Friday, April 14, 2006
the child, part 3, chapter 26 - 'fourth in the fire'
The first thing Seth became aware of was the galloping headache pounding through his brain. The second was the taste of metal puddled in his mouth. And rushing on the heels of those two came the overload of other pains of all shapes and sizes, all competing for his attention.
Ohhh... He felt like he'd been trampled underfoot by a herd of, of... of wild... oh... somethings. Ugh, but his brain was too fogged to come up with the word he wanted! Musta been bad, whatever happened to him, but he sure couldn't remember what. Groaning, he start to sit up.
And that's when he found out he couldn't. But not because of the pains all over his body. That wasn't what was keeping him down.
No, he was tied up head to foot.
Huh? Tied up? How had this happened?
And now memory started to kick in. Kick, yeah. Hadn't someone been kicking him? Or no - not kicking, not a foot, but... but a stick maybe? Yeah! Now he remembered. The trip downstairs. The stench in the stairway. The unholy glow of the bonfire, and those terrible screams...
His eyes shot open then. Melonhead!
Snapping shadows mixed with dancing red met his sight, all of it surrounded by dark, dark, dark. He could see no one from where he was lying on his bruised right side. He couldn't see the fire anymore either, but could tell from the heat that it was not far away behind him. Where were James and Forest, he wondered, and where were the guards that had captured them?
Not to mention Malorn. A ton of anger hit him every time he thought of ol' Melonhead, and without even thinking of it, he started to strain at his bonds.
'Easy there,' a voice whispered faintly from directly behind him. 'Just lie still, Seth. Don't draw attention to yourself.'
And a second voice, a little further away than the first, added, 'Thank God you're not dead.'
Ah. The first voice was Forest's, and the second James'. From the sound of it, they were both on the floor the same as he was. They weren't dead at least, not if they were talking. He did his best to ignore the tiny voice inside his head that added, Yet.
'What's going on?' Seth asked, hoping he was keeping his voice low enough that only his two buddies would hear him.
'Eh, they're just getting ready,' Forest replied off-handedly.
'Ready for what?'
'They've been...' James started to answer, but his words were abruptly drowned out by an onslaught of crackling accompanied by loud cheers and jeers. And at the same moment, the dull red light around them suddenly leapt up brighter and stronger.
'...doing that,' James finished when the sounds died off enough for him to be heard again.
Dread clutched at Seth's heart suddenly. 'Doing what?' he asked.
For a moment, neither of the others answered. And then Forest said, 'Just making the fire hotter. No big deal.'
'Forest...' said James.
'Well?' said the boy. 'If we die, we die. Serving the Master is what counts. It's a privilege to give our lives for the one who gave his life for us.'
'Wait. You're saying they're gonna kill us?' said Seth.
And even though he couldn't see him, somehow Seth knew that James was nodding. 'After they had beat you unconscious,' James told him, 'the leader there - Malorn - decreed that we would, uh, be the next sacrifice.'
'Yeah, they're just heating the fire up hotter for us first,' added Forest. 'Which is good, really. The hotter the fire, the quicker it'll be over with, so the quicker we'll be outta here and with the Master.'
Forest sure sounded strangely calm for a guy who was about to be burned to death! Feeling glad that the other guys couldn't see his face right now, Seth murmured, 'I don't wanna die.'
'Well,' said the kid, 'it's not my perfect ending to a perfect day either. But being home with the Master, that will be good.'
'I still can't believe you're just giving up, Forest,' said James. 'Not you.'
'I'm not giving up. I'm looking past it. If we gotta die, dying is not the end and we'll be home. Of course,' he added, and now he started to sound more like the Forest they were used to, 'if we get the chance to break free - man, I'm going for it!'
More fuel was thrown on the fire; they heard and saw the crackle and flare of it. Moments later, the platform they were lying on began shaking with the clump of heavy boots heading their way. And then thick legs surrounded them. Burly arms reached down to them. and they were hauled up like so many sacks of potatoes and dragged off. Across the platform they went, then back down the stairs again - with their heads bouncing off each step as before - and then at last they were pitched down onto the floor. Only now they were facing the fire.
It was a conflagration, an inferno. The smoke of it curled thickly through the air, choking them, gagging them. The intensity of the heat made their faces feel blistered already. Their eyes too began to sting and feel dried out. Seth didn't know about his buddies, but he was sure praying for all he was worth: C'mon, Master, you gotta get us outta here!
And now a deep and evil laugh swept over them. Malorn. With a flourish of his priestly robes, he came and stood over them, raising his staff, beckoning to the crowds surrounding the fire. And the crowd broke out with cheers and jeers again. Chuckling, Malorn looked down on his captives, gloating over them, his grin a mask of pure malice. 'Well, boys,' he said, his eyes glinting as red as the fire, 'You hear that? That's your public; they're waiting for you. They're waiting to see you give the performance of your life.'
'You mean of our death,' Forest spoke up.
Again the chuckle and the sadistic leer. 'Don't disappoint them,' Malorn purred. He signaled, and immediately the guards surrounded them again, hoisting them up by their ropes, swinging them back and then forward.
And Malorn held up his hand. The guards unceremoniously dumped them back onto the floor. 'Now,' Malorn said dramatically, 'let's do this right. Let's give them one last chance. You.' He pointed at James. 'You don't talk much. How about I make you an offer? Join us. We'll make you a guard. Hmm?'
James said nothing.
'No? Then what about you, Logan? You'd make an excellent guard. Think of all the blokes you could beat up, eh? I know you'd enjoy that,' he coaxed.
And for a second, Seth did think of it. He always had enjoyed beating guys up... until the Master came into his life and heart.
But now - no, he was a different man now. And besides, the image of ol' Melonhead's guards laughing as they had held him back while his brother was being killed came flooding into his head. Why would he want to be one of those?
'Malorn?' Seth said.
'Yes?' The man leaned closer.
Perfect. 'Here's my answer,' Seth said. And working up all the phlegm he could muster, he took aim and let it fly.
Even more perfect! The gooey glob of spittle caught ol' Melonhead right in the left eye. Fury blooming across his face, the priest lifted his staff to strike Seth once again.
That was Forest. Malorn swung towards him, rage still convulsing his features, his staff still raised high. 'What?' he bellowed.
'You didn't ask me yet,' said the boy.
Malorn blinked, then lowered the staff and pasted on the big smile again. 'Indeed I didn't - son. Are you accepting my offer? You're a mite young yet, but I'm sure you'd make a fine guard.'
'You bet I would!' Forest replied.
What? Seth stared at the kid, dumbfounded. No! No way! Man, when Forest had said he would go for it if he saw a chance to get free - surely he didn't mean this!
'Oh, yeah,' the boy went on. 'The only problem is, you make me a guard, you'll have to have all the other guards guarding me. Cause as soon as you turn your back, I'll have the cell doors open and be leading as many people as I can get to follow me out of this dungeon and off to meet the Master!'
'You...!' And this time, when Malorn raised his staff, he struck.
Forest only laughed, even as blood gushed from his lip. 'We follow the Master, Malorn. There's nothing you can offer us that is better than being his. Death,' and he nodded his head at the fire before them, 'will only be a door we'll step through and be at his side. To be absent from this life is to be present with him forever. How can your puny world top that?'
'Throw them in!' Malorn bellowed.
The guards hastened to obey. And this time, there was no count of one, two, three. They grabbed up each man and gave a mighty heave.
Seth felt his stomach turn over as he was launched towards the flames. The heat came up and smacked him hard all over as he reached the top of the arc and tumbled into the bonfire. He couldn't even put out his hands to try to break his fall...
For a stunned moment Seth lay there, all the wind knocked out of him. And then his lungs convulsed, sucking air in. No! he screamed inside, knowing that the fiery air would only sear his lungs.
The air wasn't hot. It should have been, but wasn't.
And to his amazement, when he looked about wondering what had happened, he saw that the ropes that had held him bound were burning off him so quickly they might as well have been melting. And yet... nothing else on him was burning. Not his clothes, not his hair, not his skin.
He looked up. There was Forest, sitting up in the flames, laughing, lifting up his arms, scrambling to his feet. There too was James, also loosed from the ropes and standing up.
And there... Ah, Seth knew that face! There was yet one more man in the fire, smiling, laughing, singing.
Over the crackle of the flames, Seth heard the song. 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you! I have called you by your name. You are mine. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned. Neither shall the flame kindle upon you! For I am...'
Yes, he is! Seth thought gleefully. 'Master!' And now he too was on his feet, walking, leaping through the flames, running to the Master's side.
Dimly he became aware of another sound, a sound from beyond the circle of flame. He looked. So did James and Forest. All around the bonfire, all the people who had chanted and rejoiced at the burning of the other man, all the people who had cheered the building up of the fire for their burning - all those people were pointing into the fire, pointing at them. Their faces were contorted with screaming and with fear as they saw what was happening. No one was burning this time. No one was dying, and there was now a fourth man in the flames with them. And even their blinded eyes could see that this man had the look of...
Ah, that cry came from the area of the platform. Malorn had climbed up there again to enjoy the view, only to have his pleasure completely spoiled. 'No, no, no!' he was screaming. And then, even as he was howling and pitching a fit over things going absolutely wrong - the man fell down.
He fell down on the platform, twitching. Spasming.
And then all movement ceased entirely. He just lay there.
James turned to the Master. 'Is he all right?'
'No,' came the reply. 'He is dead.'
Dead? Seth could hardly believe it. His old enemy, dead? And the weird part was that, while he had imagined pretty often taking Melonhead's neck and squeezing it till the man was good and dead, and then laughing and dancing on the body - now that Malorn really was dead, there was no joy in it at all. Only regret, and he did not understand why.
'I have no pleasure,' said the Master, 'in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.'
'Then why...' said Forest.
'Why is he dead?' the Master answered. 'He has reaped what he sowed. Death comes to all, soon or late, and generally sooner than men expect. This hour was Malorn's harvest of all that he had sown. Let men take it to heart.'
And then he led them out of the fire.
The guards had fled. The crowds had fled. There was only Malorn left, lying so still on the platform.
And one other. A figure appeared from behind the platform, holding in each hand something very long and thin. As he drew near them, he held out the long things, which turned out to be a pair of swords, each in its sheath.
Forest looked into the figure's face and beamed. 'Mac!'
'Who?' said Seth.
'One of ours,' said James. 'You haven't met him before, but he's with us. Mac, this is Seth. Seth, Maccabees.'
Mac nodded as both James and Forest took their swords and belted them on. And then to the Master, Mac bowed deeply.
'Escort them upstairs,' the Master told him, 'and give them all aid to escape. Malachi will meet them outside and take them to the cave. Once they are in his hands, I have yet work for you here in the dungeons. You will meet me with Walker.'
Mac bowed yet again.
To the rest, the Master said, 'I will come to you shortly. Tarry at the cave for me, but be ready to move out at my appearing.'
And he was gone.
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