Friday, January 27, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 15 - 'when stone was mitch'


Stone was silent for a very long time, gathering his thoughts. Working up his courage. Then:

'You've asked me more than once what goes on down here,' he said at last, 'and I've always put you off. Well...' He shifted uncomfortably. 'All right, let me put it this way. There are... victims, and there are, uh, bullies. And after roll call every morning - if you can call it 'morning' in a place of endless dark - the guards turn everyone loose. And the bullies... go after the victims.'

'But what do the bullies do to...'

'Oh, Starr!' said he in the anguish of his soul. 'That I won't tell you.'

Oh. She thought that over for a bit. What could be so awful that he wouldn't tell her, and would couch it only in sanitized labels? He couldn't be talking about fighting, because that's what went on upstairs where Forest and James were. So what... could it...

'You were a victim...' she said at last. It was a statement, not a question.

No response.

She shifted to look in his face. 'Stone?'

At length, not meeting her eye, he said, 'Well, we all start out as victims, when we're small. Victims are usually the small and weak. And bullies... are usually, uh, big...'

He cut a glance at her then, and for a second she looked into the eyes of this man she loved so dearly. This... big... man...

He was, she realized, telling her without having to tell her. Wordlessly, she reached for one of his hands. Held it. Squeezed it.

'Some of the victims,' he went on, 'hate being victims. Others - such is the way things go - love being victims. Go figure. And it's the same with the bullies. Some love it; others hate it with a passion.' His head fell back then, leaning against the wall behind them, his eyes focused on things Starr could not see. 'But... they can't stop. They might want to stop. But this is all they know. How do you change? Even if you want to, how can you change?'

The prisoner's cry of 'People don't change!' echoed through Starr's memory.

And then she understood. 'That's why he hates you,' she said. 'He's a victim. And... you bullied him.'

~~~~~~~

Miserably, Stone nodded.

'But the Master came for you. He got you out. He changed you.'

'Yes, he did.' And that brought a slight smile to his lips. 'But it doesn't erase the past. It doesn't erase his memories,' his voice dropped off to a whisper, 'of what I did to him.'

From her heart, Starr breathed, 'I am so sorry.'

'Sorry? You didn't do anything.'

'You're hurting. If there was any way I could take that hurt for you, so you wouldn't feel it, I would do that. And,' she added, 'he's hurting too...'

Stone sighed. 'Yeah. And I just blew the whole thing.' He shook his head. 'Why would the Master send me here, knowing that just the sight of me would send the guy off into...' He shook his head again, then winced as if he could feel his brain sloshing around in there.

'I don't know,' said Starr softly. 'I only know what I saw, what the Master told me just before they threw him into Solitary. And I still think...'

She trailed off. She could still think it, but she sure couldn't fathom how the Master would pull it off.

Stone sighed deeply. 'Well,' he said, determinedly pushing away the dark thoughts. 'At least he doesn't know that we came back here. If he did know that, he'd be sending the guards after us in a heart beat. As it is...' and Stone paused to listen to the outside world.

The usual noise of the subterranean day was going on out there, but nothing that sounded like the guards anymore. 'All right, we should probably get you out of here as soon as possible,' Stone said. 'Even if he doesn't realize we've come back here, he might decide to tell them I've been using this cell. And then they might come to check this room anyway. So, let's go.'

Starr blinked. 'Go?'

'Yeah,' said he.

'Right now? In the middle of the day?'

'Yeah.'

'But... but... From what the man in Solitary said, I'm the only woman down here.'

'True.'

'Won't they see me?'

'Maybe,' said Stone. 'But I'm counting on them not noticing you.'

Starr's wide eyes went even wider. 'How could they not notice me? My hair! My dress!'

'And your sword. And your lack of chains.' He chuckled at her blank, baffled look. 'Starr, all day yesterday I was going around amongst them. And not a one of them paid a bit of attention to my sword, or the fact that I wasn't wearing chains. I don't know if maybe Mac did something to them, like what he did to the guards back in the valley, or just what's going on...'

'Like why candlelight doesn't shine through this blanket,' she agreed.

'Exactly. But we have some sort of... favor, I guess you'd call it, on us in this dungeon. And I'm counting on that to take us through to get you upstairs, little girl.'

Oh. 'I, I'm sorry, Stone.'

Another chuckle. 'Now what are you sorry for?'

Her cheek twitched. 'For doubting you. I should have trusted you better than I just did.'

'No problem, dearie,' said he, giving her a quick tight squeeze. 'Now, up we get. And you keep your eyes shut till we get to the stairs, ok?'

He hopped to his feet in a trice and blew out the candle. Gripping Starr's hand, he boosted her to her feet.

And she shrieked. Her hand instantly vanished from his grasp, and he lost her in the darkness.

~~~~~~~

'Starr?' Afraid to move for fear of stepping on her, he fumbled for the candlestub he'd just dropped on top of his pack. Found it. Lit it.

There she was, sprawled in the mire, whimpering. Her hands were wrapped round her ankle.

'What's wrong?' he asked.

Through her tears, she moaned, 'My... my foot... it's... oh, oww...!'

Stone knelt by her. 'But how could this happen? We were only sitting here. How could your foot get hurt?'

'I, I don't...' And then she gasped. 'Wait. Oh!' She turned her tear-streaked face up to look at him. 'When he was kicking you, back in Solitary, I tried to make him stop. I got in the way and, and he kicked me. It was an accident, Stone, but - it was this ankle.'

Stone brought the candle close. Her ankle was definitely swelling and turning dark. He touched it and she flinched. 'You can't walk?' he said.

'I...' She paused, considering. 'I don't know. I mean, it caught me by surprise; I hadn't noticed it was hurting, and certainly didn't expect my leg to collapse like that. So maybe... Maybe I can walk...'

'Let's try.' He took her hand again and steadied her as she got her good foot under her. They stood as one, with her teetering on the one foot, clutching Stone's hand, gathering the courage to set the other foot on the floor.

Gingerly...

'Ahh!' She stifled the cry of pain as she snatched her foot up again.

'Can't put weight on it?' he asked.

Tears spilling, she shook her head no. 'What are we going to do now?' she said, trying hard not to wail.

He sighed. 'Oh, man. What are we going to do? I might could carry you out - but not past everyone. I can't expect nobody to notice that. Hmm...'

('But you could have carried her out now,' said Forest. 'So where is she?'

'I'm getting to that,' Stone replied.)

Holding her two hands, he carefully eased her back down so she could sit, her bad leg poking out in front of her at an awkward angle. Then he began to think. Thinking, thinking, racking his still-aching brains for some solution. And finally having to give up. 'I don't know, Starr. You're just going to have to stay here for now,' he said. And, at her forlorn look, he offered, 'I'll stay with you if you want.'

'But you have to search for Walker.'

He nodded. 'I know. But...'

She dashed the tears from her face and gave him a lop-sided, plucky smile. 'I'll be fine,' she said. 'You go. I'll be right here.'

'Yeah, with that foot, no kidding,' he chuckled. Then sobered. 'That is, unless the guards come and search this room...'

'Well. Maybe they won't come. Or if they do, maybe they won't see me.'

'And if they come and they see you, maybe they won't take you away? I don't think the favor extends that far. And anyway,' he added, hunkering down by her to trace a finger along a tear track zigzagging across her cheek, 'that's a lot of maybe's.'

'True. But we don't know what's going to happen. We just have to trust the Master with it.'

He nodded. 'He at least knows.' A sigh. 'All right then. I'm going. Scream if you need me.'

'I love you, Stone,' said she.

She looked so sweet and appealing, there in the candlelight, looking up at him, that Stone nearly broke his resolve not to kiss her till they were wed. 'And I you. I'll be back,' he promised.

'I'll be waiting,' she promised back.

And he left.

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, January 20, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 14 - 'kicked out'


Green grass. Fresh air. Soft breezes on his face; soft sunshine warming his skin. Bright apples dotting the tree branches above him - all he could want! He plucked an apple and bit into it, feeling the firm skin against his teeth as he bit it through, savoring the tart flesh, the tangy juice. Mmm... Paradise.

He stretched.

And all changed. Clammy slime under him recalled him to where he really was, as he opened his eyes to darkness. His stomach cramped with hunger; his throat burned with thirst. Another day in Solitary...

Painfully, with a pain that was not entirely physical, the prisoner sat up and draped his withered arms over his drawn-up knees. His head sagged between them as he muttered bitterly and with curses, 'What good is it to have dreams like that? It's just torture!'

'Bad dream?'

He started. The girl! She was still here! For a moment, he had almost believed that she was a mere fantasy out of a dream as well.

'You all right?' she added.

Sprinkling in a few curses, he answered, 'It wasn't the dream that was bad. It was the waking from it.'

'Tell me your dream,' she encouraged.

So he did, slowly, grudgingly reliving for her the sights, the sounds, the smells. He didn't want to cry over it. But in the end, he did.

'It ain't fair!' he complained. 'Why do I go and dream stuff like that, when I can't have it?'

That strange girl Starr was silent for a bit. Finally, softly, she said, 'There's an apple tree growing not very far from here, maybe two or three hours' walk. It's on the path that leads to the Master's house. That apple tree is where we stopped and picked these.' She reached into her pack and pulled out yet more apples. 'I still have plenty. Which is odd, since I don't remember picking that many. But I've got a lot more here. Do you want one?'

His stomach turned over. Did he want one! Like he wanted to breathe, he wanted one! Eagerly he reached for it, tasting and smelling and feeling already what it was going to be like to take and eat...

His hand dropped. What good was it, to eat apples here? It was just a cheat, a big lie. Garbage. Filling up his head with thoughts of fresh air and open spaces - stuff that he wasn't ever gonna get to see.

Miserable, he huddled back into himself.

And still she held out to him that apple. 'I thought you wanted it,' she said.

'I thought I did too.'

~~~~~~~

A key twisted in the lock then. Starr scooted immediately back into her favorite corner, out of sight. While the prisoner stiffened. It was still very early morning; he could tell that by the lack of noise out there. Too early for any breakfast. And the guards had simply been tossing his food at him through the iron bars of the one tiny window in the cell door. So why was the door being unlocked? Was this the signal that some sort of malevolent 'fun-and-games' was about to begin? He'd been on the receiving end of that a few too many times in his life...

The door swung open, but not by much. A voice, very low: 'Starr?'

Oh. It was him.

He wasn't sure why he had such an aversion towards the big guy Starr called Stone. She obviously liked the guy well enough. But there was something about him that grated on the little prisoner's last nerve. And as Starr hopped up with a muffled squeal of delight, the prisoner shrank back. Away. Away.

He watched the two embrace. 'I wanted to come by and see you before the guards show up to roust everyone out for the day,' the man said, holding her in his arms. 'How's it going?'

'The way the Master desires it to, I hope,' she replied. 'Walker...?'

He shook his head. No. Glumly, she nodded.

'I've searched maybe three-quarters of the level now,' he added. 'I'll try to finish up before time to make our report tonight.'

'And maybe there will be good news when you make our report,' said Starr. 'Maybe someone upstairs will have found him by then.'

'That would be great,' said Stone. He glanced through the dimness at the other occupant of Solitary - then did a double-take. 'Hey, he's awake this time! I haven't gotten to talk to him yet. Hi, there.'

The prisoner made no answer.

Trying again, Stone said, 'Um, well, I'm Stone. And you are...?'

Still no reply from the little man crouching in the dark against the farthest wall.

Hmm. Glancing back out the door behind him, Stone said to Starr, 'No sign of the guards yet, so I think we can chance a bit of light...' He produced a stub of candle and lit it.

The tiny flickering flame played over Starr's features, illuminating the sweetness and hope dwelling there. Stone answered her smile with one of his own, then turned toward the little man, holding the candle aloft to get a good look at him.

From near the door came a gasp. And from across the room, from that far wall, rose a sudden growl of fury. 'You!'

Like a wild animal, the prisoner boiled up from his crouch and launched himself at Stone. His head caught Stone under the rib cage, whooshing all the air out of his lungs, sending him sprawling on his back in the doorway. The stub of candle went flying, landing in the mire, guttering out with a tiny hiss.

Starr, both hands flung over her mouth in silent horror, watched as the prisoner viciously kicked Stone in the head. Gibbering, raving, the little guy danced back, then came and kicked Stone in the face again. He was all but incoherent with rage; the only words Starr could make out clearly were, '...wanting to get you back for...' and '...that's for the time when...' along with a wide variety of frenzied curses. And also, repeatedly, she heard the name, 'Mitch!'

He danced in to deliver yet another kick. But this time Starr threw herself into the midst. 'Please! Please stop!' she implored - amazingly with enough presence to mind to keep her voice low.

Too late to pull his kick, his foot rammed into Starr's ankle, nearly toppling her. 'I can't believe...!' the prisoner raged on as, from the floor, Stone gasped out, 'To... To...'

Glaring, thrusting his face right into Starr's, the prisoner pointed at Stone and hissed, 'That's Mitch! I hate him! I've hated him for years!' A ragged breath, then, 'You lied to me. You said his name was Stone. Liar!'

'His name is Stone, now,' she said. 'The Master changed his name when he changed him.'

'Changed him? People don't change! He was a bastard when I knew him, and he's...' With a flurry of curses, the prisoner demanded, 'Get him out of here! I never want to see his stinking face again!'

Stone had rolled to his knees now, one arm still clutched across his assaulted belly, the opposite hand wavering between holding his head where he'd received the kicks, or pressing the floor to keep himself from keeling over again. Starr now caught at his free hand, trying to help him to his feet.

'And you,' the prisoner added, turning on Starr. 'If you're a friend of his, you ain't no friend of mine. You get out too!'

'But...' she protested.

'Out!'

Stone, now on his feet but bent over nearly in two, managed, 'Starr... let's just go...'

'And never come back!' the prisoner finished. With his own two hands he yanked the door of Solitary shut behind them. They heard only one more word from the little man. And it was not a nice one.

~~~~~~~

They stood there for a bit, stunned, staring at the slammed door while they waited for Stone to get his wind back. 'What happened?' ventured Starr at last.

Gingerly Stone managed to get all the way upright. 'Long story,' he said. 'I never expected... well, let's go.'

He took her hand and they crept through the still-hushed hallways. 'But go where?' she whispered.

'I'm taking you out of here, Starr.'

'What? No! I...'

'Starr, you can't go back there. And... well, I guess Forest was right: Walker didn't find anyone down here, because you and I are supposed to find Walker and rescue him.'

'But...' she said again, pointing backwards towards Solitary.

'Yes, I know you thought he was the one. I sort of thought that too. But that obviously isn't gonna happen now.' And under his breath he muttered, 'Man, did I blow that.'

'Who is he?' Starr asked.

'An old... acquaintance. I'll explain later. Let's get you safe first.'

'Safe where?'

'Starr!' He turned around to face her. There was a thin trail - black in the torchlight - oozing down the side of his face from all too near his left eye. 'C'mon, Starr, are you just going to argue with me? That's not like you.'

'I'm... I'm sorry, Stone,' she said meekly. And, 'Oh! Your head!' she added, reaching up to touch the spot that was bleeding.

But he turned away. 'We don't have time for that right now, Starr. The guards will be here any minute to start the roll call. And before they can come down the stairs, I want to get you up the stairs and...' But there he stopped talking.

'And...?' she prompted when he said no more.

He shook his head, frustrated - then immediately wished he hadn't, for the pain in his head exploded once again. 'And, um,' he mumbled, trying to collect his thoughts, 'probably drop you off with Lucy and Linda, I guess. Something like that. You can stay with them while I come back down here and finish searching for Walker.'

'But that will mean...' said Starr, and she halted suddenly in the middle of the hall. 'That will mean I won't be part of a team anymore, Stone. And the Master said we were supposed to go out in pairs.'

'I know, I know! Ow...' He pressed a hand to his head again. 'I'm sorry, Starr-girl. My head hurts and I can't really think this through right now. I just know I want you safe and out of here.' He took her hand again, his own hand now a bit bloody as well as coated with mire - not to mention the generous helping of sweat mixing in. 'C'mon.' He led her on towards the stairs they'd come down on. 'The guards will be here any minute, and I want to get you out... uh oh.'

For he saw now that he was wrong. It wasn't any minute.

It was any second.

The door was opening.

~~~~~~~

As the raucous voices of the guards began to clamor through this deepest dungeon, Stone dove behind a corner, dragging Starr after him. 'This way,' he hissed.

Hurry, hurry! Down to the fourth corridor, rounding that corner. Counting doors on the right. Losing his grip on Starr's hand and snatching for it again.

'Thirteen... fourteen...' he muttered. 'This is it.'

'The prisoner's cell,' whispered Starr. 'This is taking...'

'...an awful chance. I know,' said Stone as he unlocked the door. He rushed her through it, pulled it shut again, hustled her off to the left. In the barely existent light, she could make out little of the cell. Vague impression of a bed, a chair, a table.

And here, barely noticeable, was a blanket nailed up across the corner that was least visible from the doorway. Nailed up with...

'Two forks?' she said as Stone lifted the blanket and whisked her behind it.

'Yeah. I told you I made me a hiding place in here.' He spread out the blanket, checking to be sure it covered them well. It was a bit thread-bare and deeply stained - and very dark behind it. 'I've got my pack in here.'

'Where'd you get the other fork?'

'Well, you know, that's the weird thing. All this time, I've just had one fork in my pack. Well, it was all I needed. But when I started to hang up the blanket here and was looking for something to fasten it into place - suddenly there were two forks in the pack. Just what I needed, just when I needed it.' He was digging around in the pack now; Starr could tell by the sound. 'Ah,' he said.

And suddenly there was light.

'Stone!' squeaked Starr. 'We can't have a candle burning! What if someone looks through the window in the door? They'll see the glow right through this ratty old blanket.'

'Will they?' said Stone. His voice sounded so peculiar that Starr took a second look at him. He nodded his head towards the outside. 'Go have a look,' he said.

Baffled, she did. And was then even more baffled.

'You can't see the light from out there,' she said, coming back in.

'Yeah. I don't understand that. I noticed when I ducked out for a minute and left the candle in here. Anyway...' and he faced her squarely. 'I'm sorry, Starr-girl.'

The abrupt shift in conversation left her stunned for a second. And then came the tears. 'Oh, Stone! I'm sorry too. I never should have argued...'

'Now, wait. Hear me out,' he interrupted. 'I shouldn't have been so hard on you. Here you'd just had the rug pulled out from under you, and you were trying to find where you stood. And I was giving you a hard time.'

'But, Stone,' she replied, 'if I hadn't argued with you, we would have reached the stairs faster, and been gone from here like you wanted.'

'Or,' he countered, 'we would have reached the stairs faster and have been caught on the stairway when the guards came down. We can't know which might have happened. All we can do is deal with what is happening. Speculating on what might have happened instead - that just drives people nuts.' And then he asked, 'Um. What are you doing?'

For Starr had taken off her own pack and canteen, and was hunting through the pack to find... 'Here we go. A bit of cloth. Let's have a look at your head.'

Now he was the one stunned by a quick conversational shift. 'Oh, yeah,' he said. He lowered himself to sit in the mire of the cell floor as Starr knelt down at his side. Wetting the cloth, she began to gently clean the wound. There was only a very small tear in the skin by his eye, so she soon had all the blood washed away. He flinched several times as she worked, whispering to her, 'Sorry,' each time.

'I imagine this is very tender,' she sympathized as she finished daubing away the blood. 'I don't think it's bleeding anymore. But it's likely to make a spectacular bruise.'

'Yeah,' said Stone. Reaching for his canteen, he opened it and took a long pull. Then shook it. Then looked at Starr.

'Have you noticed anything weird about your canteen?'

'Weird?' she echoed.

'Yeah. Weird as in, it hasn't run low on water since we got here. Listen.' He gave the canteen a shake. Sure enough, the sloshing from inside it sounded nearly full.

Starr shook her own and heard the same thing. All this time, she had been carefully using as little as possible to make it last - but surely she hadn't used that little.

'You know, that reminds me,' she added. 'Do you still have some apples left from that tree we passed?'

'Yeah, I've got six left; I counted them last night.' But peering into his pack, he said, 'Wait a minute - I have eight apples in here now. No, nine - ten!' He frowned towards Starr. 'How could that be?'

Starr was frowning too. 'I think I remember something,' said she. 'Didn't... didn't the Master say something back when he sent us out, about how all that we would need would be provided us?'

'The Master? I remember Josh saying something like that.'

Oops. 'Oh, yeah... right...'

He glanced towards the door beyond the blanket. 'Sh...' They could hear the guards out there now, out in the corridors, yelling the prisoners awake. Wrapped his arm round Starr, he pulled her close, tucking her against his side. 'Might as well get comfortable,' he said. 'It'll be a wait before they clear out and I can try to sneak you upstairs.'

Resting her head against his shoulder, Starr said, 'What did happen just now, Stone?'

Oh. Suddenly he wished he hadn't promised her an explanation.

No. He'd put this off long enough. It was time to tell Starr the truth.


~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Monday, January 16, 2006

 

the child, part 2, chapter 2 - 'distancing'


***originally posted in mar 05, as chapters 40-45 - also, i did some rewriting on it while redoing it into one long chapter***



When they made camp before sundown that second night out, they found that it was just as well that they hadn't attempted to set up the tents the night before. They would never have been able to do so in the dark; it was nigh on impossible to figure out how to put the tents up in the daylight. And, of course, Forest and James were knocking heads over it, each of them sure that he knew the right way to do the job, and that the other knew nothing about it. To Starr's horror, the pair of them kept on and on, wrangling over which of them knew best how to set up the tents.

Until at last the two turned around to find that, while they had been arguing, the others had, through trial and error, managed to get all the tents up.

There were three tents in the company. After a brief discussion, it was decided that the women should have one tent together, Malachi and his companions the second, and the remaining four men the third. And then, following Forest's suggestion, they set a watch for the night. There were seven men, so each one would take a shift each night. Lucy started to protest the women not being included in the watch, but Linda and Joy quickly hushed her.

This night, Forest proclaimed, he himself would take the first watch. Which set off another argument between him and James over who had the right to set up the watch schedule anyway. Tired of it, the rest left them to their quarreling while they went ahead and fixed the supper.

The group ate, cleaned up afterwards, then spent a time of talking round the fire, before finally, one by one, retiring to the tents to go to bed. Stone and Starr said their sweet good-nights to each other.

And so to sleep.

Two nights later, it was Stone's turn to take the first watch. To Starr's delight, he invited her to keep the watch with him. And so they quietly walked round and round the camp, talking softly together under the wheeling stars till it was time to go to the companions' tent and call Malachi to take the next watch.

And so it went. The days hiking along the valley soon became routine to the group. The rest breaks were soon fewer and briefer, as their muscles grew more used to the exercise. It would be nice to be able say that the arguments among themselves also grew fewer and briefer - but that was not the case. Especially between James and Forest. But soon between Lucy and Linda as well.

Starr walked at Stone's side, grieving inwardly at every quarrel. How she longed for the real unity the Master had called for them to walk in!

Another problem they soon encountered was the weather. Here in this hemmed-in valley, it was often muggy. Direct sunshine rarely reached them, so that they mostly walked through gloom. As for rain, that did not come often, but when it did come, oh, but it poured buckets! That first time it rained, it didn't take them long to realize that there was no point in trying to press on through such a downpour (although Forest argued long and loud to press on anyway). And so they stopped and hurriedly set up the three tents - at least by now they knew how to do that well - so they could huddle within them to wait out the rain. The women gathered inside their tent, the men in theirs, the companions in theirs.

Well... not quite. For Stone drew Starr aside and led her to the tent of the three companions and asked to be allowed to come in. They wound up spending a delightful afternoon, that first rain, in lengthy conversation with Malachi, Maccabees, and Morgan.

Morgenstern, actually. For the first time Starr got to hear his full name. She sat by Stone's side, mostly listening, all that long afternoon as Stone and the others talked and talked. So caught up were they in their conversation, in fact, they didn't even notice the end of the rain. Jack had to come and tell them that the rest were packing their tents to get on the march again.

It was a fine time for Starr, those first few days. Walking at Stone's side, watching with him if his watch was an early one, listening in on his conversations with the companions...

And then there came a hard rain again - the fourth one of the journey. Everyone scrambled to get the tents up quickly. Stone, as usual, went to the companions' tent to wait out the rain in conversation. But when Starr hurried over after helping to get the women's tent up...

Maccabees opened the tent door and looked at her. Turning, he let Stone know she was there. And then, to her utter shock...

Stone frowned at her. 'This is our conversation,' he said. 'You should be in the women's tent.'

And when both Starr and Maccabees continued to just stand there at the tent door, stunned, Stone got up, came over, took the flap of cloth from Maccabees' hand - and said to Starr, 'Go on quickly before you catch your death of cold.'

And then he closed the tent door in her face.

~~~~~~~

The rain poured down. She stood there, stunned, the closed tent door before her face, her stomach feeling like it had just been sucker-punched. What had happened?

Stone had said for her to go to the women's tent, and also for her to do it quickly and get out of the rain. But Starr did neither. Gasping with tears, she instead spun away and ran off through the woods, blindly. Eventually she tripped on a fallen tree trunk. Landing hard, she just lay there on it, crying, choking, nearly sick with the shock of it all. For a long time she huddled there in misery, barely able to think.

The rain rained down.

What had happened?

Slowly, she began to remember the Master's warnings that this would happen - that she would feel as if her heart was being torn in two. 'But what changed?' she asked the pouring rain. 'Why did he do this?'

'You must ask him that.'

And suddenly, though the rain continued all around her, it was no longer falling upon her. She sat up, puzzled...

And saw a great white wing poised over her head, shielding her from the rain. Her eyes trailed over the wing, following it back to the shoulder it was attached to, and then to the face - 'Maccabees!'

His face was calm, unperturbed by the hard and chilly downpour. 'He told you to go back to the women's tent,' Maccabees said. And now the many-voiced aspect of his words she plainly heard.

'You are one of the cherubim. Like Mathilda. You, and Malachi, and Morgenstern. I thought you were.'

He gave a tiny smile. 'Yes. We saw you, that first day, trying to decide who and what we are. You have told no one of your suspicions?'

'No. What point is there, to say there are angels among us? No one else ever notices.'

'Some notice. You are not the only one with such sight. But very few have that gift. Please - continue to say nothing.'

'Why?'

'Because people begin to act differently when they know there are angels about. That is, they begin to put on an act. This company must learn to walk in reality, in honesty. As well as in unity.' He looked away, off through the surrounding trees. 'Only then,' he added, 'will they be prepared to take on the enemy. So long as there are factions and hidden realities - such things the enemy can and will exploit.'

Silence then for a bit between them. She sat on the log, and he stood by her, sheltering her still from the storm.

At last, he said, 'You should go back now. As Stone told you to.'

She got up and he took her hand, his wing still protectively over her head. As he led her through the woods back towards the tents, she realized how reckless she had been, running off like that. She would have never found the camp again on her own.

'You must ask him,' he said again, as they came into the circle of the camp. 'Only he can tell you what has happened. Ask, and keep silence once you have asked, that he may tell you all.'

'Thank you,' she said meekly, as he brought her right to the door of the women's tent.

'You are welcome,' Maccabees replied. And, as a flash of lightning sizzled across the rain-soaked sky above them, he turned away to return to his tent, while she opened the flap and entered her own.

~~~~~~~

Maccabees had said she should ask Stone for herself what had happened, but that was not easy to do. When they continued on the march the next morning (for the rain continued throughout the night), Stone walked with the three companions - the three angels - at the rear, and neither acknowledged Starr's presence nor included her in the conversation. It was a complete snub, and it hurt.

She felt apart. Not part of the group ahead, nor part of the group behind - just apart. Tears sprang up, and she tried diligently to swallow them.

And no one seemed to notice. James and Forest were, as usual, bickering over which way was best through the valley - as if there was much choice. Lucy and Linda were sharing sharp words. Jack and Joy were walking along, he by the arguing men and she by the arguing women, both of them looking quite miserable at the endless, endless squabbling.

And Starr was alone.

That day, and the next, and the next. And then the next night after they made camp, as they were eating supper, Forest pointed across the fire to Stone and said, 'You have first watch tonight.'

Oh! That hit Starr hard. The knowing that, where once he would have come to call her away to watch with him, now he would not call her at all. Would perhaps even be angry with her should she ask to watch with him. Not that she could ask him...

As she sat there, thinking these miserable thoughts, she saw from the corner of her eye - Maccabees. He looked at her till she returned the look, then he glanced towards Stone, then back to Starr, his expression plainly saying, 'Ask him.'

Gulp.

After the clean-up from supper, after all the others had gone on to bed, after Stone had started his slow walk round the perimeter of the camp... Starr slipped out from the women's tent and went to sit in a spot where Stone was sure to pass by.

Here he came. Walking slowly, looking all about. And then slower still, when he spotted her. Still more slowly, when he recognized her face. In fact, stopping dead in his tracks.

'Starr. You shouldn't be here,' he said.

'What happened?' she asked.

'What do you mean, what happened?' he said, drawing no closer.

'I mean...' and she dropped her eyes. '...us...'

'Oh.' And now he came closer. With a sigh, he sat down beside her. Not closely beside her, but close enough that her throat tightened as tears tried to creep up on her. 'Starr, I don't know what happened.'

If he didn't know, surely she didn't know! she wanted to cry out. But she kept silent, as Maccabees had told her to.

'I...' he said. 'Aw, Starr. I fell in love with you quickly, thinking you were the answer to that dream I had. You remember, the star falling into my hand?'

Mutely, she nodded.

'I wanted to be in love. I wanted a wife. I wanted that to be the meaning of the dream. But...'

She started to repeat the word 'but,' to prompt him on in the conversation. Well, the monologue. But there was no need, for he went on talking anyway.

'But then, I learned something.' He looked down, his mouth twitching a bit. 'I learned,' he said, 'that you are not the only 'star' in my life. Morgenstern...'

'Morgenstern?' she cried, unable to keep her silence.

'...means morning star. Yeah, I know - obviously he cannot be my wife. But... maybe that's not what the dream was talking about after all. Maybe... maybe the star dropping into my hand wasn't a wife, but a partner. A partner, for the assault on the dungeons. I started thinking about that, and then... And then I thought that maybe I was... jumping into things too quickly. When I fell in love with you. Maybe... maybe I was wrong. So...'

She remembered to keep quiet this time.

'...so... I think it's better for me not to... not to... be so close to you. For now, at least. Until I'm sure.'

Are you also going to back off from Morgenstern? she thought heatedly, but bit her lip and didn't say it. She knew already the answer. His actions already were the answer. He wasn't walking with all the companions; he was walking now with Morgenstern. And that made her angry.

Yes, and jealous.

'Do you understand, Starr?' he asked.

She jumped up. She had to bite her lips once more to keep from yelling at him, 'Does it matter?'

Without saying that or anything else, she turned and stormed away.

~~~~~~~

It hurt. Daily, it hurt. To see Stone, walking with Morgenstern, talking, laughing, seemingly carefree. Oh, it hurt.

She took to walking with the others. Sometimes with Joy, sometimes with Jack. Now with Lucy or Linda. Or even with Forest or James.

And sometimes... sometimes Maccabees sought her out and walked at her side.

Days passed. Weeks.

She learned much, walking with the others. She learned that Linda was as shy as she looked, and was quite puzzled that she had been given this new name when she was brought from the dungeons to the Master's house. Linda meant pretty, something the woman was sure she wasn't.

Starr learned that Joy had a problem with the deep gloom. It seemed to curl into her brain, she said, and she had to keep remembering how Josh had told them, that last day as they stood before that little house, to be filled with joy. How joy was their strength. To meet melancholy with the Master's joy. How often, Joy said, she had to keep reminding herself of that! How long this road was! And how wearying!

It was long... Days had stretched into weeks, and they were still passing through this same valley? How long could this valley be, anyway?

Starr thought about that one for some time, long after Joy had planted the question into her mind. Really, she should have noticed for herself! Starr thought. And then a few nights later at supper, Forest pointed at Maccabees and said, 'You have first watch tonight.'

Maccabees. If any of them would know how long this way through the valley was, surely one of the angels would know. And so, as she had done that night weeks before when it was Stone's watch, so this night Starr waited and sat herself in the cherub's path, to talk with him.

He did not sit by her, when he came to the place where she awaited him, but instead held out a hand to her and had her join him on his slow watchful walk round the camp. 'Yes, Starr?' he said.

Funny. She found it hard, now, to frame the question. 'We've been walking for a long time,' she said at last.

'Not so long,' he replied. 'We've barely gone halfway round the camp.'

'I don't mean tonight,' she said. And then realized - he was smiling! His too-many eyes were all crinkling in amusement. He was teasing her!

'I know,' he said. 'The journey itself. Yes, it has been long. Very long. And shall be long still.'

'But... how far could it be, to reach the enemy's fortress? We've been on the march for weeks.'

'Not far at all,' he replied.

She stopped walking and stared at him. 'I don't understand.'

He took her hand again and walked on. Shortly, they came upon a fallen tree, where he sat and had her sit beside him. And then, to her surprise, he unfurled a great wing and held it over her head.

'Why are you doing that?' she asked. 'It isn't raining.'

'You remember the day I did this. Because it was raining.'

'Yes. Of course.'

'Look around us.'

She did, still puzzled. Woods... What was she supposed to see?

And then, slowly, it dawned on her. Oh! 'This... this log! This is...'

'Yes.'

'...this is where I was crying that day. Crying in the rain, and you came to find me and lead me back to the camp. This...'

'Yes.'

She looked the angel in the eye. 'We've been going in circles.'

~~~~~~~

'Yes.'

'Why?' she asked.

'Why circles? Why walking round and round this mountain?'

'Yes.'

Maccabees looked her now in the eye. 'You yourself already know the answer,' said he. 'This group is not ready.'

Not ready. James and Forest arguing flashed into her mind. Lucy and Linda's squabbles. Her own anger - yes, anger - with Stone. All these things. And more besides, things that she had not seen. Yes. Maccabees was right. This group was not ready.

'How long?'

He stood, took her hand, walked on. 'Until they are ready,' he said.

'But how long will that take?'

He all but laughed. 'The group will decide that.'

On they walked through the silent woods. 'But...' she said slowly, 'what if the food runs out?'

'It will not,' he replied confidently.

'You're sure?'

'Did not the Master say it? All you will need, will be provided you. His word stands. He has provided, and that provision will not run short for this journey.'

Again they walked on, in silence. At last, Maccabees added, 'It is not good, Starr, for you to be angry with Stone.'

She nodded miserably. 'I know. But... we were so happy before. We were in love! And now... Oh, Maccabees! I could almost wish it was you I was supposed to be in love with, instead of him. At least you seem to like being around me!'

He said nothing, waiting till she looked at him. Then he answered gently, 'You know, little one, that I am not one who can marry.'

Yes. She knew. But it didn't make her a bit less miserable.

They walked on, her hand in his. Round the camp, keeping the watch. Round the camp again.

'Hi, Mac,' came a voice through the darkness. 'I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd go ahead and take over the watch and let you go rest. Didn't figure you would mind. I left a note for James, to let him know I was swapping watches with him.'

Starr froze. Guiltily, she realized she was still hand-in-hand with the cherub. She dropped Maccabees' hand quickly and hid her hands behind herself.

For the voice, and now the figure looming up from the night, from the direction of the camp -

Was Stone.

~~~~~~~

He stopped, hesitated, then came closer. 'Starr?'

'Good, good evening, Stone,' she whispered.

His eyes were bouncing back and forth between her and Maccabees. And it wasn't hard to guess what he was thinking.

'Good evening,' said Maccabees. 'Thank you, Stone. I hope you will be able to sleep after your watch. I will go now.' And he walked towards the camp.

And stopped, Starr noticed, close enough to keep an eye on what would transpire between her and Stone. If Stone noticed that the angel had not gone all the way back to the camp, he gave no sign of it. He just stood there, looking at Starr, his eyes moving restlessly from her face to the ground to her face to the sky...

'Mac's not married, is he?' Stone asked at last.

'...No...' she answered slowly. Nor could he marry, she knew. But Maccabees had asked her to not reveal that he was an angel, so she didn't say the rest of what she was thinking.

Stone was silent for a very long time.

'Do you want me to go?' Starr ventured at last.

'Yes - no! Starr...'

She waited, wondering.

'Starr...' His face twisted, miserable. 'Look... If you'd... rather be with Mac than with me... I can understand that.'

She stared at him. Rather...! But she hadn't been with Stone in ages! He had thrust her away. How...?

She said nothing. There was nothing she could think of to say, that wouldn't just make things worse.

'...I need to walk, do this watch...' he added. 'So I need to go.'

She nodded.

'You get right to bed?' said he.

Another nod. She held the tears in till she was far enough away from him that he wouldn't hear her.

Maccabees met her, escorted her back to the camp.

'He thinks I'm interested in you now!' she whispered.

'I am sorry,' the cherub replied.

She shook her head, mopping the tears off her face before she entered her tent lest anyone within see that she'd been crying. That was all she needed, for one of them to start asking awkward questions!

Could it possibly, she wondered, get any worse?

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, January 13, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 13 - 'second report'


'Man! Would you look at me?' said Seth. 'I'm so nervous here, my hands are shaking! I ain't been this nervous since... since... Well, I ain't never been nervous.' He glanced up the stairs. 'When you expect 'em to get here?'

'Well,' said Forest, 'first Lucy and Linda report in to Mac. Then Mac reports to Jack and Morgen. Then they report to Joy and Mal. And then the pair of them come to see us.'

'Takes a while,' added James. Since their meeting with the Master that morning, James' face had begun to feel a great deal better. He wasn't quite up to speaking a lot yet though.

'And after we talk with them, then it's...?' And Seth finished his question with a hefty finger pointing downstairs.

'All the way down to the lowest level, yeah,' said Forest.

As James whispered, 'Sh - listen!'

From above their heads came a minor sound - was that a stairway door closing? And more light sounds - feet descending?

'Two pairs of feet, sounds like,' Forest whispered to the others.

'At least,' James agreed.

Seth, also listening, put in, 'That ain't guards. That's someone doing their best to be sneaky. Guards don't hafta be sneaky.'

'Unless it's guards trying to sneak up on us.'

Seth turned to frown towards the boy for a few seconds. And then, 'All right,' the big man conceded, 'I'll give you that one. Might just be the guards after all. I ain't ever known them to go sneaking about, but then I ain't never been outta my cell, planning a jail break neither.' A pause. 'Guess we'll find out mighty quick, eh?'

Three pairs of eyes gazed up the stairs. Two sets of hands made ready to draw swords if need be, while the remaining hands got set to bash some skulls. Just as soon as any guards might come into sight...

The light trip of small feet floated down from the landing just above, along with the soft swish of a skirt. A girlish voice called out softly, 'Forest? James?'

It was Joy.

~~~~~~~

She sure was living up to her name. As she spotted her friends, her face beamed brighter than the torches along the stairwell wall. And when she caught sight of the big man standing there with her friends, her eyes lit up even more so.

'Is that Logan?' she asked.

Nervousness hit the big guy like a ton of bricks all over again. 'Not no more, little lady,' he said, feeling suddenly like his hands and feet were way too big, and he had nowhere to hide them. 'That is... I mean to say... well, the Master done give me a new name. So now I'm Seth.'

The slip of a girl sparkled merrily at him. 'Oh, how wonderful!' she exclaimed. 'Then you're my new brother. I'm Joy.' And as her small hand was swallowed up in his great paw, she glanced back up the stairs. 'And here's...'

Forest hissed quickly to James, 'There's still more than one set of footsteps coming!'

'Oh, here he is - Malachi,' said Joy, as his feet came into view. 'And also...'

A tall girl, every bit as blushing and nervous as Seth, crowded along behind Malachi, peeking out at them all.

'...this is our new sister Talitha,' Joy finished.

'Hi,' Talitha whispered, just barely in the audible range.

'Hi, good to meet you,' Forest said brusquely, adding, 'Joy, do you realize what you just did? Don't you ever do anything like that again!'

Baffled, Joy asked, 'What did I do?'

'Running ahead of Malachi like that,' said the boy.

'And calling out our names,' added James.

'Yeah, you couldn't know for sure that it was us waiting here for you. Might have been guards.'

'But it was you,' said Joy.

'It might also,' put in Malachi, 'have been Forest and James as decoys, set here by the guards as bait for the trap. You have been leery of traps, you may recall.'

'But,' said Joy. And stopped. And considered.

'I'm sorry,' she admitted. 'You're right, all of you. I could have been running into a trap.'

'Stick closer to Mal from now on, ok?' said Forest.

'Yes, sir,' said Joy meekly.

Seth snorted. '...sir...' he echoed.

And Forest blushed bright red.

~~~~~~~

Recovering herself, Joy said to Talitha, 'Well, that's Forest. And this is James,' as the man with the bruised face reached out and shook the tall girl's hand in greeting. 'And this is Logan. Oops, sorry. I mean, this is Seth.'

'How you do, ma'am,' big Seth rumbled, doing his best to keep the usual boom in his voice down to a distant thunder. And to Joy, 'Don't worry none about messing up my name. I'm still getting used to it being Seth, too.'

'Yeah,' the new girl agreed. 'At least for me, Talitha isn't so different from my old name of Talia.'

'Talitha means little girl,' put in Joy.

Talitha blushed again. 'Yeah, that's what the Master told me he was going to make me become. His own little girl.' The scar across her cheek, still visible, seemed to fade in the light of the sweet remembrance of her meeting with the Master.

'This is good news,' James beamed, venturing out into his longest speech since he was captured back in the valley. 'Yesterday, Stephen. Today, Seth and Talitha.'

'And Rose too!' said Joy, bouncing with delight. 'Jack told us. We didn't get to meet her yet, but she used to be Ginger. So we've got over half our people now!'

'Four down, three to go - counting Walker,' said Forest. 'Any word on Beatriz?'

'Yes,' said Malachi, 'but that is the sad news we bear you.' Briefly he related the fearful declaration the woman had made to Maccabees, insisting that she would only trust Walker and no one else.

Forest's eyes darkened. 'That stinks.'

'What about Walker? Anybody found him yet?' Seth asked.

Malachi shook his head. 'No. All the levels below ground, from the ground level where Lucy and Linda are, down to our own level just above you, have now been searched. With no sign of Walker at all.'

'Yeah, and he ain't here neither,' asserted Seth. 'The guards ain't brought anyone new down here for the past three weeks, cause I'da known it if they had.' Then he frowned. 'Aw. That sounded braggy. I didn't mean it that way. Just - he ain't here. They don't bring someone new in here without all of us catching wind of it.' And then he added, 'Sorry.'

'Then we must continue the search,' said Malachi. 'Jack and Stephen, as the Master commanded them, plan to begin tomorrow to search the above-ground levels. Also, as the prisoners on Talitha's level have been taken up to the guards' quarters these past few days, we three plan to follow and search up there.'

'Good,' said James. 'And there's still some levels between this one and the lowest. We can search those.'

'And we haven't gotten Stone's report yet,' put in Forest. 'I'm still hoping he'll have some good news for us from down there. It's not impossible that he might have found Walker today, you know.'

No, not impossible - but in their hearts most of them felt it just wasn't very likely.

~~~~~~~

They made their farewells then and Joy, Malachi, and Talitha set out to return upstairs. While Forest, James, and Seth began the dark descent into the deepest bowels of this prison.

'I ain't never been down here,' muttered Seth, mostly to himself. 'Heard rumors. Supposed to be ten times worse'n where I was - which ain't easy to believe.'

The darkness swallowed them, somehow robbing the lit torches they passed of any luster. All light was only oily, dim, discouraged. Even if they hadn't been moving as silently as possible, the very atmosphere around them would have stripped from them any desire to be heard or noticed or recognized. By the time they reached the final landing before the absolute depths, it was as if all light and sound and heart were nothing but distant fading memories - if not myths.

They stopped. Forest, with a nod to the others, glided on ahead of them. He crouched down on the stairs and leaned forward to peek round that final corner. Was there...?

'Yep, someone's down there,' he reported softly.

'Stone?' James asked just as softly.

'Someone tall...' said Forest. He pushed forward a bit more, trying to catch sight of the person's face. It was shrouded in shadow...

The tall someone alerted then, turning to peer up the stairs towards where Forest was still crouched. The torchlight fell on only the right half of the someone's face, but that was enough for the boy to tell.

'Yeah, it's Stone.'

'Alone?'

'Yes.'

They descended, still wary. Stone, also wary, had laid a hand on his sword hilt, only relaxing after he recognized in the torchlight his friends. Quickly they introduced to him his big hulking new brother.

If Seth had thought he was nervous, that was nothing compared to the raw stress they could all read on the half of Stone's face they could see. 'Glad to see you guys,' he said.

'Rough day?' asked Forest.

'You could say that,' Stone replied. 'And to answer the next question I know you're about to ask: No, no sign of Walker. And to answer the next question after that...'

And now Stone turned to face them full-on, so that the dim light for the first time fell across his left cheek.

His left eye.

His black and swollen left eye.

'What happened to you?' erupted all three at once.

Stone's mouth twitched. 'Let's just say that Starr's little buddy from Solitary packs quite a wallop.'

~first~ ~previous~ ~next~

Friday, January 06, 2006

 

the child, part 3, chapter 12 - 'ginger'


***i didn't do something i should have done before writing this chapter; i didn't go back and read chapter 6, 'first report' where i last left Lucy and Linda. Oh, did this chapter not match up with that one! did some rewriting today therefore - rewriting at that chapter as well.***



As the door closed behind Mac, Lucy planted her fists on her hips and scowled. 'He really has a lot of nerve!' she whispered.

'Uh huh,' replied Linda. A glance at her companion told Lucy that Linda was nigh on falling asleep right then and there. This would never do. Taking Linda's arm, Lucy steered her companion towards the nearest corridor. Mac's 'small favor' would just have to wait, she decided; right now, what the two of them needed most was to reach the broom closet safely so that they could get some deeply needed sleep.

But as they reached the end of the long corridor, with the closet already in sight, Linda gave herself a little shake and looked around. 'Oh,' she said. 'Did we stop at Ginger's already?'

'No,' said Lucy shortly.

Linda peered at her through bleary eyes. 'Why not?'

'Because,' said Lucy, 'you just sleep-walked that entire corridor. Mac's little errand can surely wait till morning...'

'But we promised...' Linda protested weakly.

'Did we? I didn't.'

'Didn't we?' Linda blinked owlishly. 'I thought I did.'

'Just come on and rest,' said Lucy, starting for the closet. But when she got there and looked back for Linda, she spotted her heading back up the hallway they had cleaned this day.

'Marvelous,' Lucy muttered. For Linda was swooping and swaying as she walked as if she were drunk. Hurrying to catch up, she hissed, 'Linda, it's time to sleep!'

'Yeah, yeah. Right after we do this.'

Whatever has gotten into her? Lucy wondered peevishly. 'All right then,' she whispered. 'But very quickly. And I'll look in. You can barely see to walk, much less to see if Ginger's found the note.'

Briskly Lucy strode off up the corridor, not waiting for Linda to follow. As she reached the proper door, she wondered briefly how she would even know if Ginger had read the note. But no matter. Do this quickly, then off to sleep.

She looked in through the small window in the cell door.

And instantly sprang backwards.

~~~~~~~

That woke them both up. Ready to draw her sword, Linda hurried to Lucy's side. 'What happened?' she hissed.

Lucy's hand had flown to still her racing heart, as a thoroughly stunned look swept over her face. 'Someone was looking back!' she said.

'Huh?'

At the same moment a frightened voice called from inside the cell, 'Who's out there?'. Followed almost immediately by, 'Oh my... oh my goodness! It's Carol! Carol, dear!' the voice went on, now gladsome. 'Why, wherever have you been for all this time? You went missing simply months and months ago, and...' And then a gasp. 'Why... I found a note under my pillow this evening, and couldn't sleep for wondering from whom it came. It was signed with a name I didn't recognize. You're... you're never this mysterious 'Lucy,' are you?'

Linda turned and looked at Lucy. 'You signed your new name on it?'

'Did I?' said Lucy. Surely she hadn't been that thoughtless; Ginger would not know who Lucy was! But then, thinking back on the writing of the note - then Lucy remembered. And blushed burned bright red.

Leaning close, Linda added softly, 'I take it this is Ginger?'

'Ah - oh - yes. Yes. Ginger, let me introduce my new friend, Linda. And, Linda, this is my - do I say 'old'? - friend Ginger. And, Ginger,' she added, 'yes, I'm Lucy now.'

'How do you do, Linda?' said the voice from inside the door. 'What a lovely name - as is the name Lucy. But then, I liked the name Carol as well.' And then she added, 'I would invite you in, my dears, but of course, the door is locked. I would have to summon someone from security to come and open it for us. And I do so hate to bother them after hours.'

Security? wondered Linda. Does she mean the guards?

Lucy recovered herself enough to produce her key. She held it up before the window so Ginger could see it, then unlocked the door.

The door opened. And Linda got her first look at Ginger.

Wow.

~~~~~~~

There stood Ginger, dressed in a gown that was almost certainly silk, the candlelight setting off her casually beautiful coif, the smile on her face regal and elegant. She lifted her arms, the graceful and intricately wrought chains that dangled from her wrists glittering as gold, and embraced Lucy. 'Carol, my dear!' she effused, as she gave the woman a kiss on the cheek that never actually touched her cheek. Turning to Linda, Ginger gave her the same greeting - Linda distinctly heard the little smeck that landed in the air near her ear. It was the kind of kiss, Linda suspected, that was devised to muss neither hairstyle nor make-up.

'Come in, come in,' Ginger welcomed them warmly.

There was nothing especially special about the room; it was like all the others they had cleaned this day. But somehow, inhabited by Ginger, it was now a chamber of royalty. Noblesse oblige fairly oozed from the woman, scenting the very air about her. Gracefully, graciously, she swept before them, offering the lone chair to Linda, apologizing for the lack of extra seating to Lucy, patting the thick, silk-sheeted mattress of her bed as invitation for Lucy to take a seat there. And then, spreading her sumptuous skirts, she too perched on the edge of the bed, looking for all the world like a princess taking her throne.

'How wonderful to see you again, Ca... ah, Lucy. You disappeared well over a year ago, and none of us knew what had become of you.'

Before Lucy could attempt to explain, Ginger leaned closer and added, 'Mind you, there have been plenty of rumors, dear. Some said one thing; some another. The chief rumor I heard was that you had been banished, ah, downstairs,' and she said that word with, oh! such repugnance, 'for some flagrant breach of etiquette. Which of course I knew to be a lie. The Committee so rarely resorts to such extreme measures. And had you been such a very very bad girl,' and she chucked Lucy under the chin, 'I'd have surely noticed.'

The woman talks in underlinings, thought Linda.

'Now,' Ginger added, 'it did occur to me that perhaps you might have moved to one of the, ah, inferior levels,' (Linda nearly gagged), 'in order to bring enlightenment and refinement to the poor unwashed masses who reside down there - tis our burden as the upper class, you know.'

Lucy was nearly gagging as well. Was this really how the people here were - how she herself had been when she'd lived here? She didn't remember being so - so full of herself. 'Well, that's not where I was,' she began, but at the same time, Linda asked, 'Who's this Committee?'

'Oh, my dear,' said Ginger, 'it is they who watch over our way of life here among the, shall we say, upper crust. They keep a sharp eye out for any infractions in order to ensure the well-being of us all. Now, no one knows who the members of the Committee are, for they meet in secret, and I understand in disguise, and are sworn not to reveal themselves to any.'

'Charming system. You mean like secret police?' asked Linda. Having come from one of those lower levels populated by the 'poor unwashed masses,' she was having a fight on the inside, trying to not get offended at this insufferable woman's high-and-mighty ways.

'Oh, you make it sound so sinister,' Ginger replied merrily.

'Isn't it?'

Linda met Queen Ginger's eyes evenly, met and held them. And slowly, blinking and blinking, Ginger dropped her head. 'Actually, it is,' she said softly.

~~~~~~~

And suddenly the grand facade crumbled and was gone. No more masquerade. Instead of royalty, Ginger was abruptly a smaller-than-life person, a little woman with carefully hidden crow's-feet and sadly sagging jowls.

'Ginger?' said Lucy.

The woman looked up at her, then again at Linda, then down at her own two hands twisting uncomfortably in her silken lap.

'What is it, Ginger?' Lucy prompted.

She looked up again, glancing towards the door. Pitching her voice so low the other two could scarcely hear her, she said, 'You mustn't tell anyone I said this. You've no notion the world of trouble I would be in if one word of what I'm about to tell you, ah, got out. But...' and now she was talking to her contorting hands, 'I'm... a member of the Committee...'

Lucy blinked, astonished. 'You? You mean to tell me that all those years...'

'Yes,' said Ginger meekly. 'That's how I knew, of course, that you hadn't been banished.'

'You're a snitch?' said Linda.

'Oh my, no,' said Ginger, some of her archness creeping back in. 'The Committee is the elite of the elite, the creme de la creme, the uppermost layer of all the upper crust. The acme of all that we might aspire to. We are...'

'Oh, I get it,' Linda broke in. 'A whole flock of stool pigeons, climbing to the top by trampling everyone else under foot.'

Ginger's eyes snapped. 'I ought to be thoroughly put out with you, Linda,' said she. 'But the problem is that... you're right.' She turned to Lucy. 'She's right, and it took me all this time to ever see it.'

'What happened to open your eyes?'

'You remember,' and suddenly she found it hard to go on, 'Mi...Millicent?'

'Millicent? Why, of course. That little birdlike woman, frail as gossamer. Yes, I remember her.'

'It, it was so foolish,' Ginger went on, her hands twisting in on themselves once again. 'All she did, dear, was give a tea. But she didn't invite - well, I daren't name the name - but she didn't invite the one woman who wields the most influence in the Committee. And for this slight, that woman - oh, Carol! She forced the rest of us to punish little Millicent. To, to send her, well, downstairs. To one of those barbarous levels, full of men who do little else but fight each other all day long. And we sent her there to char.'

And now Linda caught a glimpse of what that must mean to these upper level royals, to be forced to char even for their peers. Much less to clean up after people they viewed as hardly a step up from brute beasts.

'What happened then?' asked Lucy, dread seizing at her heart - for good reason, she was sure.

'Two men from security escorted her down there. And when they arrived, they found...' A shudder quaked through Ginger's being. 'Oh! It was hideous! Three men were holding down a fourth as they beat him and beat him. And the security who worked that level were laughing as they held back yet another man till the first three were done bludgeoning the poor fellow. And then, as the fourth man lay bleeding on the floor, the security released - or should I say, unleashed - the man they had been holding back. And he, seeing that the man on the floor was nearly dead, he... he... Oh, Carol. He killed those other men! Right in front of poor Millicent. And the shock of it was so great that, that...'

Ginger was weeping, her tears soaking unheeded into the fine silk of her gown. Lucy put her arms round her, patting her shoulder, murmuring comfortingly, 'It's all right, Ginger, it's all right.'

'But it isn't,' Ginger insisted. 'Poor, sweet, fragile little Millicent - her heart gave out from the horror of what she saw. The security men carried her back up here to us. And she was dead, Carol! And, oh, the look in her eyes...!'

Once again a shudder shook her whole being. 'That's when I saw at last what we truly are. What beasts we are, for all our refinement and lofty ways. It sickened me. And yet...'

'And yet when your old friend shows up unexpectedly,' put in Linda, 'you put on the dog like old times.'

Ginger winced. But nodded. 'Yes. You're right. I know what we are. I see what we are. Yet I keep up appearances just like the rest. It's as if I can't stop myself.'

'Or don't want to?'

'I want to!' Ginger flashed. 'At least... I think I want to. It was so disgusting, the way the others in the Committee - oh, yes, I know who all the others are; we just put forth the propaganda,' ('Lies,' muttered Linda), 'that we are all secret one from another - the way she who condemned Millicent smirked over the poor little corpse - the way her friends,' ('Toadies,' muttered Linda), 'simpered and fawned, and agreed that Millicent had gotten no better than she had deserved...' And Ginger dissolved into misery.

'Ugh,' said Lucy. She rummaged in her pack and found a bit of cloth to wipe her old friend's tears.

'Thank you,' Ginger whispered, and leaned against Lucy. Sniffling, she added, 'It's not that I don't want to change. But this is all I've ever known. Who I am is,' and she swept her arms out, taking in the whole level, 'what we are here. I don't know any other way. I don't know how to change. And... I'm frightened. It's very daunting, you know.'

Lucy was nodding. 'You can't change yourself. And it's ridiculous to even try.'

'Yes! And yet... you are different, Ca... I mean, Lucy. You have changed.'

Lucy smiled and glanced over at Linda. 'Yeah, more than you know, she's changed,' Linda grinned.

'But how?' Ginger asked in anguish.

'Not how,' said Lucy, taking Ginger's hands into her own. 'Who. The Master has changed me.'

'The Master...' Ginger echoed, hiccupping. 'That's who Walker told me of. But I didn't... I wasn't sure...'

'What did Walker tell you?'

'Oh, fantastic things - about life and death and blood shed for me.' She sniffed. 'You know, if Walker had shown up one day earlier, before that horrible thing happened to Millicent, I would have - oh, turned up my nose at him, I suppose - been affronted at his insults - taken offense at his declaration that without the Master I was nothing and less than nothing. How dare he, hmm? Oh, yes, I would have withered him with a glance, then summoned security to throw such a vulgar fellow out.'

She studied her hands once again. 'Seeing Millicent like that - it changed everything.'

'The Master's timing is perfect,' said Linda.

'It certainly is.'

Lucy's head came up. She hadn't said that, nor had Linda, nor obviously had Ginger. So who...?

Who indeed.

~~~~~~~

Ginger looked at Lucy and Linda in confusion. 'Who is that? And how did he get here? The door...'

'No locked door can keep out the Master,' said Linda.

'Only a locked heart,' said he.

Ginger's face went pale. 'The, the Master?' she squeaked.

His arms opened wide as he smiled on the startled woman. 'Daughter,' he said. 'Would you like that? To be my daughter?'

Sniffle. 'Y-yes...'

'Then give me all. All that you are. All that you have. All that you hope. All that you fear. All. And in return, I will give you - peace. And myself. Is that not a good bargain?'

'I... I...'

'Won't you unlock your heart to me, Ginger? Wouldn't you like to leave this place, which is your father's house, and come away with me to mine?' His eyes twinkled as he added, 'You will not be rich royalty there as you are here. Will that be all right?'

Blink. Puzzlement flashed over Linda's face.

'I...' said Ginger. 'I think I... Yes. I'm sick of this, of what I am. I just want to be - plain. Ordinary. Real.'

'Real you shall be. Mine you shall be. Simple, and cherished. My daughter.' And his arms were yet open to her.

'Master,' Ginger wept. And then she rushed to his embrace.

He held her. How he held her! Long and lovingly he held her close. And when he released the embrace...

She was changed. Transformed. The rich silk had become plain linen, simple and white. Her rich coif had become simple as well. The chains lay forgotten on the floor behind her. And her face...

Now held peace.

The Master touched her cheek gently, pressed a kiss to forehead. 'And now you are my daughter. You are Rose.'

A blooming blush spread across her face like joy. 'Rose,' she smiled back to him.

'Greet your sisters,' said he.

Light-hearted as a little child, she turned and embraced Lucy and Linda. No silly air-kisses now; she grabbed each in turn and kissed them for real, with laughter, with love. For the next few minutes, the room was filled with giggles.

~~~~~~~

As the merry gabble went on, Lucy could not be thoroughly happy. She spotted the Master regarding her quietly. Oh dear. She turned away.

And found him standing right behind her.

She jumped, understandably. 'Well?' said he.

She hung her head. 'Yes, sir,' she whispered. 'I'm sorry.'

'And you are forgiven for becoming angry with Maccabees.' He touched her chin, raising her face to his. 'And you will need to apologize to him when next you see him.'

'Yes, sir,' she said again.

'Good.' And his stern demeanor vanished as he smiled upon her. 'Trust a little more, my daughter,' he said. And then he was no longer before her.

Suddenly Linda found herself elbow to elbow with the Master. To her, he said softly, 'Ask.'

'I don't understand,' said she.

'That is why you must ask,' he prompted. 'And...?'

'You told Gin - I mean Rose - that she will not be rich or royalty when she comes to your house. But when you came for me back when I was here, you promised me both. That I would be rich, and would be royal.'

'True.'

'And... that's what I don't understand.'

He smiled. 'When I found you here, my Linda, were you rich or royal?'

'No. I was poor as dirt and - well, I don't like to remember the rest.'

'But what of Rose? Does she need riches or status?'

'No. No, she's had both, and she's sick of them.'

'While you had the opposite, and were sick of that. So tell me, my daughter, my beautiful Linda - do you have riches now?'

She thought. 'If you mean riches like silk clothing and gold jewelry - no, of course not. But I know you now, and that the best riches of all.'

He smiled, his eyes crinkling merrily. 'And that is exactly what I promised you. Rose, on the other hand, shall have what she needs, which is the simplicity of knowing me.' A pause, and he added, 'Are you royalty, dear?'

And now it was Linda's eyes crinkling with delight. 'I'm better,' she responded. 'I'm your daughter.'

'Exactly. And that is royalty enough, as well as simplicity enough, for any and all. So, Linda - do you understand now, my little one?'

'I think I do. It's because Rose and I come from such different places. What I needed, you gave me; you made me somebody in you. And you're giving Rose what she needs. To be nobody.'

'To be ordinary, and no longer high-and-mighty above others, yes. Just as you, dear,' and he tilted her chin up to meet his compassionate eyes, 'are no longer anyone's kicking post.'

Linda swallowed hard then, the tears springing up. 'I love you,' she whispered as he took her into his arms.

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