same as they had done all day long the day before, the pair of them checked the rooms. Jack took the left-hand side of the corridor, while Stephen had the right. Slide the key into the lock, turn it softly, open the door, slip in, look around, slip out again, close the door. And then on to the next room. Listen for guards. Watch each other's back.

And so the day passed. One cell soon blurred into the next. Stomachs rumbled with hunger after several hours, and they hid in an empty cell while Jack brought out some of the apples from his pack to make a very sketchy lunch of. And then they went on, room after room, hour after hour.

They reached, at length, the last cell of the last corridor. And still no Walker. 'All right,' said Jack. 'If he isn't here, then we go up to the next level like the Master said, and we get started searching there.'

'Up,' said Stephen wistfully.

'Yeah. So?'

A shrug. 'It's just... be nice if it was down, so we could maybe help my brother too.'

Jack nodded. 'Yeah. Well, we can hope Starr and Stone find him. And anyway, the Master knows. And he loves your brother even more than you do. Just talk to him about it. Trust him with it.' A pause and a smile. 'After all, the Master got my brother out of here.'

'Yeah? Really?'

'Yup. Sure did.'

They walked in silence towards the stairway door. And just as they reached it, Stephen added softly, 'Thanks, Jack. That's good to know.' And with a swipe at the tears threatening to sting his eyes, he added, 'I sure hope he'll get mine out too.'

'Yeah,' said Jack. 'I'm praying for that.' And then they slipped through the door and on up the stairs.

~~~~~~~

This level was as empty and deserted as the one they'd just left. Quickly, for they were sure the day must be far spent now, the two set to the work, this time Jack taking the right side and Stephen the left. And into the same routine as before they fell: sliding the key into the lock, turning it softly, opening the door, slipping in, looki...

'Did you hear something?' Stephen whispered.

Hear something? Jack froze where he was, his key hovering at the next door's lock as he listened. And then frowned. The level was quiet, so quiet.

Too quiet.

Slowly Jack straightened up and turned to look at Stephen. Something... something... He couldn't put his finger on it, but something had just definitely... changed. As if in response, all the hair on the back of Jack's neck suddenly stood up at attention.

From across the corridor, Stephen was staring back at him. 'What is it?' he mouthed.

Oh, there, that was the question, all right. Slipping his key into his pocket, Jack dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword as he swiveled his head to glance up the corridor, looking back in the direction they had just come from.

Out of the tail of his eye, Jack saw Stephen do the same.

There was nothing there.

Jack's frown deepened. He started to turn again to check the other way...

'Be not afraid.'

Stifling a yelp, Stephen jumped half out of his skin as sweat bloomed abruptly all over him. And Jack, in a single fluid motion that Forest would have been proud of, both spun about and drew his sword at the same moment, bringing the sharp tip up to confront the sudden interloper. Tensely, Jack faced down the length of his sword, scowling at... at...

Maccabees.

No one moved for a moment. And then Jack dropped the sword to his side as all the air whooshed out of him. 'Mac! Man, you scared me out of ten years' growth,' Jack grumbled good-naturedly as he gladly sheathed his weapon.

'Which are now restored you,' Mac smiled in answer. 'Hello, Stephen,' he added.

Stephen nodded a greeting in return, his heart still racing. Finding his voice again, he asked, 'You're the one from upstairs, aren't you? The one I met last night?'

'Yes, Stephen.'

'Then what are you doing down here?' There was a definite tinge of belligerence in the little man's voice - understandable, perhaps, given the dramatic entrance Mac had just made.

'I am doing the same as you are,' Mac replied easily. 'I am searching for Walker.'

'But I thought you were supposed to be searching your own level,' Stephen went on. 'Or did I misunderstand what you were all talking about when you reported in last night?'

'You misunderstood nothing,' Mac replied mildly. 'I have finished searching my level.'

'I don't guess you found...' Jack put in, then caught himself. 'No. If you'd found Walker, you would have said so right off.'

'You are correct, Jack.'

'That still doesn't explain what you're doing here,' Stephen went on, still upset. 'Once you were done with your level, the Master's orders were for you to go to the level above you. Right? Or did you misunderstand?'

'Stephen...' Jack began.

But Mac broke in, his voice still soft, still calm. 'I finished that level as well, my friend. And so I came here to help you check this one.'

'You... finished?' Stunned, Stephen stammered out, 'But... but... how? How could you get finished that quickly? The two of us working together barely got done with ours just now. And we've been at it two days!'

'Oh,' Jack said suddenly, his voice quite hollow.

Stephen turned to look at him. 'What's the matter?'

Jack was staring at Maccabees. 'Something's happened, hasn't it?' he said. 'Something that's made it urgent that we find Walker right away now. Am I right? Please tell me I'm wrong.'

Mac met his gaze. 'Sadly, Jack,' he said, 'you are not wrong.'

'Oh, man. What? What happened?'

Quietly, Mac said, 'Early this morning, I was able to make contact with Beatriz.'

'Beatriz?' said Stephen. 'She's the one you're supposed to get out of here?'

'That I and Walker are supposed to get out, yes.'

'So... things didn't go so well?' Jack prompted.

A shake of the head. 'Fear holds the poor woman more surely that the chains on her wrists or the bars of this fortress,' said Mac.

Stephen shook his head. 'Meaning?'

'Meaning that she told me, quite bluntly, that until and unless she sees Walker standing at my side, she is too fearful to trust me or any other. She will not hear, nor will she listen to, any but the man Walker.' He spread his hands. 'And so without Walker...'

'She won't set foot out of this prison,' said Jack.

Mac nodded.

Stephen sighed. 'Yeah, we gotta find Walker. And fast!'

The clash of the stairway door opening echoed throughout the level, followed by the gabble of many guards leading many prisoners.

'But not right now, we won't,' muttered Jack. 'Come on. We gotta find a place to hide till the corridors clear out again and we can make our way back down to our own level.'

'There is a broom closet that way,' Mac pointed.

Nod. 'Thanks.'

And as Jack and Stephen hurried to the temporary shelter Mac had directed them to, neither of them noticed how Mac, behind them, suddenly and simply vanished from sight.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

 

the child, part 2, chapter 1 - 'into the valley'


***another reposting into longer chapters, this time from part 2 - well, some rewriting too***



They didn't travel very far that day. To begin with, they had had a late start. They also weren't any of them used to being on the march all day - the focus of their training had been swords, not long-distance walking. And so they took frequent breaks to rest. They also, not knowing any better yet, took longer breaks than they really needed before getting back on the march.

On top of all that, the distance across to the entrance of the dark valley had looked deceptively close when they started out. But it turned out to take all day; the sun was nearly setting by the time they finally reached that dark passage.

'Let's stop here for the night,' said someone.

'Who was that?' Stone whispered to Starr. 'Jack or James?'

'Jack - I think,' she whispered back. Over the course of the day, they had been learning their companions' names. James and Jack were Lucy's two friends; they were brothers. 'James is the more serious one, and Jack's the one who makes the jokes. I think?'

'That sounds right,' Stone replied. 'Question is, when he said that, was he serious or joking?'

'Come on,' Forest was saying. 'We can make another mile maybe before we absolutely have to stop for the night.'

'But if we go in there now, at nearly nightfall,' said the other of Lucy's friends, 'with it being so dark in there - well, that just doesn't seem to be very wise to me. We might get into a situation in the dark that would be better faced in morning light.'

Stone and Starr looked to each other. 'James,' they whispered in unison.

'Well, if we're supposing what might happen, we might also come across a situation that waiting till morning would only make worse. Someone drowning in a lake, for instance,' Forest countered.

'We can suppose all night,' Lucy put in. 'Let's just go ahead and make camp now.' And the other two women - thin pale Linda and the young girl Joy - agreed.

Forest scowled. 'And the rest of you?' he challenged. 'What do you say? Malachi. What about you?'

Malachi, one of the three men Starr suspected were angels, spread his hands. 'We are here to journey with the rest of you. We will go or stay, as the company decides.'

Still scowling, Forest turned towards Stone. 'Well? What about you?' he growled.

'Me? I don't much care one way or the other either. Whatever the group decides is fine with me. But look. We have five already who strongly want to camp here. Those three are undecided. I'm undecided too. There's only one of us who strongly wants to move on, and that's you, Forest. Just looking at the numbers, I'd say you've got your work cut out for you if you hope to convince most of us to move on tonight.'

'Majority rule, is that it? But what if the majority is wrong?' Forest's eyes were lit with fire now, his chin set stubbornly.

'Unity,' Lucy returned sharply. 'Josh said to stay in unity. Right?'

'When he said unity, I don't think this is what he had in mind. Uniting together in cowardice like this!'

'Cowardice?' That was James, his voice soft and dangerous. 'Better watch your mouth, little boy,' he warned. 'You're getting in over your head.'

'I said cowardice and I meant cowardice. Cowering back, just because it's a little dark in there!' He snorted. 'If you're afraid of a little dark now, what will you do when you reach the dungeons? Huh? I mean, don't you get it? We're supposed to be carrying light to them! We're going to rescue people! The longer we take on the journey, the more people might be lost in the meantime.'

'Pressing on in the dark into some place that might be dangerous, when we are all tired and hungry - that's foolishness. We should rest now and eat, and tackle the next part of the journey fresh in the morning.' That was James again, and Jack and the three women nodded in agreement.

'You're saying I'm foolish now?' Forest glared.

'I'm saying... oh, stop this, Forest. Be reasonable.'

'And now I'm not reasonable!'

'At the moment, no! Now we,' and James shed his pack, dropping it on the ground, 'are staying here. Get into unity and stop dividing the group. We've already decided, and we're staying here!'

'So you five are the majority now?'

'We five know what we want to do. The other five don't mind. You're the only one being stubborn about this.' While behind James' back, Lucy, with her arms folded and her face dark with anger, muttered the word 'pig-headed.'

Forest caught that and scowled back. 'Yeah - call me names! That'll help. While your so-called 'majority' makes the stupid rules for everyone. You know, majority-rules is a pretty stupid system, if you ask me. You never know when the majority is going to act like a bunch of idiots!'

'No one asked you!' Lucy was saying, while Jack snapped, 'Oh, now we're idiots, eh? You think you're so big, Forest, because you fought a demon today. But nobody put you in charge of this group. So just back down and stop spouting off your mouth!'

The argument continued, Forest alone against Jack and James, with Lucy putting in an occasional acerbic comment against the boy as well. Stone and Starr looked helplessly at each other as the nasty comments grew worse and worse.

She clutched at his arm suddenly. 'Oh, Stone! Do something! This is terrible!'

He looked at her. 'Starr?' he said, surprised at how pale she had gone. 'Something happened?'

'Is happening... Please... They must stop!'

Rubbing at the back of his neck, Stone turned and said the first thing that came into his head: 'Uh, Forest. You remember how I said you had your work cut out for you to convince the others to agree with you? Well, if this is the plan to win them to your side - I don't think it's going to work too well.'

'Oh, and are you against me too, Stone?' the boy asked heatedly. 'Am I supposed to just shut my mouth and say nothing because the majority doesn't like it?'

'I'm not against you. But I can see how you could disagree without being so disagreeable. You can state your point of view without throwing in insults.'

'Hmph!' The boy turned on his heel and stalked away, climbing the slight incline that led into the dark valley itself.

'And the same goes for all of us,' Stone added, turning to the rest. 'There's no call to be insulting anyone. Even if they start with the insults first.'

'No one made you leader of this group either, Stone,' James spat, glowering.

'No, that's true. No one was made leader of this group at all. I think that's something else that time and the journey itself will show all of us - who the natural leader of this group is. But in the meantime, let's try not to act like a pack of wolves or some such.'

He was about to say more, but Starr had so plainly started just now that he turned and looked at her. 'Starr? You all right?'

'What you just said...' Her eyes were wide, and her face even paler than a few minutes before.

'What, Starr? Tell me.'

'Yes, tell all of us,' someone else said.

'It's just...' She looked round at all of them, then turned her focus to Stone. 'While the arguing was going on, I, I saw...' She paused, swallowed. 'I saw a pack of ravening wolves. They were snarling at each other, fighting among themselves. Until one of them got bloodied. And then the others turned on him viciously, biting him, ripping him. And he fought back the same way, biting, tearing. Till he had enough and slunk off by himself to lick his wounds.'

Eyes were dropping all around her, and shame began to color some faces. 'Anything more?' Stone asked quietly.

She nodded. 'In the midst of it all, I heard a sound behind me. So I looked. Over there, across all that ground we crossed today, I could see Jessie standing at the foot of the Mountain of Spices, watching us. And the sound I heard?'

She gave a great sigh. 'It was laughter. She was laughing at us.'

Quietly, Jack looked over at James and muttered, 'Yeah - and we deserve it.'

~~~~~~~

James swallowed hard on the pride stuck in his craw. Stooping, he took up his pack and shouldered it. 'Come on,' he said. And he started up the slight incline that led into the dark valley.

'Come on where?' said Lucy. 'I thought we were camping here.'

'Not till I - we - apologize to Forest first. Come on!'

Slowly, Jack chose to follow him, then the other women trailed along as well. Lucy looked around at the others, then followed James also. The three men waited till Stone and Starr moved out, then brought up the rear.

Starr was leaning heavily on Stone's arm. 'Tired?' he asked.

She nodded. The vision, curiously, had sapped her strength.

'Tell me,' Stone added as they neared the top of the incline into the valley beyond. 'The pack of wolves. Was... Was I... one of the wolves...?'

She looked up into his face, read the uncertainty there. 'Why would you be one of the wolves? You weren't ripping up anyone.'

He sighed, gave a slight smile. 'Thanks. I really wasn't sure. I'm never sure if I should speak up. I'm never sure if I'm being a peace-maker, or making matters worse.'

'You weren't making things worse, dear,' said she.

He smiled deeply then, and chuckled.

'What?' she asked.

'Oh, I just like that. You called me dear.' And his arm around her snugged her just a bit closer.

They topped the incline. The others had stopped here, just over the top, and so they had to stop as well. Malachi and his two companions came up and halted behind them also. And they all stared into the deep valley opening up before them. Such a bleak place it was! Had any of them ever before seen such a place of, of hopelessness?

'This is the way?' said someone. Which was simply voicing what most of them were already thinking.

The path ahead of them ran down the incline, down in to the valley, winding round great dismal grey boulders and stunted, twisted, dead-looking trees. A pall seemed to lie over the whole area between the two mountains; a chill deadened the air. The little company could see only a short distance ahead of them into the valley, for the path soon made a bend to the right and disappeared.

Heads turned as they looked at each other, seeing - most of them - their own dismay mirrored on their neighbors' faces. Only Malachi and his two companions seemed undisturbed by the disheartening look of this valley.

James hitched his pack a bit higher on his shoulders. 'Well,' he said, 'come on. Let's go find Forest.'

He led out and the rest slowly followed, down, down into the valley. They passed by the boulders and reached the corner where the way bent to the right. And then they went on around that corner.

Oh, it was not a pleasant way. There were thorns to tear at their clothing and skin, and rough ground - even holes in the ground - to cause them to trip or stumble. It was exhausting, trying to make any headway that evening.

And then it got worse.

Oh yes, it did. For the sun set. The last rays of its light were abruptly cut off by the high shoulders of the mountain to their right. Sudden dark took hold of the valley, so that when they turned, as they had a few minutes earlier, to look at each other with dismayed faces - they now could no longer see each other in return.

'What do we do now?' said a quavering female voice. That was Linda, both Stone and Starr guessed.

'I think we should go back.'

Was that Jack?

'Back!' cried a voice that must certainly have been James. 'Are you crazy? You want to go back?'

'Well, I don't mean back back - as in all the way back to the Mountain of Spices. I just mean back a little ways, far enough that we don't have to spend the night here in this awful valley.'

'It's not a bit better over there than it is here,' James argued back.

'Not saying it is. It just - feels better back there than here.'

A snort. 'Maybe Forest was right about us.'

'Meaning?' There was a dangerous edge to that word.

'Oh please!' A younger, lighter female voice spoke up now - Joy, likely. 'Are we going to do this again? Is Starr going to be seeing more wolves?'

That brought an immediate silence. And in the silence, Starr began to realize that it wasn't quite as completely dark as she had thought at first. Her eyes were adjusting to the lack of light. And so were everyone else's.

James sighed. 'Look - I'm sorry. Stone is right: there is a way to disagree and not be disagreeable doing it. Jack. I shouldn't have said the word crazy. And I shouldn't have implied that you were being a, well...' Slowly, he brought forth the word, '...coward. What I meant by what I said - what I should have said instead of what I said - is that there's not that much difference in being here from being back there beyond the ridge. Also, that it's a bit dark to go trying to make a move now anyway. Let's just sit down where we are and camp here. If that's agreeable to everyone?'

Jack held out his hand. 'Yeah, I'm sorry too, James. No hard feelings, buddy?'

James reached out his own hand and gripped Jack's. 'None, buddy. None at all.'

'Good,' Jack replied as he dumped off his pack. 'Not like we haven't called each other much worse things than that, back when we were kids...'

'Don't remind me,' said James. And then, as they all began to lay down their packs, James added, 'Besides, we came into the valley to find Forest and apologize to him. We haven't done that yet.'

'Yes,' Joy put in. 'Where is Forest, anyway?'

It was a very good question, and one that none of them seemed to have the answer for. Peering about in the dark for him would do no good. They were just going to have to wait for morning light to look for him now.

'I sure hope he's safe,' Stone whispered to Starr as they laid down their packs.

'Me too,' she agreed. And wondered - without saying anything aloud to anyone, not even to Stone - if it was possible...

...that Forest perhaps did not want to be found.

~~~~~~~

They made camp quickly. It was too dark to gather firewood, so they made a short cold supper of some of the rations from their packs. Then, after a brief discussion (and a cordial one), they decided not to try to set up their tents in the dark, but to simply have the four women sleep in a group together, with the six remaining men making a circle around them for safety's sake.

And soon they were all asleep.

All? Or not? For as Starr drifted off, she opened her eyes more than once to see if in fact Malachi and his companions would sleep. They did lie down like the rest. But if they slept, she did not discover. For she fell asleep herself first before she could find out.

Dreams she had none. Morning light awakened her. As did a sound.

She stirred, sat up. Rubbed at her eyes. And heard the sound again. A rattling sound, like... pebbles? One pebble, falling among others?

She looked. Yes, there! Even now, a little rock came bouncing into the camp, making that slight sound once again. And then a handful of pebbles, making a bigger sound.

And then, a voice.

'Man! It's a good thing no one wanted to attack you lot in the dark! Didn't you even think to set a guard?'

Starr gasped and turned towards the voice. The rest of the company awoke as well. It was Joy who said it first.

'Forest!'

A clamor then, as they all hopped up and mobbed the boy. Questions, so many questions! Where he had been, how he had fared during the night, how he had found them. And whether he would, uh, forgive them...

He scowled. 'Forgive, huh? Those were some pretty nasty things you said. But,' and he grimaced, 'I guess I'd be a skunk, wouldn't I, if I didn't forgive. So, yeah - I forgive you all. James, Jack, Lucy.' And he shook their hands, each of them. 'Stone...'

'Yes?'

'You were, uh, right. And I was wrong. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to you all.'

And solemnly, they forgave him as well.

'How I fared last night... I climbed a tree and slept like a squirrel. No problems.'

'Really?' said Joy. 'Weren't you afraid you'd fall out?'

Forest gave a lopsided grin. 'I'm never afraid,' he said. Then, glancing at Starr, who had seen him the day before when he had been hard-pressed by that demon, he amended it to, 'Well. Hardly ever. Now. That other question, about how I found you.' He shook his head. 'A five-year-old child could have found you lot in the dark. You snored like a herd of elephants!' That brought a round of denials, before the boy added, 'Besides - there was a full moon. No one noticed that? It got so bright about midnight once the moon came up over the mountain, that it woke me right up. So I used the light of it to backtrack up the valley. And here you were, right in the middle of the road. Who wouldn't have been able to find you, eh?'

Sheepish glances back and forth.

'But I say it again: didn't any of you think to set a guard during the night? Two-hour shifts, one awake watching while the others sleep, then get the next one up? No one thought of that?'

'Um - no...' said Jack slowly.

Forest shook his head. 'Pitiful,' he said. 'Josh warned us the enemy knows we're coming. Don't you suppose he might try an attack in the dark of night?'

Lucy started to object to the word pitiful, then thought better of it. Really, the boy was right. Their actions the night before had been pitiful, and in more ways than one.

'Well,' said James, 'daylight is wasting. We should go.'

'Yes, you're right there,' said Forest. And James resisted mightily the urge to ask the lad sharply if that was meant to imply that James was usually not right. Let it go, the man told himself. Give the boy the benefit of the doubt.

They made a sketchy breakfast, then started out. After about an hour's walk, Forest pointed to a tree partway up the leftward slope. 'There,' he said. 'That's where I spent the night. And just a bit farther up here...' he added, leading the way off the path.

He led them to a spring of fresh water, where they were all glad to drink and wash up a bit. Then they refilled their water bottles and so were soon on their way again.

The terrain this morning was no better than it had been the night before, the only improvement being that they could see it better in the daylight. And even that was not a great improvement, for the high mountains to either side blocked direct sunlight for most of the day, keeping the valley for the most part in a state of perpetual gloom.

Gloom. It was like a living beast, stalking them. Like a poison, trying to seep into their bones. It tried continually to worm its way into their hearts, from whence to spring forth out of their mouths, and so infect the next person.

The Master had warned them not to let melancholy attach to them. It was a subtle and constant danger, here in this valley. And one they often forgot to be on their guard against.

Only Malachi and his companions seemed unaffected by the gloom. They generally brought up the rear of the little group, their swords loosened in their sheaths, ready to be drawn on an instant at the first whiff of danger. Starr had finally learned that one of the companions, the shortest of the three, was named Maccabees. And the third - she wasn't quite sure, but she thought she heard his name as Morgan.

And while those three regularly brought up the rear of the band, Forest and James generally took the lead. Stone liked to walk behind the rest, just before the three companions, where he could keep an eye on the rest of the group. And Starr was at his side.

She was not yet aware of it, but she was now entering her own personal dark valley. One that would test to the fullest her promise, made so long before in the sunshine on the Mountain of Spices, to ever trust the Master, no matter what.

And it wasn't as if the Master had not warned her of what was coming. For he had warned her, and that with tears. But in the light of Stone's smiles, and in the comfort of his loving arm about her - she had quite forgotten the warnings.

She was about to be painfully reminded.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, December 23, 2005

 

the child, part 3, chapter 10 - 'talia'


Joy all but flew back up the stairs to their level, butterflies in her stomach at the prospect of meeting with Talia. 'You know which room?' she asked Malachi - and not for the first time, either.

He smiled and nodded.

Almost time! The butterflies were at least the size of hummingbirds now. 'Oh!' Joy said suddenly as they neared the door to their level, 'did you notice how many of our groups are hiding out in broom closets?'

'Including us, yes. It is the quickest place to hide. Almost every level has one.'

'But not the lowest level, down where Stone and Starr are.'

'True,' said Mal.

'But then,' she added, 'why would they need brooms down there? All that sludge on the floor.'

'True,' Malachi repeated, his hand now on the handle to open the stairway door.

'Maybe a mop closet...' Joy mused.

'Joy,' said Mal suddenly, sternly. 'Is this conversation going somewhere?'

She blushed. 'Umm... no, I guess not.'

'Are you attempting an imitation of Jack?'

Deeper blush. 'No, I... guess I'm just nervous.'

'Understandable. But there's no need to be nervous. You spoke with Talia earlier. She was receptive, and wants to meet with us.'

'True... Unless...'

His hand was still waiting to open the door. 'Unless?'

'Oh, Malachi, you don't suppose this could be a trap, do you?'

'Why should it be?'

'I don't know. I just... The thought just came to me.'

'Well. We shall find out shortly. Won't we?'

Joy gulped and then gave a tiny laugh. 'Yeah, I guess we will! Let's go.'

Mal held up his other hand, listened briefly at the door, then nodded and opened it. The familiar corridors stretched out before them, one leading straight ahead of them, the other leading off to the right.

'This way,' whispered Mal. And he made his way quietly off to the right, pausing at each corner to check for guards. At the fourth corridor, they turned and went swiftly to a door almost to the end, on the left. Stopping, Malachi gestured at the door.

Hmm? Oh! The key! Feeling a bit silly for not having it already in hand, Joy quickly hunted through her knapsack and found it. Licking her lips nervously, she fed the key into the lock and turned it.

The door opened, just like it ought to. The room inside was dark - utterly dark, with only a hint of light spilling in the doorway from the torches out in the corridor.

Dark. And still? Was no one in here?

No. There was breathing; Joy heard it now. She glanced at Malachi, and then they both stepped in and pushed the door shut behind them. If this was a trap, they were about to find out. 'Talia?'

No answer.

'Talia? Are you here? It's me - Joy. You said we should come...?'

'J-joy?' The voice was soft and husky. There was a shifting sound, as of someone sitting up in a bed. And then came the lighting of a candle.

And there she was. Talia was blinking up at the two of them, her eyes red and bleary, and her face all wet and splotchy.

She had been crying.

~~~~~~~



Joy flew across the room. 'Talia! What's wrong? Why were you crying?'

'Oh, you're here! You're here! I thought you weren't coming. I thought you'd forgotten about me. I waited and waited, and, and... well, I guess I finally cried myself to sleep.' She looked so morose, the poor girl - and maybe a bit sheepish as well.

'Oh, I'm so sorry!' cried Joy. 'I'm sorry we're so late.'

'We needed to meet with our companions,' Mal added. 'We did not intend to be this long.'

'Companions? There are more of you?'

'Yes,' said Joy, thinking that if this in fact was a trap, they were about to put more than just their own necks into the noose. 'Walker went all through the dungeons looking for people who wanted out.' An inward cringe, as she realizing that the word 'all' wasn't exactly the truth there.

'I'd never seen anyone without chains till I met Walker,' said Talia. 'And now you as well. No chains, and - those are swords, right?'

Joy's hand fell automatically to her hilt.

'What do you need swords for?' Talia asked.

'To protect you when we lead you out of here,' Mal replied.

'Out sounds good to me,' said Talia. 'I am so...' Fresh tears sprang up in her still-swollen eyes. 'So completely tired of being here! So tired of the guards leering and pawing and all that.' She sighed. 'It's just not fun anymore.'

Joy blinked. Fun anymore? She shot a puzzled glance at Malachi.

'It was fun before, then?' said he.

'Oh, yeah! Used to be - man! They used to fight over me and everything.'

'The guards?' said Joy.

'Well, sure. And then they'd let the guys come and we'd, you know, pair off and party and all.' Talia grinned nostalgically. 'Really cute guys, some of them. Like Jimmie...'

The grin was short-lived. 'You know, it was so exciting at first. All the attention. But then the guys started getting mean. Or bored. Or boring. And it wasn't long before they just didn't much treat me nice.' A snort. 'You know, there were times when I felt like I might as well have just been a thing. Something to show off, something to brag about. Didn't any of them care that I was Talia? Me? A person?' She stared off into the darkness beyond the candlelight. 'What did they care? I could have been Danni or, or Brenda, or anyone. I could have been a body without a face. What did they care, as long as they got what they wanted?'

Her face grew hard then. 'So I started making sure they didn't get what they wanted. And those stinking,' and Joy's eyes popped at the word Talia used then to describe the guys, 'they just got meaner! Especially the guards. And Jimmie...' Her scowl deepened as she paused and fingered the scar across her face. 'Jimmie did this. But he figured it out pretty quick - and so did the rest, most of them - that there wasn't no messing with Talia anymore.' A glitter of satisfaction flashed into her eyes. 'Yeah, especially Jimmie!'

Joy just stood there, stunned, listening to her new friend's story. She'd always thought the part of the dungeons where she'd grown up was nasty...!

'And then Walker showed up,' Talia went on. 'No chains on his arms, that sword at his side. And he treated me like a lady.' A real smile then, showing Talia's real beauty. 'He said if I wanted out, he'd make sure someone came for me.' Even brighter smile. 'And here you are! So,' she drew up her knees under the covers and leaned her chin on them. 'When do we go?'

'As soon as possible,' Joy replied.

While Malachi added, 'First - what do you know about the Master?'

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

 

the child, part 1, chapter 10 - 'the choosing'


***originally chapters 31-36, posted 17 jan - 19 feb 2005***



They all knew, everyone who lived in that house, that they were there for a time and a purpose. And that the time was the same as the purpose: to train and make ready to be sent out to do the work the Master had in mind for them.

So why did it always seem to come as a surprise to be sent out?

They were all in the dining hall, sharing breakfast, when Stone suddenly said, 'What is he doing?'

Starr hastily swallowed the bite of food in her mouth. 'Who?' she said, turning to look.

Stone pointed with a nod of his head. 'Josh. The sword master.'

Oh! Starr swiveled in her chair to see. Yes, there was the Master himself, walking among his people, pausing here and there to say a quiet word to this one or that one. And as he moved on from speaking, each one he had spoken to immediately rose up from table and followed after him.

One of those, Starr saw, was Forest, the young man whose training she had interrupted a few weeks before. And now, as she and Stone watched, they saw the Master stop at the table where Lucy sat with her friends.

Lucy's fingers flew up to cover her mouth. And something that looked to Starr like it might be tears sprang up and glistened in the woman's eyes. She scraped back her chair and stood.

'That's your friend,' Stone commented.

Instead of moving on, the Master turned and spoke again. And now two men stood as well. Starr recognized them; they were the men she had thought might be Michael that evening so long ago.

And now the Master moved on. He was passing by tables, smiling but shaking his head as those he was passing began to realize what was happening, and began to ask the sword master if they too were being chosen out at this time.

No. He shook his head no. Again and again as he dodged among the tables. Coming closer. Closer.

Starr found she was holding her breath, And Stone had gone completely pale.

For here he came, straight to the table the pair of them shared. Stopped. Stood there. Spoke:

'Stone. Rise and follow; the Master has need of you,' said the man he knew only as Josh the sword master. Turning, even as Stone got to his feet, the man she knew as the Master himself, her Beloved, said also to her, 'Starr. Rise and follow; the Master hath need of thee.'

Her hand flew to cover her mouth, and she knew her eyes were glistening with tears even as Lucy's were. She too rose, as Josh turned now and led the little group from the dining hall.

~~~~~~~


He led them out of the house, out into the great wide expanse of lawn, across that lawn to the foot of the Mountain of Spices. And on up the path. The verdance of the trees tossed gently in the fragrant breeze as they followed him. Up, up the path they went in a little line behind him. Wondering. Whispering.

Stone had caught Starr's hand and held it fast. Once he turned and beamed at her as they walked, following. And once he leaned down, put his mouth close to her ear, and breathed into her hearing, 'I'm glad we were chosen together, Starr-girl.'

'I'm glad too,' she whispered back. And her eyes misted over again.

In addition to the four people she had already noticed, there were two more women and three more men. One of the women was very young, about Forest's age, and the other was very pale and shy-looking. And the three men...

One of them turned to glance in Starr's direction. And she caught in an instant a flash of too many eyes, too many faces. And the flicker of a wing.

'Thou preparest a table before me...' the Master was saying now. They had reached the top of the path here and found that, under the nodding branches of a leafy bower, there in fact stood a table. A very ordinary table, long enough to accommodate them all. It was set simply enough: there was only a single pitcher, a single cup, and beside them a platter covered over with a plain white linen cloth.

'...in the presence of mine enemies...' Starr heard someone finish the quote. The word 'enemies' reminded her of who she had twice met here on this mountain. And, yes, there - peeking at them from behind one of the trees - there was Jessie. Her face was suffused with anger, but what could she do? What dared she do, to those led here by the Master himself?

The Master went around the table to stand before the pitcher and platter, spreading his hands left and right to call the others to table with him. They ranged round the table, glancing nervously one at another.

Stone kept Starr right at his side.

'Children of the Master,' said the Master to them all, 'children of his house. You have been chosen now to go forth to the enemy's dungeons, to fetch forth those who are yet imprisoned as you were. Will you go?'

They glanced among themselves, whispering. They were being given the choice if they would go or stay behind? But...

But the honor of being chosen to go! And the shame of choosing instead to stay behind...!

And so not one of them budged from the table. And the Master nodded.

'You will journey forth from here,' he said. 'All you will need, will be provided you. And the way you will know. As you journey, you will discover which among you is best suited to each of you, to work together with, side by side. So that at the end of the journey, when the time comes to enter the dungeons to rescue the captives there, you will do so in pairs, two by two.'

Forest started at that saying and leaned forward, his eyes glowing.

Josh smiled. 'Ask the question,' said he.

'Which one of us gets to be your partner?' said the boy.

'But if the sword master goes with you,' Josh replied quietly, 'who will be training those of this house in the meantime, in the use of the sword?'

'But...' said Forest.

'Yes?' Josh prompted.

'Well, look,' said Forest, pointing round the table. 'There are eleven of us. How can we go two by two, when there's an odd number of us?'

Josh smiled deeply on the boy. 'One of your number has been sent on ahead of you to spy things out. When you arrive, that one will meet with you. And that one will become partner with the one of you who as yet will have no partner.' And then to Forest, Josh added more privately, 'You ask good questions, my son. Never be afraid to ask.'

Forest blushed a bit at the praise, and glanced at the others.

Stone squeezed Starr's hand and whispered into her ear, 'I've already got my partner.' And his eyes twinkled merrily at her as she too blushed.

'Before you go,' Josh said, commanding all their attention now, 'you shall share in something together. A symbol, deep and rich, of unity one with another, as well as with the Master.' And with a sweep of his hand, he caught the white cloth up off the platter.

Under it was bread - very plain bread, very flat. Brown from the fire of baking, and with lines of holes across it so that it was both striped and pierced. Josh - the Master - took up the bread gently in his two hands and spoke a blessing over it. Then to them all he said, 'One loaf, from many grains of wheat brought together. As you are brought together, and made one together in the Master who rescued you. Many grains, crushed together. For until the wheat is crushed, it is too hard to be used for bread. Do you understand this?'

They glanced at each other. Crushing? Was he talking about something other than just the grains of wheat?

'You will understand by and by,' Josh added. 'But see the bread: striped, as the Master was striped with whips. Pierced, as the Master was pierced, hand and foot and side. Baked in the fire, as all who are the Master's pass through the fires of affliction. Broken...' and he suited action to word, breaking the hard flat loaf in two. '...as he who gave his life was broken. As you also have been and will be broken - that wholeness may come. Take. Eat.'

And he passed the bread, one half to the left, the other to the right. Each one of them, as the loaf came to him, to her - broke off a piece and ate.

Or did they? For Starr was watching carefully the three men she had noticed earlier. And while they broke the bread as the rest, she could not really say whether the bread ever reached their mouths.

But now the Master - Josh - was taking up the single cup and the pitcher. He gave thanks for it, then poured forth from the pitcher the deep red richness of the fruit of the vine.

'Grapes too are crushed and mingled to become one,' said he. 'A fitting symbol of the oneness of the children of the Master. His love was such that he poured himself forth - his very lifeblood - for you, whom he loves. You also must love so. Willing to pour forth your own very lives - first for him, and also for each other. Take. Drink.'

He passed the cup to his right, to where Forest was standing. Embarrassed to be the first, the boy's hand shook as he raised the cup to his lips and drank. He passed the cup on to the girl, who also drank.

And so on around. Lucy. The two men her friends. Starr. Stone. The remaining woman. The three...

And again Starr observed them carefully. And could not say if any of the three of them ever truly tasted of the cup.

Who were they - angels? And did angels ever eat and drink?

Josh received back the cup and set it on the table again. And as he did, Starr's eyes caught a glimpse of scars in his hands. Very old scars, piercing right through his wrists. She saw them. But did anyone else?

He looked up into her eyes where she stood right in front of him across the table. And he smiled.

~~~~~~~


And now Josh led them forth from this bower and down the path. But not the same path they had come up. Down they went, past myrrh and cinnamon, past aloe and acacia. Down to the very foot of the mountain.

The other side of the mountain.

The Master's house where they had all been living for so long was nowhere in sight from here. Starr looked about eagerly, for she could not remember ever having seen this side of the Mountain of Spices before. Rich greenery, of course, surrounded them. And there, alongside the path, sat a little house...

Starr gasped. The house! The little house where Jessie lived. Was this it?

And... hmm... Where was Jessie now? Starr glanced about. She had seen the woman earlier as they were entering the bower, but she hadn't given a single thought to her since. Was Jessie here now, lurking about, waiting to rip someone again with her vicious words...?

'Starr.'

It was the Master. 'Yes, sir?' she replied.

'Tell the others what you are thinking.'

Oh! Startled, stumbling over her words, she began to explain to the rest about Jessie. She felt deeply embarrassed, afraid she wasn't saying it quite right.

There was a movement to her left, and the singing sound of a sword being drawn from its sheath. Forest. Scowling heavily, the boy said, 'Just let her try some of her nonsense while I'm around...!'

'My son,' the Master replied. 'Always remember, and never forget, that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. That sword is not given thee to slash others with - that is Jessie's way, the enemy's way. Yes, she is sold to the enemy - but she is yet a human being - someone for whom the Master gave his life and rose again from death. There is yet hope for her.'

And to them all, he added, 'People are never the enemy; the enemy is the enemy. The enemy uses people - and sometimes they are willingly used by him, and sometimes not. For the enemy will also take innocent actions by people who have no ill-will against any, and twist their actions to make them look evil and hate-filled.'

He looked around at them all - their eyes were riveted on him. 'The enemy will seek to use you - your own innocent actions - one against the other. He knows you are being sent out against him. Do not let him divide you. It is your unity - united together as one body, with the Master as your head - that gives you strength. That unity the enemy will strike against. Do not believe everything you hear, nor everything you see.'

They stared back, eyes wide, like so many owls. He smiled. 'And be at peace, children. And filled with joy.' There was a small commotion then, as the young girl, the one who was Forest's age, gave a start and threw a hand over her mouth. Josh's eyes crinkled merrily at her, as he went on: 'The Master's joy is strength to you, dear children, to battle against the enemy's melancholy and discouragement. Do not let melancholy attach to you, but meet it always with the Master's joy. When you deliberately live in the Master's joy, even in the midst of many adversities - then will you confound the enemy's plans against you. Do you understand?'

So many owls they looked still. And not one admitted to understanding what he was getting at.

Josh smiled. 'Though you understand not, remember. And one day you will understand. For now, remember: unity and joy. Unity, because each of you is gifted by the Master himself in different areas, in different ways, that together you may accomplish the Master's will for you all. As you shall see.' And turning to Forest, who was still standing there with his sword drawn in his hand, Josh said, 'You are valiant, my son. And in your valiance shall you enter this house and deal with what you shall find within. But! Not all that you shall see there, shall be in truth as it seems. And so Starr,' and she started at the calling of her name, 'shall go with you. She shall describe to you what she sees. You shall trust her words, and act accordingly. Go forth, my children.' And again he said to them, 'Go,' - for they hesitated.

And even then they hesitated more. Starr glanced at Stone, stunned that she was being sent to aid the boy Forest - not Stone instead? The man Stone squeezed her fingers gently, released her hand reluctantly.

As for Forest, he shifted his grip on his sword, cleared his throat, tightened his face, and then strode purposefully up to the door. Starr hurried to crowd in after him, peering over the boy's shoulder into the dark interior of this little house, straining to make out what there was to be seen within.

And then Starr could see what was inside. And she gasped in amazement.

~~~~~~~


Starr's mouth opened to report to Forest what she was seeing inside the house. But it was already too late.

In a flash, in a twinkling, she had seen Jessie. The woman was crouched in the middle of the room, her glaring eyes somehow at the same time both red with fury, and coldly dead. Her mouth was twisted into a vicious snarl, looking more feral than human. A low hiss escaped her throat.

And Starr's mouth opened, her lips forming the start of the words she had in mind to give to Forest. But she was nowhere near fast enough.

For Jessie sprang.

Her leap was phenomenal. In that single jump, she closed the distance between herself and the boy Forest, who was still framed in the doorway. On reflex, the boy brought his sword up to defend himself, his other arm also rising to ward off that blow. And from the corner of her eye, Starr saw on the boy's other arm, like a shadow of light, a shining shield - one that was not physically there.

Forest's sword came up on reflex. And that was good for his sake, for in Jessie's hands, Starr now saw, there was a sword coming down against the boy. An evil sword, curved, with a row of glittering barbs all along its leading edge, like the teeth on a saw. A sword to rip with. A destroying weapon.

And now there was a loud clash as sword met sword. Forest moved instinctively to his right, partly to deflect the power of the blow, partly to turn the sudden battle away from the door - away from where Starr was still standing.

She half-turned for a moment, glancing back at the small group outside. Her eyes took them in in a flash - most of them huddled together, watching the house with puzzled faces - Stone looking ready to explode, ready to charge over and get her out of here.

And the Master. Standing calmly, he nodded towards her, the gesture plainly saying to her to get back to the task he had set for her.

She turned back. Forest was being pressed backwards, straining to hold his ground against the ferocity of Jessie's attack. Her words were spitting at him, at them: 'How dare you? Invading my house. Mine! My husband... I have a right... How dare you...!'

Strange. Starr frowned. The voice, the words, didn't match with what she was seeing. The battle was here... but the voice was coming from...

She turned. Looked. Stared.

Jessie? But how?

For Jessie was huddled over there, in the far corner of the room, her arms thrown over her head, screaming and spluttering out her protests. Even as Jessie was fully engaged in raging battle against the boy Forest over here...

Starr looked again at the fighting Jessie. Blinked. Stared hard. Saw...

Forest was being driven backwards, step by grudging step. The cruel evil blade was pressing him hard, even as the boy whispered, 'I don't... want... to hurt you...'

Bless his heart! The boy had taken the Master's instructions deeply to heart, doing his best to avoid harm to a fellow human.

But that was not what he was fighting now.

'Forest!' Starr called out. 'Don't be afraid; that's not Jessie. You can fight it with all your might. See Jessie there in the corner?'

The lad spared a glance in the direction Starr was pointing. His eyes went wide, and he nodded.

'Fight for all you're worth, Forest!' Starr called, encouraging him. 'That thing...' Ugh! What other word was there for it?

'Forest, that thing's a demon!'

~~~~~~~


Twisted. That was the word that came to Starr's mind. Everything about the demon seemed twisted - distorted - like a foul mockery of a human being.

Except that, really - it was a foul mockery of an angel.

The wings - the eyes - the faces. It reminded her so much of Mathilda, of Michael. But the wings were dark and leathery, the eyes hard and bitter, the faces sneering and hateful. Twisted. Nasty. Sickening.

'Don't listen to her.'

The words caught Starr by surprise. For now Jessie's voice was coming out of the demon's mouth, perfectly reproduced. Jessie in the corner had fallen silent - yes, and fallen to the floor as well, hiding behind her own arms, whimpering.

'Don't listen to her,' the demon said again, cutting its many eyes in Starr's direction. 'She hates me. She's egging you on to kill me, you know. She's evil.'

It took both Starr and Forest a second to realize who the demon was talking about. 'You mean Starr?' the boy gasped, still sorely pressed by the demonic blade.

'She's jealous,' the fake voice of Jessie went on. 'Because the Master made me his bride, and not her. So she lies about me. She hates me! She would love to have you kill me. Then she thinks she would have a chance to snare my husband for herself - as if he would have her!'

Oh! The demon may have been fighting against the boy Forest, but its words struck deeply into Starr's heart. Twisted! It had somehow twisted Starr's motives and replaced them with Jessie's, and Jessie's with hers.

Starr dropped back a step, her mouth fallen open, hurting, bleeding within where it could not be seen. Surely, surely Forest wouldn't believe such lies!

And she started to speak up, to denounce the lies for what they were. When she looked down.

Her sword was in her hand. She didn't remember having drawn it. She looked up again, found that the demon was grinning at her, even as it continued to press its attack against Forest. It leaned nearer to the boy, its lips moving, whispering words she could not hear into the lad's hearing.

Forest glanced back at her, his eyes wide in shock. He dropped back another step, and then another.

His resolve was flagging, Starr realized. Whatever lies the demon was pouring into Forest's ears, they were sapping his confidence, sowing doubt.

Lying devil! she thought. Her fist tightened on the hilt of her sword. How she longed to wade into that demon, to make it eat those lies - yes, and choke on them!

She took a step forward...

Wait... Was she coming to Forest's defense? or to her own? The Master's words flooded back into her: '...you are not to defend yourself, for I shall do that, and you shall rest in my defense of you - the use of the sword is not to defend yourself, not to promote your own ways - but it is to defend others, to protect them from the wiles of the enemy...'

Again she looked at the sword in her hand. Which was she about to do - protect Forest from the enemy's wiles? or defend her own self - her own good name - from the enemy's lies about her?

Again she glanced back at the little group outside the house. There was Stone, his own sword in hand...

But her eyes were seeking the Master. He was standing there, so calm, so serene. Smiling, he lifted his hand.

And she felt his touch, there on her cheek, across the intervening space.

Sureness flooded into her. She need not defend. Smiling back, she decisively sheathed her sword.

And turned back to the scene inside the house, her hands now empty. Forest was pressed back against the wall now, his eyes near to panic. The demon was right up in the boy's face, its scaly free hand reaching to grasp Forest's throat.

'Oh, Master! For Forest!' Starr breathed.

She barely spoke the words aloud. And her hands were yet empty. But suddenly the demonic body jerked and shuddered, as if it had taken a great blow. Snarling, it turned on her, glaring, hissing. 'You see!' it growled. 'She strikes me in the back - like the coward she is!'

Starr raised her hands, showing them to be empty. And then dropped them, palms outward, completely and utterly vulnerable.

The demon's eyes glowed with glee to see Starr leave herself so wide open to attack like that. Forgetting the boy, it turned, regripped its cruel evil sword - and charged, hurtling itself full force towards the unprotected Child.

~~~~~~~


Tzhing!

Starr had closed her eyes when the demon began its charge, not really wanting to see her own death bearing down on her. But the skewering she expecting never came - and the sound of swords clashing did...

She opened her eyes. Blinked. Gaped.

Somehow, Forest had rallied to her and was now between her and the demon. No longer merely holding the demon off, no longer giving ground before it step by trembling step. Oh no. Now...

It was amazing. Now, the lad was raining blows upon the foe before him, lunging, feinting, thrusting.

And now it was the demon giving way before the young man's sword. 'No!' cried Jessie's voice from its lips. 'No, don't hurt me! How cruel you are, to hurt a woman...!'

'You were hurting a woman,' Forest replied grimly. 'And it didn't seem to bother you a bit, to rip Starr with your words. And you would have killed her happily if you could just now - wouldn't you? As for me hurting a woman... ' And he pressed on against this enemy, giving the demon neither room nor time to recover or rally itself. '...if you really were Jessie, then you might have a point. But you're not Jessie. She's over there in the corner. You are exactly what Starr told me you are. You are a demon, and in the name of the Master, you... are... defeated!'

The boy thrust home on that last word. There was a shriek like cloth tearing, and a blinding flash of not light but dark. A foul stench filled the air, gagging them...

And the demon was gone. There was only Forest now, and Starr.

And Jessie.

Starr went to her, holding out a hand to lift her up, while Forest quickly cleaned and sheathed his weapon. 'Jessie?' the Child called gently to the still-cringing woman.

Jessie shook herself, shrinking away from Starr, keeping her arms still locked protectively over her head. 'Stay away from me!' the woman cried piteously.

'You're all right now,' Forest said, coming alongside. 'The demon is gone. It's safe now.'

'Safe?' Jessie hissed at them. 'Safe? When the two of you barge into my home, with weapons in your hands? Safe?'

'Jessie...'

A new voice, soft, patient. All three looked over at the door, were now the Master stood.

With a sob, Jessie leapt up and pelted for the doorway, flinging herself into the Master's arms, pouring forth her tale of woe, pointing again and again back at Starr and Forest - her hand stabbed especially viciously in Starr's direction. Shaking his head, the Master said to her, 'Jezebel. Do you think I do not know the Truth?'

She stopped talking suddenly, glared up into that stern and gentle face. And then, like the striking of a snake, she slapped him. Slapped him!

Forest's face darkened, and his hand flew to his sword. How dare that woman slap Josh!

Starr's face reddened, and her hand flew to her own cheek as if the slap had hit her instead. How could Jessie slap the Master?

But the Master only looked down on the enemy's daughter, his eyes full of compassion meeting hers full of venom. Softly he said to her, 'When you come to love the Truth more than you love your own self, then will you begin to know me at last.' And when her eyes only darkened more and flashed with anger, he added, 'What you do, do quickly.'

She drew back, looked for a moment as if she might slap him once more - then swept pass him, regal as any queen. And left.

And now came the rest of the little group crowding into the house. 'What happened here?' Lucy asked as she passed in through the door. The others followed, Stone last of all, only now sheathing his sword. His arms found Starr and drew her close. He was trembling a bit.

But then, so was she.

'My children,' said the Master, said Josh. 'So long as Jessie held this house, she held against you an inheritance the Master would have you possess. Now she is gone, and the inheritance is yours. See...' He gestured toward a cabinet set against the wall opposite the door. One of Lucy's friends was standing closest to it, so he reached and opened the doors.

And there within - there were several packs, walking sticks, traveling coats. In fact, everything they would need for this journey they were setting forth on.

Quietly - indeed, rather subdued, for Jessie's outburst was still fresh in their memories - the eleven gathered to take up the packs and make ready to go. Starr, waiting till the others were done, felt a light touch on her arm.

She turned. The Master. Drawing her apart from the others, he said to her, 'Ask.'

She dropped her eyes, and a bit of a blush touched her cheeks. 'You always know...' said she.

'Always,' he replied. 'Ask me, Starr. Ask the question that is in your heart.'

'It's just... Why Forest? Why not Stone?'

'Why did I send you in here to support Forest, instead of choosing Stone to send you at the side of?'

'Well, yes. I mean, if I am to be Stone's...' She hesitated, glancing to see if any of the others would hear her speak the word 'wife.'

'My Child. Stone already knows you, and has already begun to trust your sight. Forest needed to learn to trust as well. And through him, the others. Remember? This was an exercise in unity?'

'Oh.' And she nodded.

'Go now and get your things, Starr. Fear nothing; trust my leading. Yes?'

Feeling a bit embarrassed, she nodded.

He gave her a cherished kiss on the forehead and sent her off to the cabinet. Soon she had collected her share of the supplies for the journey as well, and returned to stand with the others.

Stone took her protectively to his side.

'Now,' said Josh, leading them back outside. 'Now you are ready. Now you will set forth. Look there.' He pointed, and their eyes followed.

Here they stood at the foot of the Mountain of Spices. Leading away from them ran the last traces of the path, curving away into a deep valley. A great mountain, higher than this one, rose on the other side of that valley. And there, further off, they saw that there was still another high mountain, where the valley ran in between the two mountains, leading into deep shadow.

'That is your way,' said Josh. 'Fear no darkness. Trust, and be trustworthy. Grow in grace. Know that the Master's Presence goes with you, though you see him not. And be in Peace.' He smiled on them all, gently sighed - how Starr breathed in the dearness of that sigh! - and then he turned and climbed again the path up the Mountain of Spices.

At the top, he lifted his arm and waved. Then came a curious brightness of sunlight, so that they all flinched and hid their eyes.

When they could look again, he was gone. A bit of cloud came up then, obscuring the sun, causing a great shiver to pass through the company.

They stood yet a moment longer. And then, making his sword sing once more as he drew it forth from its sheath, Forest said, 'Well, let's get moving then.' And he started out, leading the way towards the dark valley.

Slowly, the rest followed.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, December 16, 2005

 

The Master's Key - short story version


***Faith in Fiction had a short story competition lately, asking for fiction stories of conversions. Since I had already been writing this section for 'the child,' I redid it as a short story and entered it. Didn't win.

Posted in a slightly different version as a chapter of 'the child' here.***



Barely had they said brief good-byes to their companions, then slipped through the stairway door and closed it softly behind them - when Jack and Morgen heard the footsteps. Not the sound of the others, going on up the stairs on their own searches for captives longing to be set free. No, these footsteps were ahead of them. Off to the right.

Coming their way.

Jack froze, fighting panic. After all, here they were in the middle of the enemy's dungeons, in the middle of the night. Who else could that be coming their way but a guard?

And not just one guard. That wasn't just one pair of feet he was hearing. Two guards? More?

At any rate, the footsteps were getting closer...

Morgen, as usual, was absolutely calm. But then, not once during this long quest had Morgen ever shown the first sign of panic. All these months of traveling since they had been sent out in the Master's name to rescue prisoners from the enemy's fortress - and never once had Morgen shown the least bit of uncertainty or fear.

The man was a rock. Jack was glad to be teamed with him to find and rescue this prisoner named, um...

Oh yes, Rob. That was the name 12 had given them. In a way, 12's task had been harder, since he'd been sent ahead of the rest to infiltrate the dungeons and find the prisoners who were yearning the most to be set free.

Just like Jack himself had been set free so long before.

He recognized the layout of the dungeons here. One long corridor stretched out ahead of them, lined with doors and occasional torches. Another corridor, shorter, came in from their right. Both were empty - for the moment.

Somewhere in the many cells of this level of the dungeons was a desperate little packrat of a man named Rob. Jack remembered well his own desperation just before someone had come and liberated him. Someone sent by the Master, just like Jack and Morgen themselves had now been sent out.

The Master. Jack smiled. He would do anything for the Master.

First, though, he had to avoid getting captured. The way 12 had been captured. If only he had some plan!

Morgen, he saw, calmly took off his pack. He plunged in his hand, pulled something out, then pointed straight ahead. 'This way,' he whispered, shrugging the pack back on.

Morgen had an idea? Good - that was more than Jack had. 'Lead on,' he nodded with relief. Quickly they crossed the shorter corridor, then hurried down the longer one.

But what could Morgen possibly have in mind? Jack wondered. There wasn't a bit of cover the whole length of this corridor. The cell doors were all flush with the walls. There was nowhere to hide short of the far corner - and it was a long way away.

And the footsteps were louder now. Closer. What was Morgen's plan?

Morgen glided silently down the corridor, stopping a third of the way down. Sparing a glance back at the corner they had come from, he reached for a doorknob on the right.

Jack blinked. But... the door was locked. This was a prison, and that was a cell.

And they had the key.

Of course - how could Jack have forgotten? That's what Morgen had taken out of his pack! The Master had supplied each of them with a key that would open every door in this place. How had he forgotten?

Swiftly Morgen unlocked the door and went in, Jack crowding after him. And just in time, too. For as he passed through the door, Jack spotted a boot appearing round the corner!

The door closed behind them. The lock clicked fast. Jack pressed up against the door, listening, barely breathing.

The footsteps came closer.

Approached the door.

Passed the door.

Passed on down the corridor, and were gone.

Whew. Now they could begin their search for Rob. Turning to Morgen, Jack whispered, 'The key does work from the inside, right?'

Morgen didn't answer.

'Hmm? Morgen?' Jack whispered.

Morgen was gazing across this cell into the semidark. Jack followed Morgen's gaze - and froze.

They were not alone in here.

Panic hit Jack's brain. Why hadn't he thought? He'd been so focused on avoiding the guards, he hadn't even thought that, of course, by hiding in a dungeon cell, they would not be hiding in an empty room!

'Hello,' Morgen said. Friendly. Not a bit ruffled. Not a bit like Jack was right now.

A dim figure stood across the room, there by the bed. Someone short, sharp-faced, edgy. Someone staring back at the two total strangers who had just burst into his room in the middle of the night. Yes, very edgy.

The man's eyes glittered warily in the light of the single candle, shifting rapidly back and forth, taking in the intruders. He hunched a bit, clutching his hands together tightly at his belly, his prison chains dangling from his wrists.

Jack frowned. Something about the man's hands... Was he hiding something?

The man licked his lips nervously, suspiciously. 'Who are you?' he rasped out at last.

'I am Morgen,' the taller one replied graciously, 'and this is Jack.' Smiling, he pointed at his companion. Friendly. Non-threatening.

The man moved nothing but his eyes. Morgen? Jack? These names held no meaning for him. Why had these strangers barged in on him? They weren't guards; they weren't dressed like guards.

But they had let themselves in. So they had the key. And who had keys but guards?

Except...

His eyes widened, then narrowed again. 'Who are you?'

'As I said...' the one called Morgen began, still smiling. So disarming.

But the man shook his head, cutting him off. 'You know what I mean,' he said.

The other, the one called Jack - he was roaming his eyes all over the room. Bristling, the man barked, 'Stop looking at my things!' Then again he demanded, 'Who are you? Why are you here?'

Jack flipped his eyes back to the man. But he had already seen. The room was cluttered with stuff. Knick-knacks. Trinkets. Junk. Treasured trash. It littered the shelves, piled up almost artistically in the corners and out into the floor, massed in the shadows, and even hanging here and there from the ceiling.

Stuff. Why would one person need so much stuff?

'You know who we are,' Morgen said gently, smiling. 'And you know why we've come.'

The man scowled. 'I don't know any such thing,' he began.

But now Morgen cut him off. 'We come from the Master. 12 sent us.'

What? Jack stared at Morgen, shocked at what his companion had just said. Mentioning the Master? And 12? What if this little man screamed for the guards now? This was the enemy's territory, and too many of the prisoners were surprisingly loyal to the one who held them captives. What was Morgen thinking, to be taking such a chance?

The man was staring too. 'You've...' A shudder racked his body. 'You've come?'

His voice broke. His hands dropped, and something dropped from them. 'You... 12 said... but I didn't believe him. And then he disappeared. I thought... I thought... Where is he? Where's 12?'

Morgen held up his hand. 'Easy now. We'll get you out. But first... 12's been captured.'

'What!' the man shrieked.

'And we're going to get him out too.'

'But...!' The man's eyes were wide with horror. 'But he knows my name! He knows everything! He'll give me up! He'll... You gotta get me out. You gotta get me out now!'

'And we will, Rob. We will.'

Wait a minute. This was Rob? But... Jack shook his head, stunned. How? How could they have found the man in the first place they looked?

And they hadn't even been looking for him. No, they'd been just hiding from some guards. And they found him already? How could they find him, without even looking?

No. Not how could they find him. It was Morgen who had found the right room. But how? How could he...?

Jack shook his head again, baffled. Just who was Morgen, anyway? How could he know things no one had any way of knowing?

I need to sit down, Jack decided. Barely noticing as Rob continued to beg for Morgen take him away from here now, Jack crossed to the bed and sank onto it, sorting out the muddle in his head. How could Morgen know things no man could know?

And then Jack's eyes fell on that thing Rob had dropped a few minutes before. Curious, he leaned over and took it up. Turning it over in his hands, being careful not to cut his fingers with it, he spoke up suddenly, 'Um... what were you planning to do with this knife?'

Even by candlelight, he could see Rob go ashen. 'Give me that!' he hissed.

'The guards don't let you have knives, do they?' Jack went on.

'What business is it of yours?' Rob countered. Tears began spilling down his cheeks. 'Why should you care? Why should anyone care? Just give me back...'

'You were going to kill yourself,' Jack stated. 'Weren't you?' Where that guess came from, he didn't know. But looking at Rob, Jack knew he had guessed right. 'And we walked in just at the right time,' thanks to the uncanny Morgen, 'to stop you.'

Wow.

'Give me my knife!' Rob demanded.

'Your knife? Not likely. The guards don't let you have knives. So you stole this. Right?'

'So what? Why should you care?'

'I care because the Master cares.' said Jack.

Rob stared at him. And then he began to tremble. 'That's... that's what 12 said. That the Master cares. For me. For me! Ha! I didn't believe him. But he said...' Rob looked back and forth between the two of them again '...he said the Master would send others. To rescue me. To get me... out...'

A fire of longing lit his eyes. 'How?' Rob whispered. 'How do I get free? What do I do?'

Could it be this easy? Jack marveled. 'You know who the Master is? What he did?'

'They say he made us. That he loves us. That he, uh, died. But he's alive still. Not sure I understand that.'

'Do you believe it?'

Rob hesitated. 'I don't know. I mean, it's hard enough to believe someone dead could be alive again. But...' And he flapped a hand at where they were, this place. 'If he loves us, why am I here? Would you let someone you love rot in a dungeon?'

'He sent us, didn't he? To get you out.'

'True.' He was frowning, thinking this over. Thinking hard.

'The Master loves you; the enemy hates you,' Jack went on, wondering if he was pressing too hard. 'The enemy has you trapped in this dungeon; the Master sent us to set you free.'

'With the key...' said Rob. An edge came into his eyes and voice, a calculating edge. What was this man thinking now, Jack wondered.

Morgen spoke up. 'You can't get the key to freedom from this dungeon by stealing it, Rob.'

Rob whirled towards him, eye wide, stunned.

How did Morgen do that?

'You cannot steal this key,' Morgen went on. 'You can only receive it. As a gift...'

Jack was reaching for his pack, ready to pull out his key and offer it to Rob - just as long ago, someone else had stood in these dungeons and offered the key to him.

But Morgen beat him to it.

Rob's eyes shifted, feasting on the sight of the key in the tall one's hand. 'Free?' he whispered.

'Free to you, yes,' Jack said. 'It cost the Master everything.'

'Huh?'

'It cost the Master everything,' Jack repeated. 'They told you he died, right? Did they tell you why?'

Rob shook his head no.

'Rob, he died for you. For me. For all of us. He died - to pay the price for our freedom from the dungeons. To pay the price for this key.' He took it from Morgen's hand, held it up. 'This key cost the Master his life's blood. So you could have it. And be free.'

'Free,' Rob repeated. His eyes were on the key. 'He died - so I could be free...'

'Because he loves you, yes.'

Rob's hand, trembling, reached for the precious key. 'He loves me? He loves me?'

'Yes, Rob.'

'And he's alive? He's not dead anymore?'

'He lives. To show that the death he died in your place was accepted for you, he lives,' said Morgen.

'To be loved like that,' Rob whispered. His fingers, twitching, reached towards Jack's. Convulsed around the key, grasping it, snatching it to his bosom. 'He loves me!'

'Yes, Rob,' said a wonderful voice. 'I love you. I made you, so I could love you.'

And he was here.

The Master! He hadn't come here; he just - was here.

With a cry of indescribable joy, Morgen fell to his knees, hands and face raised in pure delight and worship. Jack was suddenly on his knees as well - his legs had given way under him at the shock. The Master! Here!

Rob saw neither Jack nor Morgen anymore. His eyes, his heart, were all caught up in the man before him. A man - but more than man. Tears spilled down Rob's cheeks as the Master looked on him. Such love! Such love! Rob thought his heart would burst.

'I...' he said unsteadily. 'Oh, Master! I'm so sorry, so sorry!'

'And I forgive.' Reaching out his hands, the Master touched the chains that held Rob bound. Instantly they dropped away, landing on the floor like coiled dead snakes. Rob lifted his arms hungrily, looking at his naked wrists. Shaking, crying, giggling.

The Master's arms opened and Rob flew into them. He burrowed against the Master's chest, felt the Master's kiss on his forehead, smelled the fragrance of the Master's sweet breath flow all around him. He gasped, and then that breath was in him - like fire and water all at once.

'My son,' said the Master. And Rob looked up into his eyes. Such joy! Such love!

'I receive thee,' the Master beamed.

Rob had thought before that his heart would burst from delight. Now he was sure that it did. He felt it. Inside him. His heart had burst. He was dead.

But he was still alive. Or alive anew. He'd never felt so alive!

He smiled and the Master smiled. And their smiles were one.

'Jack,' said the Master. Jack scrambled to his feet instantly, swaying, a bit disoriented by the sheer joy thick in the air. 'Jack,' the Master said, 'meet your new brother. His name is Stephen.'

'Stephen,' Jack repeated. He felt drunk, and was grinning like an idiot. But who cared! He held out his hand.

Rob - Stephen - ignored the offered handshake and instead caught his new brother in a bear hug. He was laughing; they both were laughing.

The Master was laughing. And Morgen? Jack suddenly looked for him. Why wasn't he over here as well, greeting Stephen, welcoming him into the family?

There was Morgen, still on his knees. Hands raised, faces raised, wings raised as well, rapture shining from a thousand eyes.

What???

Jack blinked. There was Morgen, still on his knees. Hands raised, face raised, rapture shining from his two bright eyes...

Jack blinked again. Was he seeing things? Maybe he was drunk. Or maybe it was the air. Because the Master was here.

'Now, my sons,' said the Master. 'I have some work for you. My son 12 must be found and rescued before you can leave here.'

'But,' said Stephen, 'I want to go now.'

'I know, my son. But 12 risked himself for you, and was caught.'

'But...'

'Do you love him?' added the Master. 'Will you leave him to rot in a dungeon?'

Stephen's eyes widened at the too-familiar words. And then his face blushed deep, deep red. 'No,' he said humbly. 'No. I... forgive me. Of course I must stay and help rescue 12.'

The Master laid his hand on Stephen's shoulder and looked him deeply in the eye. 'You are forgiven,' he said somberly.

And Stephen nodded as somberly. 'Thank you,' he said.

'Now. The guards have wrested 12's key from him, and he despairs that he is forsaken. Search for him. Find him. Restore this to him.' And the Master held out a key, which Jack took and carefully pocketed. 'Search the dungeons. And if you do not find 12 there, then go above ground throughout this fortress and search Find my son.'

'But surely,' Jack began. Then checked himself.

'Yes, Jack?' the Master prompted.

'Um. Surely you know exactly where he is?'

'Yes. But be diligent to search everywhere. Then when you have found him - tell him of your search for him - how you turned this fortress upside-down to find him. Tell him this, that he may see and know how my Love was lavished out to rescue him.' And the Master smiled, but Jack saw the tears behind the smile. Tears of pain, for his son. His son!

Jack knelt before him. 'I will bring him back to you,' he promised.

'And so you will,' the Master replied. He raised Jack to his feet again.

And then he was gone. In an instant.

Jack and Stephen thought they might fall over. His sudden absence - but was the Master ever truly absent? - left their knees a bit watery.

Morgen rose from his knees. 'Let us search,' he said simply.

 

the child, part 1, chapter 9 - 'drawing closer'


***Republishing the original shorter chapters into longer ones. These were originally chapters 26-30, from 23 dec 04 through 14 jan 05.***



They talked a long time that evening, the two of them. The crowd had dwindled off to a mere handful by the time Mathilda came in and quietly called for Starr to come away.

Ah, there was no doubt about it - Starr had fallen in love with Stone. And Stone...

The next morning - as well as many mornings afterwards - he showed up at sword practice to share the lesson with her. Many noontimes he would come looking for her to share lunch together. Or evenings, to share supper.

And many nights - many nights! - they walked together, the two of them, in the cool of the evening under the radiant stars. Talking, or not talking. Simply being together. His hand holding hers.

His hand held her heart as well. But he did not yet know it.

One evening, as they walked together under the stars across the thick dewy lawn, Stone said to her suddenly, 'I've been thinking of something.'

'Yes?' said Starr.

He glanced at her, smiled shyly, and glanced quickly away again. 'Something that someone said to me not so very long ago.' Curiously, he did not look at her as they went on walking. But he held her hand the more tightly. 'Not long before I first began to notice you practicing with the sword master, someone came up to me one day and said to me that the Master wanted me to hope for a wife.'

Starr's heart gave a leap within her. Forcing her voice to sound normal, she responded, 'He did?'

'Yes,' said Stone. 'And then I had that dream of the star falling into my hand. And then I met you...' He glanced her way again. 'Well. Actually, every time lately when I meet an unattached woman, I can't help wondering - is she the one? So it isn't just you. But...' And now he stopped, and turned to face her straight on. 'Starr. You hear from the Master much more directly than I do. And I was wondering. Has the Master said anything to you? About me?'

Heart in her throat, Starr replied truthfully, 'Y-yes.'

Stone dropped his gaze, then met her eyes again. 'Because if he's already given you a no about me...' And he sighed. 'Well... I'd like you to tell me. So I'll know not to look in your direction anymore.'

'He...' Starr's ears were roaring from the pounding of her heart. 'He hasn't said no...'

'Oh!' He smiled, and then began to walk on, her small hand still tucked in his. 'Hasn't said no, hmmm?' And then, to her dismay, for she knew she was not to tell Stone all that the Master had said about the two of them, about the Master's plans for them together, Stone asked, 'What has he told you, then? About me?'

She was silent. So silent, that Stone stopped walking again and turned to face her. 'Starr?'

'Is...' she paused to swallow the lump in her throat, 'is it fair for me to tell you that? You need to know such things for yourself, don't you? Without me telling you?'

He studied her face silently for a long moment. 'You're right,' he said at last. 'If you are the one for me, it's not for you to tell me so. It's just... you're good at hearing the Master. And I'm not.'

'Don't be afraid of that,' she answered. 'What you need to know, you will know. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.'

'I sure hope so,' said he. 'Oh,' he added. 'Here's Mathilda.'

Inclining its head respectfully, the cherub greeted them quietly. 'Time to take her away again?' said Stone.

'Only for this little one to sleep and be refreshed,' Mathilda replied.

'I know,' said Stone. 'It's just... well, seems like there's not enough hours in the day, to be together.'

'If,' Starr replied, choosing her words carefully, 'you are the Master's choice for me, and I for you - there will be. Some day.'

Stone smiled on her. 'I'd like that,' said he.

'I'd like that too,' Starr answered. And then Mathilda led her away.

~~~~~~~


She woke screaming. Screaming. The chains! The burning!

Strong arms enfolded her. Arms - yes, and wings as well. Mathilda.

The Child clung to the angel, sobbing, till at last the frantic racing of her heart settled back to normal. 'Little one...' the voice like many waters spoke over her. The cherub used its own veil to dry the tears from Starr's cheeks. 'You dreamed,' said Mathilda. 'But you are safe. You are not there, within the dream, but you are here within the Master's house. You are safe.'

Starr nodded. The last tendrils of the dream, with its horror, were still curling through her brain, still seeking to take hold and draw her back. 'Don't leave,' she whispered to the cherub.

'We are here, little one. Be at peace.'

At length Starr slept again, this time dreamlessly. She woke at the dawn light peeking in at her window, and rose to seek the Master.

He was working with a young man Starr did not know, instructing him with the use of his sword. Seeing Starr, the Master said to his student, 'Continue on with that for a few moments, Forest, while I speak with Starr thy sister.' The young man nodded, breathless, his dark hair plastered in sweaty strings to his forehead and nape.

As young Forest went on with his practicing, the Master came to his Starr and took her in his arms. 'You dreamed,' said he.

'Yes. It was awful.'

'It was necessary, though, for you to see these things.'

She leaned back within his embrace to look up, wide eyed, into his face. 'You know what I dreamed?'

'As I have often told thee, my cherished girl, I know everything about you. Including your nightly dreams.'

She shuddered and huddled deeply within the circle of his arms. 'It was awful,' she said again.

'It was. But it was given thee for a reason. And now, Starr...'

She looked up into his dear face once again. 'Yes, Beloved?'

He smiled gently on her. 'Starr, I want you to write it down.'

Her eyes went wide. 'Must I? I don't even want to remember it!'

'There is a reason for this as well, love. Do not be afraid. Take paper, and sit and write the dream. You will shortly know why I am asking you to do this.'

'Yes, sir,' said she, baffled but obedient.

Going back into the house, she found a sheaf of paper to use and came back outside. Finding a shady tree, she sat down in the soft grass, leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and began to write.

Slowly she wrote, drawing up one at a time the painful bitter memories of the dream she had escaped from. She pictured into words the anguish and the dark, the damp and the fear. The great thick bars. The heavy chains. The miry floors, on which feet would slip and fall again and again. And the burning!

That was the most frightening part. For the burning was not around her, but within her. Fierce, searing, ravenous - like a hunger, but not the ordinary sort of hunger she knew. Like a great emptiness within, aching, dying to be filled!

She was deeply engrossed in finding just the right words to describe the horror, the hopelessness, the helplessness. To describe this overwhelming, unquenchable longing for something - something. What was this yearning for, that burned the very soul...?

And as she bent over her papers, thinking and writing - a shadow fell across the pages. 'There you are, Starr-girl! I've been looking for you everywhere. Did you skip your lesson with the sword master this morning?'

Stone. He sat down at her side and sighed comfortably. 'Glad I found you,' said he. 'Oh, what are you doing, writing?' And when she nodded mutely, he added, 'May I see?'

Wordlessly she placed her papers into his outstretched hand. Then she watched his face as he read. For as he read, his face changed. The unwary bemusement he started out with changed quickly to wide-eyed shock. He shot a sharp glance at the gentle girl at his side. Then back to the reading. His face now became pale, so pale. He ran a shaky hand nervously through his hair as he went on reading, reading.

And then he finished. Handed back the pages. Sat for a bit in stunned silence.

'Stone?' Starr ventured at last. At just the same moment as he asked her, 'You wrote that?'

'Yes.'

'Where...' He swallowed. 'Uh... where did you get that?'

'That's what I dreamed last night. The Master told me to write it down.'

'Last night? Really?'

'Yes,' said she. 'Why?'

'Because last night, Starr-girl, I barely slept a wink.' He paused, then added, 'Do you know what you've written here?'

She shrugged. 'My dream...'

'That's more than just a dream, Starr. That's...' Again he broke off, then said, 'Do you remember asking me what part of the enemy's dungeon I came from? And how I very cleverly gave you a non-answer?'

'Yes...'

He tapped the pages in her hands. 'That is where I came from.'

'Oh!'

He gave an odd smile. 'And you dreamed it last night. At the same time that I was lying awake all night, agonizing on how much of my past to tell you about. And here, the dreams of your head last night told you all my past.' He chuckled. 'That's what I get for worrying on it.' He tapped the papers again. 'This is the Master's hand; you know that.'

Her eyes wide with awe, she nodded. 'Yes... And this is where you were?'

'Yes,' said Stone. And then his eyes became wary. 'What do you think about that?' he asked.

'I'm glad you're not there anymore,' said she. 'I'm glad the Master rescued you and brought you here to his house, where you are safe and whole.'

'But doesn't it bother you,' he pressed, 'the part of the dungeon that I came from? Some of the ugliest, nastiest pits in the whole dungeon?'

Starr looked at him, baffled. 'Should it bother me? All dungeon is dungeon. We all needed rescuing. We all needed the Master to come and set us free and make us whole. And it's all past now. We belong to the Master now. So what difference does the past make?'

Stone smiled and visibly relaxed. 'Oh, Starr, you'd be surprised. Yes, you would. But I'm glad you see things this way. Because that's why I was up all night debating with myself over what to tell you, and when.' He sighed. 'You see, it came to me that if this friendship between us continues, if we draw closer, if perhaps the friendship blossoms into something more - then I'll have to tell you about my past. So I decided I should tell you now, today, before another day could pass.

'And I was very nervous, you know. I had no idea the Master was preparing you to hear what I would say. All I knew was that, in telling you, I would risk losing your friendship.'

And then, very softly, he added, 'The way I lost Walker's.'

~~~~~~~


'Walker?' said Starr. 'Who is that?'

'Well, he was my best friend,' said Stone. 'I met him back when I first got here. And for quite a while there, we hung out together - we studied our sword-work together...' He smiled nostalgically. 'Man... I miss that. We were the best of friends, Walker and me. And we were making plans that, when it was time for us to go back to the enemy's dungeon, we would go together, as a team. Well, you know the Master often sends us out two by two. And Walker and I had in mind to be a team like that.'

Stone sighed and looked up through the tree limbs overhead. 'Well. That was the plan... Until this one day, when we got to talking about the past, and what we got rescued out of. And when I told Walker the part of the dungeon I used to be in... Man! I could see it in his eyes! It was like a door came up between us and was slammed in my face. And Walker leaned back away from me, like he was afraid of becoming contaminated just by being next to me.'

'Surely he didn't think that!' said Starr.

'Didn't he?' said Stone. 'Because the next thing he did was to tell me that no one who has ever been in the part of the dungeon I was rescued from, is ever completely free from it. And then he said that he couldn't possibly return to the dungeons with me along, because when we got back there, I would inevitably go back to what I was before - and I would betray him in the process.'

'No, you wouldn't!' Starr protested.

Stone smiled. 'Well, thank you for believing in me, Starr-girl. Not everyone does. Walker sure didn't. And... he still doesn't.'

'He doesn't?'

'Nope. You see, every so often I will spot him - maybe across the yard here, or perhaps across the dining room inside. And when I see him, I will watch him, to see what's going to happen when he spots me. And it's always the same.'

Stone held up his hand before them. 'This is what happens,' he said. 'This is what Walker's face does.' And Stone curled his fingers up tightly, making a fist. 'That's just what his face does - it closes, just like that. Like an angry fist. And then he turns and gets away from me as quickly as he can.'

He sighed again. 'You know, Starr, I wish - but I hate that word wish - I wish I'd never told him. But then, it wouldn't have been fair or honest to hide my past from him much longer. Anymore than,' and he took her hand into his, 'it would have been fair of me to continue to hide it from you.'

Starr felt a blush coming on. Her heart was full, but words she had none.

'And it's just like the Master,' Stone was saying, pointing at the sheaf of papers in her other hand, 'to prepare you ahead of time to hear what I was going to say. Which makes me wonder...'

'Yes?' said Starr.

'Oh, I wonder did I speak too soon, when I told Walker? Maybe I did; maybe I didn't. It seemed to me that the way the conversation was leading, was the Master's leading for me to say what I said. But maybe I was wrong...'

'He was not wrong,' said the Master. Suddenly he was there, standing just beyond Stone. 'One day Stone will see and know that he was following my leading. He follows me already far more than he realizes. And one day, he will see that too.'

'And now...?' said Starr.

'Now?' Stone replied, thinking her question was to him. 'Now - I don't know. I would like to have his friendship back. But I can't make the first move. Not yet. Not when he can't even abide to be in the same room with me.'

'Now,' said the Master, knowing the question was for him, 'fear nothing, but be at peace. I will work out all according to my own timing. As you know. Simply tell Stone this...'

And what he told her, she nodded and repeated in Stone's hearing. 'His friendship will be returned to you, Stone. In the Master's timing. He's good at that, you know.'

Stone looked away. And in doing so, he looked straight up at the Master. If only he would see him! thought Starr.

But plainly Stone did not. For he merely glanced back at her again and said, 'Yes, I know. It's just... this waiting for his timing - it can drive you right up the wall.'

And then he gave a sigh and a smile. 'Well... Guess I should go now. Catch you later, Starr-girl.' He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze as he was releasing her hand. 'I'm glad you're my friend,' he added seriously. 'I hope nothing ever changes that.'

'I hope the same thing,' said Starr.

And as the big man loped off towards the house, she glanced to the Master. And felt a sudden chill.

'Don't be afraid, Starr,' the Master said as he wrapped her in his arms. 'No matter what happens - do not be afraid.'

~~~~~~~


'You know what it is,' said Stone. It was some days later, and he and Starr were standing together, watching the beauty of the sunset. 'It's the way we used to treat the people who came to rescue us.'

'In the dungeon?' said she.

'Yes.' He ran his fingers through his dark-blond hair. 'You see... People would come to us; they would tell us about the Master; they would tell us we could be free. They would show us the key, right there in their hands. They would even,' and his hands moved, demonstrating, 'unlock the cell doors for us. Fling the doors open! Say to us: you see? You are free!'

He turned and looked at her. 'And you know what we would do, Starr-girl?' He leaned close, his hands again demonstrating. 'We would grab the cell doors, and we would slam them shut again. Locking ourselves back in. We would do that!'

'But you walked out...' said Starr.

'Yes... yes, I did. And I got the usual treatment for it, too.'

'Usual treatment?'

'Yeah. First the others called out to me: No! Come back! Don't do this!' He looked very uncomfortable as he again ran his fingers through his hair, . 'And then when I didn't turn and come back - that's when they started screaming at me. Ugly, ugly things, Starr. I don't want to tell you what they screamed at me, for going through that open door and leaving the dungeon behind.'

'What?' she asked. 'Curses?'

'Ohhhhhh, yeah. But I knew that was coming. That's what always happened, when one of us left. That's what we did to the ones who came to help us, too. We would curse at them. They were coming to set us free, and we would curse at them. And throw accusations at them too. You know. Things like: we like what we are! If you don't like what we are - then you hate us!'

He gave an awkward laugh. 'But you know what? At the same time, we would be yelling: we didn't choose this; it's not our fault. We're trapped! You're blaming us when we are trapped - you hate us!'

She glanced up at him sharply. 'But...'

'Ah - you're seeing it, aren't you, Starr? We were trying to have it both ways,' said he. 'On the one hand - proud. And yet on the other hand - victims. But always, always - that accusation of hate.'

And he fell silent. They stood for a long time in that silence, as the brilliance of the sunset began to fade off into twilight.

His hand sought hers, and held it tightly.

And then he added - softly, so softly, 'Sometimes... the one who came to rescue us, the one with the key in his hand... sometimes it was someone who used to be in the same dungeon with us, who used to be one of us. And oh! that would make us livid! Traitor, we would scream at him. Traitor, hater...'

He shivered, and she longed to be free to wrap her arms around him - not that the shivering had anything to do with the temperature, of course.

'You see what the problem is, Starr?' he asked at last. 'The problem is, that when I go back - that's going to be me. I'm going to be the one standing there with the key in my hand. And getting screamed at. And spit on. And hated. And accused...'

He sighed, and glanced at her at his side. 'And if you go along with me, Starr - it will be you as well.'

'Oh!' She hadn't thought of that. She thought of it now, thinking while the rim of the sun slowly disappeared below the distant rim of the earth.

'I know this, Stone,' she replied at last. 'I know the Master tells me often: do not be afraid.'

He turned to look at her under the pale starlight. 'Has it ever occurred to you, Starr, that if someone tells you not to be afraid - it's because there's a mighty big something out there for you to be afraid of?'

~~~~~~~


'Ready?'

Josh the sword master, the Master himself, stood between the pair of them, one hand on Starr's shoulder, the other on Stone's. Another training session was about to begin.

As they stood facing each other, hands at the ready on the hilts of their swords, Starr was struck by a curious thing - and this was not the first time she had noticed it. It was strange, but... even though she knew the Master stood a head taller than herself, and that Stone also was a head taller than herself - somehow, somehow, the Master was also a head taller than Stone...

But push all other thoughts aside now, she told herself. Time to attend to the lesson, to the practice.

'I'm ready,' said Stone.

'Yes,' Starr replied. 'I am as well.'

'Then begin, children,' said Josh. He tapped both on the shoulders and stepped back as they drew swords and entered into the dance.

There was no other word for it but dance, the way they moved together. They had come to move very well together by now from all the sparring sessions they had shared. Stone and Starr had been learning each other strengths and weaknesses and habits. And learning to work together, strengthening one another. The more they worked together like this, the more they were coming to see how very much alike they were. How well suited they were to each other.

There was a beauty in this that came close to breaking Starr's heart. Oh, if only...! If only Stone knew all that was in her heart towards him!

She watched his eyes as he searched for an opening, a bit of a smile on his face. 'You know, Starr-girl,' he said, 'I really enjoy this.'

'Practicing with swords?'

'Practicing with you.' The blades clashed, and they switched positions. 'I could do this the rest of my life,' he added.

Her heart skipped a beat, wondering what exactly he meant by that. Again, she had to push away all other thoughts, concentrate on the practice. After all, these were live swords!

Parry and thrust. Feint and lunge. Disengage. Riposte...

'So,' Stone said suddenly. 'Has the Master been saying anything to you? About me?'

Starr's sword hand faltered a bit, and Stone immediately responded, 'Press in! Don't give me any advantage!'

She obeyed, though her mouth had gone totally dry. 'I...' she said. And then her mind went blank.

'Because the funny part is,' said Stone, 'from the way you've been acting, and the things you've said - sometimes I get the impression that he's said yes to you about me - and sometimes I get the impression he's said no.'

'What?' she cried. And again her defenses faltered, and again he encouraged her to press in, press in.

When she had recovered herself a bit, she asked, 'I've been giving you the impression of both yes and no? How did I do that?'

But he only smiled. And continued the practice.

Lunge. Riposte. Feint...

'He has told you,' he said. Again, suddenly.

'Well...'

'And I asked you to tell me if he had said no...'

Her heart skipped a beat again. Oh! Oh, no! She had given it away, when she told him a few days back that the answer was not no!

So how had she given the impression of the opposite, though?

'Starr...' he said. 'I want to tell you something. I...' He paused, grinned. 'Well, I guess I already did tell you, when I said I could do this the rest of my life. Starr, I... Well... I choose to love you. And I've fallen in love with you. And the choosing comes after the falling...'

'Stone!' she cried. And she dropped all her defenses.

'No! Keep your sword up, girl!' Stone said.

She obeyed, her heart thudding so loudly in her own ears, she was sure he could hear it as well.

'Never let your guard down, Starr, no matter what. All right?' said Stone.

She nodded. 'I'm sorry.'

'You know I won't hurt you, Starr-girl. At least, not on purpose. But the idea of sword practice is to be ready for the enemy's attacks. And he won't ignore a break in your defense. Right?'

Yes. He was right. He surely was.

'And...' he added, 'now that... now that I love you, I have all the more reason to want you safe and protected. So never drop your guard, Starr. Never.'

'Yes, Stone. Stone... I love you too.'

He smiled a smile that came up right from his toes and spread all the way up to the roots of his hair. 'I'm glad to know that, Starr-girl. My girl.'

'Time.'

They both turned to look at Josh the sword master. He nodded at them. 'Well practiced, children,' he said. 'You are dismissed now.' And he turned to work with some other students who had gathered.

'Starr...' Stone sheathed his sword and stepped closer, his hand reaching out to touch her cheek. He smiled down on her as his thumb traced the curve of her jawline, ending up under her chin. Was he about to tilt up her face, to kiss her? she wondered. And, yes, she hoped...

'It would be sweet to kiss you, Starr honey,' he said. 'But you know what? I think even better would be to hold off on that, and to kiss you for the very first time when we get pronounced man and wife.' And he grinned, his eyes sparkling.

She sparkled back.

'Catch you later, Starr-girl,' he said. He caught her hand briefly, squeezed her fingers tenderly. And then he was off, loping towards the house.

Wow...! A sigh shuddered through her, starting at her heart.

'He is right,' said a voice behind her. Josh. The Master. He took her into his arms. 'Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life,' said he.

'Keep?' she asked.

'In the sense of guard. You must carefully guard your heart, dear Starr. Now,' he added, 'I am not saying to close your heart against Stone, for towards him your heart must ever be fully widely open. Even as your heart must be ever fully open to me, my love. But in keeping your heart open to Stone and to myself - you must guard against the enemy using that openness to hurt you. And to hurt Stone. And ultimately, to hurt me.'

Softly, tenderly, the Master kissed her on the forehead. 'That is why the enemy hates you so, you know. Because he hates me, and wants to hurt the ones I love in order to hurt me. You understand?'

Yes, she nodded. That, at least, she understood.

'Little girl,' the Master smiled over her. 'I treasure you. And now...'

'Now?'

'Now...' he sighed, 'the enemy will seek to use both you and Stone to hurt each other, in order to hurt me. So keep on guard against that. Heart open, sword in hand. Yes?'

'Yes, sir,' she replied.

'Good, my girl.' He too gently caressed her cheek - but he kissed her.

It was only as the Master released her from his embrace and walked back to where the other students were busy practicing with their swords that Starr realized something.

Her sword was in fact still in her hand. She had completely forgotten to sheathe it.

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