Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chapter Ninety-Two

A fire crackled and sizzled as the juices from several snakes and lizards roasted upon it.   

“Eat Lady.  There’s still a long way to go.” 

I sighed.  “You know, I am still not convinced that I am not suffering a complete mental collapse.” 

“I’m sorry Lady?  I do not know what that means.” 

I looked at him and gave a small grin.  “It means I’m wondering if I’m not as crazy as a sunstroked mule.”  I shook my head.  “I’ve seen things that I wish I hadn’t and wish for things I can’t have.  And now I’m wondering if what I’m seeing is real or if you lot are just something that I want to see so badly that my mind is giving it to me.  I don’t think I could have carried on much further by myself.  You’ve saved me.” 

The boy – the only one that would address me directly – smiled bashfully before turning back to caring for his bow and arrows.  He was the one that, along with a boy that looked to be a few years younger, went to hunt amongst the animals that were climbing to safety to escape the flash flood caused by the storm that had only started in our area as the worst of the rushing water had crested.  The rain has now stopped but all around below the spire we rested in the water is still a wild torrent and I was informed that it would be tomorrow before things are sufficiently dry to travel. 

All is quiet with the other children sleeping.  The only three of us still awake are the boy across from me, a girl of about the same age that watches from the alcove entrance, and myself.   

I hesitated before reaching for a piece of snake that looked well done to my preference.  “Are you sure the other children have all eaten their fill?” 

“Yes Lady.  When we are out alone we feed ourselves well.  It’s only the olders that try and keep us hungry.” 

“You mean adults?” 

“Yes Lady.  The olders.  They send us away as soon as they can so as to not have to starve us and to harden us up.  The olders mostly have too many blessings to make traveling easy so we have to look after ourselves and each other.  We come and take the newest youngers when we can but there haven’t been too many lately that have lived to be old enough to take.  Lots of babes have been put on the field by the traveling priests and their guards.  Damsie is weak but has travelled with us some.  But she got a fever which got her noticed by the attention of the priests.  Her olders had been hiding her, pretending she were a babe.  Her blessing is that she will not grow.  She don’t talk much does Damsie but she did all right until the fever.” 

“And how old is Damsie?” 

“Going on seven summers.  She and Rulie – the boy that brought you the first lizard – are twins.  Rulie don’t have no blessing, Damsie got it all.” 

I was trying to absorb what he was telling me.  I remember how it was in Harper.  Once you reached an age where you didn’t need to be carried everywhere you started your training at your family’s guidance.  My brothers were teaching me forest craft before Mother and Grandmother required me to start learning housewifery skills.  Soon enough I was learning both when they weren’t sending me to the library with Nat.  Still, the life these “youngers” led was many times more difficult than the life I had led at their age.  Which truth be told isn’t as long ago as I sometimes think. 

The boy looked at me curiously and said, “You aren’t what the stories say.” 

Surprised I asked, “Excuse me?  What stories?” 

“The stories the priests tell.  They call you the Devil Lady and make you out to be an older that wants to take the hearts and manhoods of men.  But you’re no older,” he said with a shake of his head. 

“Well, no … not really.  And as for the other … please do not … er … mention that again.  I have no wish to puke up this meal.” 

“You prefer women?” 

“What?!  Oh by the saints … um … that’s not what I meant.  I just mean …”  I stopped completely embarrassed by the turn of the conversation.  “It is rather personal.” 

The girl had come back inside and said, “She didn’t like her match and it marked her heart.” 

I looked at the girl and realized while she was younger than I it was only by a couple of years.  It was her stature that disguised her true age.  “Um … yes.  I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.” 

The boy nodded.  “The Linder is a devil.” 

Not wishing to perpetuate an unhealthy mythology I said, “Well … not precisely.  The Linder that was my husband was very good at his job but wasn’t always … very good at anything else.  Then his successor … a cousin … I never met so I can’t say how good at his job he would have been but he seemed determined to be as good a man as he could be from all reports.  The current Linder is considerably younger than the previous two Linders and is learning the job of being both The Linder and The Guardian are far from as easy and straight forward as some people think it is.  Lots of politics and such.  So no, none of them were truly the Devil … they were and are just men like any other that battle weaknesses and do not always succeed in overcoming them.” 

The girl looked at me strangely.  “Are you interested in matching with The Linder?” 

“Ew … I thought I asked that that particular topic not be brought up again.” 

“So you really don’t want it.  The Old Un said you didn’t.” 

Curious I asked, “The Old One?” 

“Used to be a priest but got took in by the Light.” 

“Hmmm,” I muttered. 

I was about to express some suspicion when I didn’t have to.  The boy said, “He was your watcher.” 

There it is again, an almost impossible coincidence.  “I … I believe I found his body.” 

The boy nodded and the girl went back to guard.  He said, “We were with him.  He told us to be on the look-out for you and if we found you to take you to the river and get you safe passage back to your people.  Said it was the only way to save our people.  Said they wouldn’t stop looking for you until they found sign of your life or death.” 

“Goodness.  He couldn’t have known where I would be.  And I’m not sure anyone really cares if you want the truth.” 

“Don’t be too sure Lady.  The Old Un knew lots of things.  Claimed the last couple of days before he died that the Light cleared his seeing and that he saw things others couldn’t … or wouldn’t.  We were gonna go looking for you after we checked on Damsie but you saved her from the deadeater and took her off.  We weren’t for sure yet if you were the Lady or not so we decided to just follow you until we were sure.  You coulda just been a Damned or a Watcher that wanted a babe.” 

“Such like that happens?  The Damned … stealing children?” 

“Ain’t thought to be stealing when they do it.” 

The girl muttered angrily, “Is too.  They stole Roj.” 

“Roj?” I asked. 

“Hela’s babe.” 

“Wait … Hela is the … is the …” 

The boy nodded.  “Let us say it quiet.  She still hasn’t given up finding the babe.”  At my nod he continued very quietly, “They matched her with one of the river men.  She caught right off and called the babe when it was born Roj.  He was born too perfect and there were some jealousies with the river man’s other women.  To settle it a traveling priest took it away and sent it to an important Damned family that had pretended to not be damned to hide in plain sight.  Hela ran away from the river man looking for Roj but she couldn’t find him so came back to us to finish healing up.  Her chest still hurts for Roj.  She has to keep it taped up tight.” 

“Dear Saints and Martyrs,” I whispered.  “Madness.  Everywhere I look there just seems to be so much madness.”  And I wondered if I wasn’t becoming part of it.

Chapter Ninety-One

Dawn had crested before I walked into the shadow of the first rocky spire.  The sun was approaching zenith before I found a place that the child and I could spend the remainder of the day safely.  I was glad that I did too.  The sky had an ominous color to it that I didn’t care for at all.   

“Listen Child – I’m sorry I don’t know your name – but, you … you must understand.  I have to rest.  I can’t if I’m worried that you will wander away.  Do you understand what I’m saying?” 

The child looked at me like a curious bird and then nodded and snuggled down and strangely pulled the cloak over us both.  I was exhausted and fell asleep almost instantly, not even bothering to first look for the seep.  It was not long before I was trapped in a dreamscape. 

It was that night again and I was being pulled down the hall to the door.  Shadows flickered wildly and a noxious breeze stirred the candles in the sconces on the wall.  And when I turned expecting to see my husband, instead I saw a man shape that was so dark within that it seemed to be the one causing the lights to flicker and seem dim.  No matter how I fought, just like that night I could not escape.  The hand that grasped my arm was so cold that it burned.  Closer and closer to that door it dragged me.  I knew what it wanted, not the bed but to force me to relive that hideous collect.  I knew that if it happened I would wind up mad like I nearly had that night.  Then the shadow hand was upon the doorknob and was turning it.   

Unlike in my memory a great crash that seemed to shake the Hall and interrupt the sequence of events that had been.  The Shadow was furious and tried to pull me harder and faster but the crash came again.  Every time the crashing noise came the shadow’s grip on me lessened dnd then there was a crash so loud the walls of the Hall began to fall.   

I sat up gasping for air.  My grip on the child was tight but she didn’t protest as I whispered, “It’s all right.  Whatever it was is gone.  It’s all right now.” 

I don’t know if I rocked her or myself but she seemed to understand that I needed to and when I finally took hold of myself I looked down and said, “I apologize.  I hope I didn’t frighten you.” 

She didn’t answer my question but pointed.  I looked and there was a horrendous storm heading our direction.  Before I could really process what I was seeing the entranceway was blocked and in rushed several small bodies. 

“Come Lady.  The washing water is coming.  We must go higher.” 

I wasn’t sure what the boy referred to but he reminded me enough of Jude and Jode that I knew he meant no harm.  Especially when he picked up my staff, handed to me and said, “Best move now.”  He took my empty hand and guided me out of the hole I’d been hiding in and up a steep and rocky trail.  

At that moment I could not have said whether I was still in a dream or awake even if my life depended upon it.

Chapter Ninety

I dozed and then woke when I felt something tugging on me.  I opened my eyes to find a tiny face staring at me in distress. 

The child was older than I had at first thought, not a baby at all but a child, small for its age.  I had no choice but to turn loose and it toddled over, squatted, then relieved itself.  Righting its clothes however seemed beyond its strength so I helped and as I did so said, “Well that was very smart.  I had no idea you were so old that you could do for yourself in such a way.” 

The child watched me with bird-like curiosity then pointed to its mouth.  “I’m sorry,” I told her.  “All I have is water but you are welcome to that.  We must be careful though as it is still quite a walk until the next seep.”  I poured some water into a mug and held it so that she could sip.  She sighed and then seemed to fall back to sleep.   

It felt odd holding a child.  Not unpleasant but not something I did much of during my training.  It was also something I had not been taught during my first sojourn at Linderhall.  I’ve treated plenty of children for bumps and bruises so I was not completely without some expertise in how to manage them but rarely had I dealt with one so small and obviously in need of care.  

Knowing the child could not walk the distance we needed to go and knowing that I could not carrying her in my arms the entire way I began to ponder the problem only to doze off.  

“Roo!  Wake up!” 

I startled so badly that I woke the child and almost set her to crying again.  But I swear, it was just like Nat had shouted in my ear.  It took me a moment to convince myself he was nowhere near, playing some prank.  But it was also enough to remind me of the carrier he and my brothers had used for me.  I could not build such a contraption but I could fashion a sling that would ease her burden upon my person and allow me to keep us both covered by the leather cloak. 

I used the stars to get my bearing then picked out a visible point on the horizon to head towards.  It is night time but the sky is cloudless and the stars and moon afford me some light to travel by. Additionally, the land is ominously flat between me and the sharp bits of rock that looked like teeth.  The flatness will make it easier to travel but undoubtedly means that my goal is further away than it looks. 

Slowly and carefully I exited my hiding spot halfway expecting to see something that would prevent me from getting away.  There was nothing and yet I still felt watched.  Gathering the child I fitted her into the sling, settled the cloak to keep out the night, and began to walk.   

No matter my intent I tired in less than an hour but I knew now that the journey was begun it could not be stopped.  I occasionally stumble and the child grabs me for security.  It is an odd feeling.  You would think it would be burdensome but in reality it … well not to put too fine a point upon it, it makes me feel important.  There.  Obviously I enjoy feeling more powerful and in control than I am.  I know there is a lesson there but for now I will simply take what I can get.  It likely has something to do with pride and arrogance.  I will do my best to exercise caution in those areas as I do not wish to fall from my own foolishness. 

I also need to think about practicalities … namely hunting.  I cannot continue without sustenance and neither can this child.  I’ve seen some odd tracks in my travels and I believe they belong to lizards and snakes leaving trails in the sand.  I have eaten both though only domesticated breads raised for such purposes.  My husband considered dessert snake in particular a delicacy.  I think perhaps he more enjoyed shocking certain guests with the presentation at important suppers than the actual taste.  I would say it tastes like chicken as most tried to say but in reality it simply tastes like snake, a flavor all its own. 

I cannot stop this feeling of being watched.  I don’t sense in hostility but I will exercise due caution.  I’ve strained my ears trying to hear anything that shouldn’t be on the wind but nothing stands out.  I am a creature of the forest but the skills I learned from my brothers should at least help me some out here in this wilderness.  I’ve tried to leave as little evidence of my passing as possible.  There is no sense in thinking that any of my people would be hunting me in this place.  So what could hunt me would stand a good chance at being unfriendly. 

I’m starting to babble.  I dislike it when other people do it, I like it even less when I do it, even if I’m only doing it in my head.  I wish the child would talk but she is silent.  Even when she cried she didn’t make as much noise as she could have.  I put that down to being weak but what if it isn’t?  Perhaps she has a medical condition that precludes speech.  I must look her over more carefully when I find someplace for us to stop for the day. 

A few more hours … two, three at most.  Surely that is all I will have to walk.  I can hold on that long.  I hope the child can.

Chapter Eighty-Nine

I followed the sound.  The fog and canyon like landscape made it difficult to locate where it came from.  Would not have found it if I hadn’t tripped over what I thought at first was a bundle of sticks, breaking the tip of my staff in the process.  However not even the fog could hide it when I fell and came face to face with a small, obviously malnourished child. 

I looked around in panic for the child’s parents and that’s the moment that a breeze thinned the fog out enough for me to see what I had tripped over.  Not sticks.  I drew my feet away and then looked and saw far more than I wanted to see.  Nightmare images I shall never be free of.  A killing field.  Everywhere I looked the moon revealed more horror; some old, some new, all of pathetically small bodies and small rag swaddled bundles with obscene bits and pieces sticking out. 

The moon also revealed it.  First animal I had seen in days and it turns out to be a mangy carrion eater that looked alarmingly like a bastardized cross between a mangy cur and a corrupted porcine.  The legs were longer than any feral pig I had seen in the forest.  Its body matched that of a slightly rotund hound as did the fur covering its body and long, oddly bent tail.  But the beady red eyes, face and tusks were surly porcine though of what breed I do not know … possibly a devil breed as I’d never seen the like and hope to never again. 

It viewed me as a threat and charged before I even had time to be afraid.  I scrambled to my feet and held my staff as my brothers and Nat had taught me and when the beast hit, the broken end disappeared into its eye cavity and continued until the animal finally accepted it had accidentally suicided on my weak defense.  I fell to the ground and saw that it had pushed me the length of a man’s height before finally allowing whatever angels tend to animals to carry it off.  Given the beast it was probably carted off by demons rather than angels. 

I pried the staff from the carcass – not an easy job – and then crawled back over to the child who stared at the beast in such terror it could no longer cry.  I quickly checked the child over and then wrapping it in the cloak I wore stumbled out of that boneyard looking for my original camp to try and light the fire and to give some warmth to the child who felt cold near to death. 

No matter how I tried my weakness made me too clumsy and the fire would not light.  So instead I crawled into the small alcove I had found and tried to rock the poor thing so its terror would subside.  It took an amazingly short time before I felt the child relax in my arms and drift into a slumber I prayed was dreamless.  The child was even weaker than I.  Doing my best to inspect it … her as I found out … without frightening the child proved easy after it fell unconscious. 

Someone had cared for the child.  Washed and dressed it in clean though primitive clothing.  I began to wonder if I had spoiled someone’s sacrifice.  I’d read reports of such places as I’d just viewed.  I had thought them historical anomalies brought about by religious mania or madness.  It was shocking to learn that such places were still in use in our modern era.  The Destruction and Chaos were far behind us.  But on further consideration I realized if the Priests of the Damned could still practice their religion with such fervor it was not beyond the realm of consideration that someone would be sacrificing children to that dark god. 

I thought to be away so that whoever left the child would not discover it had escaped the fate meant for it but the sun had crested the horizon and the day was already heating up.  I just hope that my skin of water will last long enough that I can get us to the next seep … and that I don’t run into trouble along the way. 

By all the saints and martyrs combined, what am I going to do with this child?!

Chapter Eighty-Eight

I had no choice but to stop my travel.  I was too tired to move about safely.  It was difficult to see drop offs in the night and I had no wish to tumble head long down into a canyon and become fodder for some carrion eater. 

Around me a chill mist was growing, the perfect night for children to scare themselves senseless with tales of things best left untold.  I had managed to find a few, small twigs and thin branches on my hours of hiking and decided to light a fire and drive off my depression.  If I could. 

I looked up and discerned something moving about in the dank fog the mist had become.  It melded itself into the shape of an oddly dressed man.  I could not shake the feeling that I had seen him before.  What am I saying?!  A man?! 

I called, “Who are you?  Where did you come from?” 

A deep and scratchy voice with an odd catch to it responded, “Do you not know me Leeda?  I am your ancestor, Solomon Harper.” 

My shoulders slumped.  I’d been expecting something of this sort but still managed to be disappointed when it happened.  Then I looked up to the Heavens and stomped my foot in anger.  “Was it absolutely necessary, on top of all the rest you’ve taken from me that you take my mind too?  Must I suffer that indignity as well?!” 

The man snapped, “Blasphemy!” 

Not being in the mood for a lecture I snapped back, “Don’t speak to me of blasphemy you malfunction of neurology!  What great wrong have I committed that I should be subject to this?!” 

Shaking his head causing his odd helmet and other unnameable pieces of his costume to rattle he sighed mournfully, “You do not understand my child.” 

I did not relish condescension, not even from a phantasm.  I sneered, “I am not your child.  Neither am I Abraham sent out to found a new land and people.  I am not Moses to lead a people.  I am not a Jonah who has disobeyed God’s direction as I’ve gone everywhere I’ve been commanded to go no matter how uncomfortable.  I am neither Jacob nor Gideon to be a general.  I am not Esther to protect a people … and by all that’s holy my husband The Linder was not a Xerxes.  Acquit me of being a Saint of any type!  I’m far from built for it, body or temperament.  If all I want to know is why this is happening to me I will damn well ask!” 

I could just see the man’s nostrils flare in distaste.  “Such language a lady does not use, not even in anger.  Now stop throwing a tantrum and listen.  Logic dictates if you are not getting an answer that you should explore whether you are asking the right question.” 

I stopped as if I’d been slapped.  “Ex … excuse … What?” 

He looked at me from beneath the visor of his helmet and asked, “What was your question again?” 

“I asked why is this happening to me.” 

“Hmmmmm.  Rearrange your point of view.  Ask is what is happening really about you.”  He turned and started walking away. 

“Wait!” I called.  “What do you mean?” 

He turned back briefly and with a very serious look answered, “I’m just a malfunction of your neurology remember?  Any meaning I give you to ponder was already within you.  But if I were you, and it appears that I am, I would change my question.”  He stared off into the mist and added, “And use a modicum of respect while you are asking your questions.  Emotions are a natural product of the human spirit but allowed to have injudicious reign they tend to obscure what should be readily apparent when logic is applied.” 

I watched the figment that claimed to be Solomon Harper disappear into the mist and thought, “No wonder people thought you to be a senile old fusspot.  Speaking in riddles and giving people the headache.”   

Malfunction, figment, spirit, or something else entirely it did not matter … he gave me pause and something new to ponder.  I went back to trying to start the small fire I had laid but for some reason I just couldn’t strike well enough to cause a spark.  And now that I finally had the wood it was extremely annoying to be unable to complete the task.  I stopped to rest and that’s when I heard it, a faint cry on the night air.  It sounded like a small, wounded animal in deep distress.

Chapter Eighty-Seven

My faith is quite literally being exercised into exhaustion.  From one day to the next I seem to have wild swings.  I’ll climb to the highest peaks of belief and then fall to the lowest bowels of depression.  I jump from contentment with my lot to anger at every step I have to make with the only pause to stop and shed dry tears of frustration.  This day I can see God in everything.  The next I wonder if I am not suffering from some malady that is making me delusional.  I’ve always judged my faith deep and constant but I begin to worry that my mind is slipping.  I’ve seen things that were not there and not seen things that I knew were.  

I have no wish to die crazy, what would that say of my faith?  I can hear it now.  “Her emotions carried her too far beyond the commonsense God gifted her with and she fell off a cliff.”  Bah! Perhaps I am a little mad.  The sand, the wind, the loneliness, the barely plodding pace that I am keeping … they are rubbing my mind raw in places. 

I am not like those in the ancient texts that can hear God’s voice like He is in the same room.  Were I to hear some disembodied voice tell me that I must walk around a security wall barefoot with only a marching band to accompany me while those inside the gate howled and snickered I am fairly certain I would commit myself into the hands of the Sisters so that they could cart me off to a convent … a nice quiet convent with cushioned walls so I could be no danger to myself or others.  Nor do I think I could resign myself to repose in the belly of a great water beast; and should such a monster puke me up onto the shore I would likely run screaming away from any voice rather than to it.  And as much courage as I try and have I know that if someone were to tell me to stand firm and let myself be walked into an oven to be roasted for the crime of faith I would instead fight tooth and nail.  I would not make a calm and accepting martyr, I am much too ornery.  Even Nat has said so. 

If Nat could hear my thoughts right now I think he’d likely tap me smartly and give me a lecture on blasphemy.  In fact I know he would.  But Nat is not here.  No one is here.  I have not heard another human voice … for … for?  I do not know how long I’ve been traveling.  I have lost count of the days.  Long enough that all I have left is the water that I collect at each seep that I find. Long enough that all this walking has caused me some embarrassment as I’ve been forced to remove my under girdle because I could not tighten it enough to make it stop slipping around and chaffing my skin where it has become too large. 

My body may have been strong at the start of this journey but it is getting weak right along with my mind.  I do not want to seek this travel.  There have been a couple of times that I’ve considered just giving up.  But my purpose remains as it was … duty, honor, status … and yes, faith.  I have to believe that if I just continue trying that in the end my walk will be rewarded in some way.  Although, after long consideration I am fairly certain any reward will be in some other form than what I would first expect … or perhaps want.  Things are starting to get so confused. 

By all the saints I am but sixteen, why do I have to bear these terrors?  Haven’t I been through enough?  Yet I know there are others that have been through more and worse.  With every loss I experienced there has been at least some small gain.  What of those other Linder wives and children that I never met?  At least I have my life such as it is.  At least I’ve never lost a child or had one born with corruption.  At least I had a chance at living after becoming a Linder when so many others became a Linder only to die because of it. 

In truth same for being a Harper.  I’ve puzzled and puzzled why.  Why would someone focus on these two families?  The Harpers were indeed important, the Linders still are, but so were many other families in their time and place … Cormans, Lathrops, Kiplings, McConnells, and more than it is worth my time to remember.  Why would the tortured curse of one man drive so many to commit the atrocities all for some half-baked idea that a Harper and Linder progeny would destroy their world?  Insanity. 

And control.  Perhaps it is that factor more than any fact that has perpetrated this nightmare farce.  And now that there is only me they are worried that their power has come to an end.  I have no idea what that signifies except a lack of imagination.  There are certainly things in this world more frightening than a female that trips every few steps because she’s lost so much weight she can’t keep her girdle up.  And yes I realize that is crude but by all the martyrs it is the truth. 

Sheriff?  Are you thinking of me?  I would give much for you to be underfoot right now.  I’d give even more just to know the angels haven’t carried you off.  Part of me wishes with all my might that I had been bolder and spoke of these feelings I have for you directly.  I hope you did not think me a coquette out to tease you. It isn’t true.  Before you the thought of anyone else … even now with nothing in my stomach I am close to vomiting at the very thought.  

Another part of me is relieved I did not face the temptation because of the mess I would have likely made of the situation.  Who am I to flirt and lure?  I never did understand the silliness of that type of action.  Not even when I was young and innocent and in childish infatuation with Rom would I have dared to take such steps.  I would have laughed myself into oblivion or shame. 

And then there is the last part that is sad because it appears I will never know the outcome either way.  I plod along, slower every night that passes.  My goal further and further out of my reach.  What am I doing out here?  Why is God doing this to me?  What have I ever done to warrant this fire that has descended upon me?  I am so tired.  I must stop earlier than I planned.  I won’t make it to the next seep this night.  Another goal I’ve failed to reach.

Chapter Eighty-Six

It was when I decided to bury the old man to the best of my ability and was looking around for rocks to form his sepulcher that I saw why the old man had come to this particular location.  It was so small that it made no sound discernible to my ears.  I looked at it and almost refused to believe what I was seeing, then I fell upon it like a ravenous beast.

A seep.  So small it barely survived once it exited the rocks but one so crystal pure that it almost hurt to look at it.  And cold, so cold that I know the water had to come from deep within the ground.  It took an hour to fill my empty water skin and I was so thirsty at that point that I drank nearly the whole of it and then had to put the skin to refilling once again.

Water.  A thing without which life is impossible.  The food in my pack contained some moisture, especially the syrupy, fruited cakes that I had in a tin, but it was not enough and had I had to go one more day I would have likely failed and simply shriveled up like the corpse of the old man.

The confluence of happenstance in my story is something I would question should I read it in a book but I cannot deny that to this point this is what has occurred to me.  It boggles the mind how such things are possible.  All my life I have been a creature of seeing before I willingly give belief.  Even my faith is something made up of the miracles I've read about and witnessed on this earth, felt in my own life, a perceivable and physical guiding force, and not of the higher flights of fancy I sometimes hear from the Brothers … and Sisters … who rely on emotion to build their faith.  But what has occurred the last few days, it is stripping away something within me.

In the ancient scriptures we are commanded over and over to be strong, to be courageous.  We are warned of obstacles that we cannot go over, around, or through ... on our own.  The battles we face are not necessarily our own but we must still prepare to fight in them, sometimes as soldiers, sometimes as generals, and sometimes as the grief stricken observers on the side lines.  But we are reminded time and again that we never fight the battles alone even when we are alone.

But it is so hard not to feel alone.  I've been stripped of the comfort of others so many times ... and yet ... and yet ...

At every turn there has been someone with me and I speak not just of faith.  My family was taken ... but Nat remained with me and I with him ... and even Rom during that season in my life.  Yes, I will admit that he was there for me in his own fashion and I cannot not remember that fact any longer.  And when those two were stripped from me and I felt so terribly alone that I was willing to fly from this life ... along came was Miz Marta and the others Below Stairs when I had no reasonable expectations of them taking me under the care as they did.  And then back to Nat though I was learning to have to live without him so that he could have a life of his own.  And then came ... then came the Sheriff even when I didn't realize it at first.

And here at this point, even the old Borderlander was here for me.  Or perhaps He allowed him to be here to serve this purpose.  So much interplay of lives that should have little to nothing to do with each other.

It is like a morality told around the fire at night.  A parable to teach a lesson and to edify, something that could not and would not happen in real life because of the extremes it contained, the obvious Hand of the Guiding Light.  And yet … and yet …

In the old Borderlander's small pack was a roll of parchment upon which a map was drawn.  At first it appeared useless but I had nothing better to do than puzzle at it while my water skin filled.  But then I recognized a strangely shaped rock that rose above my current position.  The drawing was crude but too alike to be ignored.  The symbol immediately beneath it … I wondered could it mean water?  And then I saw rudimentary stick notations and how similar they were to the ancient signs I remember from Nat’s papers he would bring home to study.  

I now have a chance.  Despite being in the middle of what appears to be a large desert plain I am no longer an ignorant wanderer circling space and time waiting for my death.  I have a path forward.  And I will start upon it as soon as I have filled the remainder of what little I have found to hold water in my pack.  I will use the leather cloak the old man no longer needs.  I will use the staff he left behind as well as I will have to pass across a great upheaval.   

I pray that the old man found himself forgiven on Judgment Day ... and may my family be there to welcome him to a home and call him family.  There is no such thing as coincidence.  God had to have had a hand in all of this.  I don’t know what the purpose is yet.  Perhaps I will never know but something tells me I will at least get a glimpse of it before the angels carry me off.

The light that will lead me along my path will be God's lesser light ... the one that he hung in the night sky.  I have a feeling that whatever terrorized me before will have no power over me again.  There may be other things out there, probably are, but for now my fear has been vanquished and hope has returned.

Chapter Eighty-Five

How do you sleep next to a corpse and not know it?

For two days I've slept the day away and done my best to travel at night.  But during last night clouds began to obscure the sky and I was forced to stop traveling as I could not even see my own hand in front of my face.  I felt my way to a rocky alcove of some type and tried to fix myself a place to wait out whatever oppressive presence I felt coming.

There was no light and even was less sound.  My hearing was another stolen sense that I normally relied on and I hated the feeling at least as greatly as not being able to see.  Even the scuffing of my boots upon the sand was muffled to nothing as if some great something was bleeding off all signs of life; sucking everything away into an abyss.  There was this feeling that something was getting closer, something I did not wish to be found by.  I began to feel like a small rodent trying to escape a great forest cat.  I sensed it was hunting me but I just couldn't see it; knew that whatever it was it was so horrible that I did not wish to see it.  I've never been this fearful even during the worst I experienced at Ceena and Tonya's hands.

I hid the best I could and said my prayers over and over.  I wrapped them around me like a blanket, like a shield, like security walls, building layer upon layer.  It was the only thing that came close to calming me, preventing me from run shrieking into the night.  Amazingly the pressure built and built and built and then, right as dawn broke and the sun came out, it simply vanished.  It was there one moment and gone the next, like a physical presence that ceased to exist and all collapsed around the vacuum it left behind from its disappearance.  I was nearly sick with relief and must have actually fainted because the next thing I knew I was awakening with the fierce noon day sun in my face.

I have no idea what it was, do not know if I wish to know with certainty; my imagination is quite vivid enough.  I do know that whatever it was it was real, but I cannot say with absolute certainty that is was corporeal.  And yes I am willing to admit that perhaps I was not hiding from flesh but from spirit.  Amongst these rocks anything seems possible.  But my prayers ... or should I say Who I prayed to ... proved more than a match for whatever the nightmare was.  I will leave it as it is and keep it to myself.  There is no need to make others believe that I suffered some delusion or other out here in this desolate landscape.

It was upon waking that I spotted a curious sight which took a moment to connect into any kind of logic.  But once my brain puzzled out a solution it only left a greater puzzle behind.

What I at first took to be a pile of rocks was in truth leather fashioned into a ... well a costume.  I assume such a costume is meant for both protection from the environment and camouflage as it blended in too well with the surroundings not to be an intentional choice.  Upon closer inspection I saw a small pack and walking staff sitting to the side.

"Ex ... excuse me?"

I needn't have bothered.  The person within the leathers existed on this plane no longer.  Strangely, though it was obvious his leave-taking was recent there was no odor of decay.  It was like he had simply mummified in place.  Or perhaps, upon deeper reflection, he was already so far gone in body that when death did come and his spirit escaped his twisted body, there was nothing but a dried out husk remaining.

The death depresses me yet gives me a peculiar hope as well.  The old Borderlander.  Ceena and Tonya's grandfather.  Poor man.  How he came to this place I do not know.  He had alluded to a journey but had not explained himself as it was a private matter.  Neither do I know how he died once he did reach this place.  The only marks upon his body were those inflicted by his corruption.  I do know that his physical leave taking must have been a wondrous event for him if the look upon his face was any indication.  His face sought the light and I've rarely seen such a smile.  Even in the repose of death and shrunken features, it radiated a nearly manic joy, as if whatever he saw was so wondrous, so pleasing, that he could not believe his good fortune to even have a glimpse of it.

Whatever his disposition, where ever his soul resides, I hope he has found peace.  Or should I say Peace.  I think that is what he sought even if he did not call it such.  He seemed at odds with his own being, tormented by a past that I cannot even imagine having survived.  And forgiveness.  I hope he found forgiveness.  For if such as he did, then there is hope for me as well.

Chapter Eighty-Four

Why could I not keep my mouth shut?! Blasted kidnappers. Blasted horse. And blasted me for not waking when the animal pulled away and wandered off. It must have happened well before I awoke as the beast is nowhere in sight and I've looked. I even made a fool of myself scrambling up on a pile of boulders – tearing a both sleeve and skirt in the process – to try and see over or around this god-forsaken landscape.

Although Nat would likely berate me for saying such a thing. There is not a place on this earth that is truly God-forsaken, not as I mean it. I am merely projecting my own feelings of being forsaken and even that is just me feeling sorry for myself. Rather hard not to under these circumstances however. Still, I must stop such nonsense because it serves no purpose except as a hilarity for Himself Down Below.

Let me be honest with myself. I cannot sit around waiting for someone to rescue me. I have no idea where I am so it is highly unlikely that anyone else does either ... even the Borderlanders that kidnapped me in the first place. I cannot count on anyone being able to gather enough forces to hunt for me as I don't know what the outcome to the battle was at Linderhall ... or frankly that there even was a battle as I did not witness one by sight or sound. More fool me for not fighting Ronald Nealy more. I would blame being drugged but that’s not excuse enough to have taken leave of my senses to that extent.

And damn the old Borderlander for being right about there being those I thought were friends that were in fact enemies. How many more will I run into? Was not Tosha enough? And how many have paid because I did not make the connections to truth earlier? What of the fate of poor Tosha and the rest of the family? Yes, I even include The Linder in that though it pains me to do so.

I hesitate to even wonder at the Sheriff’s fate. Oh I do not worry that he is an enemy, he risked too much that tore his own heart and peace asunder to take my part, but I worry that ... No, I will not think the man paid the ultimate price for taking my part. I will NOT allow myself to think it. But ... but the blood. On the other hand Ronald Nealy was truly worried about something. If I had walked his shoes I would have been worried about the Sheriff. If my reckoning is right while he does not make enemies easily, those he does should step lightly for the rest of their time on earth.

Though in truth Ronald Nealy’s choice of fate … no, I will not go over that horror again. Suffice it for me to admit that sometimes the road we choose to travel takes us places we never wanted to go and disillusionment can be horrific. Even if by some miracle the man is found and survives his catastrophic wounds I believe that his mind will be as excised as his flesh and that Ronald Nealy for all intents and purposes has ceased to exist. God forgive me but perhaps it is better for all if the angels take him if they haven't already.

And Nat. He lay so quietly. I was unable to wake him. Did the angels take him? I did not tell him good bye. Will he, like the rest of my true family, simply be gone from me with no warning? Must I live with yet one more death of such a dear one? No. I cannot believe that he will have to pay for my existence. Nor the Elders. Please God be merciful and watch over them all even if I am not to see them again in this life. Give me that Comfort at least.

I see no alternative, I must at least try to get to a better situation. I have found no water here and I must admit to being parched. Perhaps it is that that affects me so that I cannot seem to shake this depression. Wood is nonexistent as well even if I did wish to expend the energy to hunt the small animals that I have caught glimpses of. Perhaps they are like the forest animals during the cold months, they exist on the grasses and roots of small plants trying to make a go of it in the craggy recesses for I see no other way for them to survive.

I am also not certain even if I did hunt them and had a way to cook them that it is the healthiest activity to engage in. I have no way to ascertain if they are corrupted or have been feeding on corrupted vegetation. It is always a worry of course but certainly less so in domesticated stocks or animals of the deep forest further in Tentuckia. For all I know I could be in the corrupted depths of the Borderlands. Even if I do find my way out what future is there for me if it be so?

But as gray and lifeless as my hope feels I cannot give up. If not for myself I cannot leave others to wonder at my fate if there is a chance to make it known. And I have a responsibility to try and warn the Linders – if they still hold their status – that a corruption is deep within even their closest confidants and that the choices they now face are going to be as hard as those that came during and immediately after the Destruction itself.

So I must rescue myself though the task seem monumental. No wild sources of food and no water means I must travel by other than daylight, at least until I reach a better environment. Trying to travel in the heat of the day with no water is surely a death sentence. I shall rest here for a few hours more but as soon as the sun begins to set I will take up my pack and head east. I am not sure what I will find on my way but with God's blessing it will be better than what I have before me now.

Chapter Eighty-Three

It felt like the horse ran for hours but in truth the beast was tired and could not have run that long, not with both me and my pack upon his back; it was just my perception fueled by fear and my inability to make the horse obey my commands.  He did run out of the forest we had been traveling through and into a much rockier landscape.  Of course I did not know how far out of the forest the beastie had run as by the time I could settle the roan down to stop its flight it was so dark I could barely see.  I am amazed neither the horse nor I had come to trouble. 

I slid off the horse’s back to land solidly on the ground by its hooves.  I was lucky the nervy animal was too tired to rear or even move or I might have been stomped.  I stumbled through the dark until I found an area where we were out of the sand-filled wind that howled about us.  I looped the horse’s reins around a rock to picket it near a little grass then pulled my pack off, which seemed to cause it to shudder in relief.  I found a knife in an outside pocket and cut my bonds to free myself further and then removed the saddle and tended to the animal while I took stock. 

The fresh grass would work for the horse – the beastie finally settled to munching after I’d rubbed it down and tended to the few small scratches it had given itself – and I had my small stash of food in the tins, but water was an immediate problem I saw no solution for.  Since it was dark I would have to do without and hope the dew that was falling would be enough for the horse until daylight would allow me to determine a good course of action. 

My next concern is safety.  The terrain is like nothing I am familiar with.  It is possible that I will have to try and return to the forest.  The stars above me tell me that I am well outside any territory that I have ever traveled in, even when I traveled by rail with my sister wives to Paduck.  The stars tell me that we are east of there but I don’t see how as I do not remember crossing a great river unless I was unconscious far longer than I thought.  Certainly I am out of Tentukia’s territory which makes me wonder how close I could be to a corrupted area.  God be with me if I am.  Even if I were to head straight east to get back into Tentuckia I have no idea how to cross the great river or if I would run into the very corruption that I need most to avoid. 

The rocks around me are sedimentary and are of a type that I’ve seen in pictures.  The landscape reminds me of areas where the rocks were thrown up from the ground by all the upheaval that occurred during the Destruction and Chaos.  They almost look like sand castles that some giant child built and then forgot about; or perhaps mud squished up through the toes of some great and terrible beast that dried after none dared follow in its tracks. 

This is ridiculous, my imagination is driving off my good sense right when I need it most.  There are no monsters, and if there are beasts nearby I’m sure my skills are adequate to hold them at bay until day time.   

Although upon closer inspection perhaps I should be less arrogant about my skills.  Between the wind and the lack of wood a fire has been impossible to build.  The warmth radiating from the rocks is nearly gone and the night is becoming quite chill.  Damn them anyway regardless of my temporary compassion.  Ronald Nealy may have thrown my pack on a horse – probably to make it look like I ran off on my own – but I’ve no coat or cloak to keep the weather off me.  I would take the saddle blanket but the horse needs it.  I do not wish for the animal to catch ill after the wild ride and all the accompanying lather.  The horse stands between me and disaster; without its four hooves I will be left with only my two feet and the miles to return to where I belong will be that much harder to traverse.