Friday, March 31, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 24 - 'free at last'


His arms gathered her in and held her, as he dropped a kiss into her hair. 'My Starr.'

She clung to him. 'Beloved...' And then she began to sob.

'Come, dearest,' said he, 'tell me why you weep.'

'Oh, Master, Beloved! I messed up so badly! Everyone was telling me to run. Even you, I knew, wanted me to run. But I stopped instead. I disobeyed. And now Stone...!'

'Do you want me to forgive you?'

'Oh. Oh, yes. Of course I do.'

'You need only ask,' he prompted gently.

Nodding, she responded, 'Please, sir. For-forgive me.'

He smiled on her. 'I forgive.'

'But, but Stone! He...'

'You have no guarantee that he would not still be in the same circumstances if you had been obedient, dear.'

'What?' Her mind reeled, not comprehending. 'But... but your promises...'

'...are by no means voided by the current situation.' And as she continued to stare up into his face, her head shaking back and forth in bafflement, he added, 'Do not worry nor be afraid, my love. Soon shalt thou see my glory.'

'Um,' put in the prisoner. His eyes had finally grown accustomed to the splendor of daylight, and he glanced back towards the fortress. 'Not wanting to break up this tender reunion and all, but what if people start coming outta that door looking for us? We're in plain sight here.'

'People have already come out of the fortress in these few minutes, and have not seen us. More shall soon pour forth, and they also shall not see us. Much that is in plain sight never gets noticed at all.'

'Um... What?'

'Dear Starr,' said the Master, turning again to her, 'I want you to sit here and be comfortable while I speak with your brother for a few minutes. You will do that for me? There is nothing to be afraid of.'

'Yes, sir,' she said. Her eyes were shining once again with little-girl trust.

'My Child,' he said fondly. 'And I want you to set aside what happened in the deep dungeon, for that is forgiven. On the stairs you obeyed me well. I am well pleased.'

He kissed her once again on the forehead, and smiled as she sat down just as he had told her to, without a care in the world. Then, gesturing to the prisoner, the Master said, 'Come.' He walked a short distance away from Starr, just far enough for their conversation to be private.

'Now,' he said to the prisoner, who had followed him reluctantly. 'You know who I am?'

'Well, she called you Master,' the prisoner replied, jerking his head towards Starr.

'Such I am,' said the Master simply. 'Would you like me to set you free?'

'I'm outta the fortress. Don't that mean I'm free already?'

'You are forgetting about these?' And the Master pointed, drawing the prisoner's attention to the fact that his wrists were still bound with chains.

Oh. Yeah.

'And these physical chains,' the Master continued, 'are in great part symbolic of the chains that still bind your heart and your mind.'

Now it was the prisoner giving the Master a blank and baffled look.

'Your attitudes I am speaking of. Your hatreds. Your lusts for vengeance. Many such spirits hold you captive, and they have been with you for so long that you do not even recognize them. These things act like part of you, but they are not truly part of you. And from them I will set you free - if you want me to.'

'I... I...'

'Or would you prefer to stay chained?'

'Well... no...'

'Some of the chains have already begun to come loose from you. Did it not take you by surprise on the stairs when you realized that you pitied he whom you call Mitch, that you no longer desired vengeance on him?'

A curse word popped out of the prisoner's mouth. 'How you know that?' he cried.

'I am Master. I know all.'

'Well, well... Look. If you know all, then how come you let all this,' he waved a chained arm at the fortress, 'evil go on? Huh?'

The Master smiled. 'That is a tangent. But I will answer it. Yes, I know all. That does not necessarily imply logically that I also have all power - but I do. Why then do I stand by and let evil happen?' He leaned closer. 'Because I have rules by which I live. And, unlike Mankind, I do not lightly break those rules.'

There was a rebuke in that statement, and the prisoner hung his head.

'Yes, I allow men to sin,' the Master went on. 'Do I desire them to? No. But I permit them to choose. Their own way, or mine. You see, it was a blessing that I blessed Mankind with - the privilege to choose to obey me or not, so that Mankind might choose to love me freely, to live as my sons and daughters. A free choice to love, rather than mindless obedience which is not truly love at all. But my Enemy,' and he nodded towards the fortress, 'took the blessing I gave and twisted it - as he twists all good things - into a curse by deceiving Mankind into hating me instead. And so now sin runs rampant, and men blame me for permitting them to have their own way. And many are hurt by the sins of others. In fact, in a larger sense, every man's sin affects everyone else, living and not yet born.'

'And you let it happen,' the prisoner dared to say.

'I do. Does that make me evil?'

Their eyes met, and the prisoner began to tremble.

'Suppose for a minute,' said the Master, 'that I were to remove Mankind's free will. Completely abolish it. What would happen? All of Mankind would obey me perfectly and nothing evil would be able to happen. But also... nothing real would be able to happen.' He let that sink in for a bit, then added, 'And so, instead, for now, I permit Mankind to choose for me or against me. And I continue to love, and to send forth those whom I love and who love me to raid the fortress of my Enemy and set the captives free.'

'Why not just level the fortress entirely and set everyone free at once?'

'But there are so many who have chosen against me. Set them free, and what will they do? They will only continue on in their sin and be swiftly gathered up once more by my Enemy and made captives again. How would razing the fortress change anything if the hearts of Mankind are not changed?'

'Well,' said the prisoner. 'Well...' And then, sullenly, 'Anyway, you knew it would happen.'

'I knew all of it would happen, yes,' the Master agreed. 'All the wickedness. All the hurts rained on the heads of the victims of evil. Yes, I knew. And I also knew,' and he held up his arms, 'the price it would take - the price I myself would pay - to break the power of the Enemy and set Mankind free once and for all. The price of Love, to woo and win the hearts of Mankind.' He turned his arms, showing the wounds there on his wrists, the terrible terrible scars of his own death. 'You know the price that I paid, my son. To give you the right to become my son.'

The prisoner shrank back from the sight of those scars, unable to tear his eyes from them. 'Don't call me son,' he whispered.

'You have never known a father who was worthy of the name,' said the Master, his arms still open, 'one who would love you and protect you the way a father ought to. Therefore you fear to be called my son. Until I sent Starr to you, you never even knew Love. But now has she become a sister to you, and so has begun the unlocking of your heart.' And as the prisoner began anew to tremble, this time uncontrollably, the Master added, 'Will you choose now to become my son? To let me free you in every way?'

The prisoner fell to his knees, tears streaking his face. 'But I'm so evil,' he whispered, seeing for the first time his own heart and his own choices. Not just the evils done against him all his life, the ones he had always railed about - but the evils he himself had done in return and felt justified in doing. His own evil heart. 'Why,' he added, 'would you even want me?'

'Because I do,' said the Master. And when the prisoner looked up, the Master said something to him that he had never really believed from anyone's lips ever before.

'I love you.'

'M-master!'

He couldn't even stand up. Having fallen to his knees, the prisoner didn't have the strength to get to his feet again. All he could do was inch forward, on his knees, to go to the Master.

And the Master met him. Held him. Forgave him. Swept aside every chain from him. And into his ear he spoke a new name.

And called him, 'Son.'

~~~~~~~

There on the ground sat Starr, just as the Master had said she should. She watched as guards came pouring out of the fortress, just as the Master had said they would. Round and round they ran, searching, scouring the grounds for them; like so many ants they looked. But though they passed close by her - one of them nearly treading right on her - none of the guards gave any sign of noticing her, or the Master, or the prisoner.

Finally one of the guards called the rest together. He yelled at the others quite a bit, then, scowling, marched them back inside the fortress. And this time he left two of them guarding the outside of the door.

'Come. Let us go now.'

The Master was now standing over her, holding down his hand. Starr took it and he raised her to her feet. Automatically she glanced at the prisoner who was at the Master's side. The little man's eyes were bright with recent tears. His flimsy rags had been transformed to fine linen, clean and bright.

And his arms... Yes! his chains were gone!

Joyfully she smiled at him, but was surprised to see that his own smile back to her was no more than half-hearted. Why was that, she wondered. And she started to ask. But the Master was on the move, so Starr hurried to follow instead.

Swiftly he led them away from the fortress, round the northern face of it, and off toward the mountain beyond. Starr had to all but run to keep up. And every so often, she would glance back.

No, not because anyone was following them from the fortress, for no one was. But for a different reason...

'Master?' she said at last.

'Yes, my Starr?' the Master replied. He paused long enough for her to draw close. Then, taking her hand, he strode on. 'Tell me what troubles you,' he prompted.

'You already know, surely?'

'But I like for you to tell me.'

Furtively, not wanting to draw attention to what she was doing, she pointed at their companion. He had been trailing behind them all this way. 'Is something wrong?' she whispered. 'Because he just doesn't look as happy as I was expecting him to. He's free, but...'

'But he does not understand something, and that has him in turmoil within.'

Oh. Poor guy. Glancing back again, Starr added, 'But you're going to fix that, right?'

The Master caught her eye. 'First he must ask.'

He does? 'But... but what if he doesn't ask?'

'He will,' said the Master confidently. 'And when he does, you will explain to him, and he will be comforted.'

'I will? But...!'

'Do not worry,' he said, as he stopped and turned to face them both, 'I have urgent business yet to attend to within the fortress. Here I must leave you.'

Now Starr was even more stunned. 'But I don't remember how to get to the cave!' she protested.

'Do not fear, my love. Malachi knows the way.'

Malachi? But he wasn't anywhere arou... Oh.

For abruptly, where a moment before no one had been, now Malachi was standing a little distance away from them. He bowed to the Master, then swept an arm toward the mountain before them. 'Come.'

They followed, with the prisoner again lagging a bit behind. As for Starr, she barely took three steps before glancing back once more, hoping to see again the confidence in the Master's face. Her own face, she was sure, was a tattered mask of diffidence.

But he was no longer there. He had already completely vanished from sight.

With a sigh, Starr whispered to herself, 'I sure hope his urgent business is rescuing Stone.' And then she hurried to catch up with Malachi.

~~~~~~~

As the Master had before him, so now Malachi led them swiftly along, as if on eagle's wings. Shortly they were at the edge of the woods bordering the foot of the mountain. Malachi plunged right through the underbrush, finding the pathway once more and leading them up the mountainside.

The way was every bit as steep as Starr remembered it. At places she had to grab onto branches to keep going, or even roots. And, as before, she glanced back regularly to check on the prisoner behind her, noting that each time she looked back, his face was glummer than the time before. What ailed him, she wondered.

The prisoner... She was so used to thinking of him as 'the prisoner' - but he wasn't anymore, was he? She needed a real name for him now, but neither he nor the Master had yet mentioned to her what the man's new name was. Pausing in the climb, she waited till the little guy caught her up, then asked, 'Hey, what did the Mas...?'

'Starr,' he interrupted, not even noticing that she was talking. 'Starr, you gotta tell me something!'

'Ok,' she said, bewildered.

'Starr, do you think... do you think maybe the Master doesn't... like me?'

'Not like you? Whatever gave you that idea?'

'Well, it's just...' He rubbed at his eyes, looking utterly stricken. 'It's just that... The Master gave you a beautiful name. He even gave Mitch an interesting one. But me...'

'Why, what'd he name you?'

Sigh. 'He... called me Nat.' And the shame and disappointment in his voice wrenched Starr's heart. 'I didn't want to say anything to him,' he rushed on. 'I don't wanna be, like, ungrateful or anything. But why did he have to name me Nat?' And even as Starr was about to ask what could be wrong with that name, he added pitifully, 'Is it because I'm short?'

Short? Nat? What was...?

And suddenly, as if the answer had just been dropped into her brain, she understood.

'He didn't name you gnat-with-a-g,' she said softly, gently, being absolutely sure not to hurt his raw feelings. 'He didn't name you for an insect. He gave you a man's name. Nat is short for Nathaniel. And Nathaniel means gift of God.'

His eyes sparked up. 'Really? Gift of God?' Relief washed through him - not just his face but his whole being. 'Wow. I like that.' But then, soberly, he added, 'And now I feel stupid for doubting him.'

'Then ask his forgiveness,' she counseled.

'But he's not here.'

'He'll hear you. Trust me.'

'Ok...'

Moments later, the prisoner - Nat - began to smile at last. And they moved on. Shortly they caught up with Malachi, who was standing patiently awaiting them. And so they climbed on.

After a good while Malachi led them off to the left and began to descend slightly. Oh, Starr remembered this last bit! Eagerly she scanned the mountainside ahead of them, looking for the curtain of ivy that both marked and concealed the entrance to the cave. Soon now, she thought, very soon... There!

She pushed aside the tendrils and ushered Nat inside. And now they found that they had already become too used to the brilliance of daylight, for they could make out nothing of the dim interior of the cave. Someone inside certainly saw them, though, for immediately they were surrounded with a clamor of voices.

'Starr!' said the first voice. 'There you are! We were wondering what became of you.'

'Yes,' came a second voice, 'didn't you hear me call to you as you were about to go out the backdoor? I hollered Hey, but you didn't stop.'

'And we couldn't have been more than five steps behind you coming out of the fortress,' put in the first voice again. 'But once we got outside, you were nowhere in sight! And then we managed to get here to the cave before you as well. Where have you been?'

And then still another voice asked, 'Wait a minute. Where's Stone?'

~first~
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