MAID OF MUD
My eyes flew open at first light. The sun was rising in the east and peeking through the trees in yellow wonder. I heard birds flitting hungrily from tree to ground in search of breakfast. The air had a crisp new smell to it as it often does after a downpour. Here and there, a few renegade drops of water fell from boulder and leaf and from the top of our arbor. I heard the horse chomping noisily on grass across the camp and the thud of impatient hooves. I thought then, surely, the last few days had been but a bad dream, nothing more than that. My father would not have let Starshine be taken from me after all of his promises. He would not let me stumble alone in unknown territory without my friend and companion. I ran my hands through my jumbled hair and attempted to braid it into a huge messy braid and threw it back over my shoulder. "My eye!" a voice exclaimed and the man threw back his coverlets and pretended to rub his injured eye in mock protest. "Thou hast blinded me, surely!" Hiding my face in my hands, I let reality rush over me and sighed to let go of hopeful wishes that were not to be. No dream, this. No Starshine waiting behind the boulder. He was gone forever. My father had told me an untruth. A surge of pain and anger flashed in my eyes and I looked at the man coldly.
"And what is this?" he said looking around him and checking his feet and hands and neck. "I have lived through the night unscathed? I am not killed in my sleep by the rescued maiden with hands of iron and sword of steel?" On and on he went, checking parts of his unharmed body and gathering up his sword and dagger and bow in amazement. I drew my knees up under my chin and watched his little performance. When he had run out of things to check, I said in an irritated voice, "If thou wert a jester in the court, I should have thee tarred and feathered and removed from the court! Thy jests lack humor, sir, and thy pantomimes, imagination! In short, keep thyself to thy cooking pots and leave the jesting to the......jesters." My chastisement trailed off into uninspired mumbling as I realized that the man was sitting there watching me in delight, his blue eyes fastened onto my animated hands and mouth and laughing at me in true good humor. "Hummmph!" I said in ending tirade and fell silent in embarrassment.
We sat there for some time on the damp bunk and looked at everything there was to look at except at one another. We looked at the odd trees with their smooth bark, the washed out camp and campfire, the sky filtered through the tree branches, the tall boulders standing there like guardians on the other side of the enclosure. I reached up and caught a drop of rainwater in my hand as it fell and held it there as a ray of sunlight suddenly caught it and made it sparkle like a diamond. A shiver went through me and I knew not why but the man reached out for my wrist and flung the drop away in sudden motion. "Why?" I asked him without speaking and he held me fast and gazed into my eyes with silent questions, probing, it seemed, my very soul.
For long moments we stared, until the noise of a falling tree broke the spell and we jumped away from one another and busied ourselves with straightening our clothing and arranging the skins and blankets neatly in a pile. "I wonder what that was?" I said finally and the man gathered up his weaponry and jumped down from the ledge. He stopped and held out his hand to help me down and I hesitated. "Very well," he said, "Stay here and I will see to the commotion. Then I will see to my cooking pots and work on my humor." His tone was gruff and off putting and I did not know how to respond.
So I sat back and watched him walk away, pulling up his boots and running his tanned hands through his hair. His shoulders were broad and strong and his legs long and athletic. I did not recognize the fabric or skin that he wore but thought to myself how handsome he looked in the black tunic and breeches with brown over-vest and cloak. Like the man in one of the story books my nurse had given to me as a child. A prince, maybe. A dragon slayer. A killer of dark beasts and rescuer of fair....maidens. Or...not. An outlaw, perhaps, a wizard, a renegade of the House of Fallon, the shapeshifters. A mind reader. Yes, he was that, most certainly! I would have to try to be more careful and not allow my mind to run free with thought as I was prone to do. At least I would try. There was something regal about the man, a high born quality about the way he carried himself though I did not understand the way he spoke in his mix of the language of the Kingdom and the casual phrasing of pronouns and verbs. Never had I heard this manner of speaking! It was strange and yet I liked it.
I rolled the word 'you' over my tongue and it felt odd but delicious."You! I shouted and laughed. "What meaneth You?" I jumped down from the bunk just as the man reappeared in my line of vision carrying a load of firewood. "You means Thou!" he shouted back throwing down the sticks and branches and preparing to make a fire. "Art thou always so noisy in the morning?" he asked as I made my way toward him and stopped at the edge of the grass. "Your boots are wrapped in your cloak in the arbor. Unless.....you like walking in mud." "It is no bother." I said haughtily and pulled myself up as tall as I could. Stepping carefully through the muddy mess, I came near to the place where he crouched and crouched there myself, watching him start the fire with some kind of flint contraption that he had produced from the pouch slung over his shoulder.
"The wood is wet," I said needlessly, "Wet wood will........." "Why don't you go find the cooking pot and utensils while I do this task?" he motioned to me. "The rain has washed everything away that was not secured." I did not see the pot anywhere near and wondered where I would eventually find it. "Findeth it, I will," I said confidently, "but first, tell me why thou didst what thou didst?" (referring to the violent grabbing of my hand and the flinging away of the raindrop.) A growling sound issued forth from his throat and he shook his head and mumbled something I could not hear. He worked furiously with the flint for a moment and then brushed the hair out of his eyes and looked in my direction, if not into my eyes. "Some things are best not remembered." he said and that was all.
"Hmmm." I said back and walked around the perimeter of the camp wondering what that meant. I gathered up a big metal spoon and a few other objects strewn about but did not see the cooking pot. There was a water flask hanging from a small bent tree and a black tunic embroidered with silver leaves and a crest I did not recognize. Strange symbols were woven there interspersed with others somewhat familiar. I determined to examine the garment more closely and hung it back on the tree.
Observing the path that the flood waters had taken, I followed it in my bare feet, enjoying the feel of cool mud between my toes until the bare dirt gave way to wet grass and dripping forest. I thought to myself how dark it seemed in that part of the wood and questioned whether or not I should venture there. Hesitantly, I stood until I heard the man shout "Don't go too far! And don't go into the forest!" And having heard that, quite naturally, I took my first step into the dark stand of gnarled black trees. Who was he to order me about so? No one ordered me but my father and of late, there had been no order and no command, no word at all from that quarter. Not even the still small voice in my heart had spoken to me that I could recall. I had been, at least in my own eyes, abandoned by everyone I had ever loved.
"I am a warrior!" I said to the trees in an angry voice. "I need only...." and hushed myself before speaking words I would later regret. Impulsiveness had always gotten me into trouble and even quicker word and thought had gotten me out but then, why get myself into trouble in the first place? "The mouth is a deep pit." my old teacher had said to me. "Thou openeth it to devour others and falleth into it thyself." I shuddered at the memory and of the punishment that had followed my impulsive words and actions those long years ago and quickly mumbled "Mouth, shut thyself. I command thee." I tripped over the blackened handle of the stew pot and picked it up as I fell against a tree that felt slimy and cold.
Disgusted, I brushed off my shoulder and looked around for the utensil in the shade that seemingly could not be penetrated by sunlight. "What a horrible place!" I said out loud and my voice rang like a bell in the eerie silence. Surely the pot was close to it's handle! Surely, it had not rolled back into....that dark and frightening nightmare of a wood! "I can live without stew." I thought. The man could hunt and eat his kill with bare hands for all I cared. I wasn't about to go further....and then I heard a crunch and then a sound like a whisper and to my right, I saw a movement so swift I could not tell if it were beast or bird. I started and then calmed myself with brave words quoted inside my heart, learned at my teacher's knee and again while walking beside him as he illustrated his words with scenes from nature.
"Fear not." he said to me over and over until I wanted to hit him and make him fear me! "Fear keepeth us alive!" I had shouted at him one day quoting my friend the shepherd boy who had much wisdom in my eyes. "Fear maketh us to run to liveth another day!" "Fear holdeth thy heart captive!" he shouted back. "Fears enslaves and grinds and torments! Fear not, beloved student, but live in freedom!" "How canst I live in freedom when mine every footstep is overshadowed by thy shadow?" I had yelled back to him as I fled up the face of a cliff while he struggled to catch up with me, clutching for the hem of my garment. I had been seven and it was my birthday. All day I had waited for my father's call to come to his chambers but it had not come and I was hurt and angry. My teacher understood but in his unmarried and childless way, he did not know how to make it better.
So he attempted yet another lesson on how to be fearless, telling me that someday I would have need of his teachings and for his trouble, his impudent student had led him around the whole of the village running through briar patches and rose gardens, horse stables and under storage sheds. The children of the village and court watched us excitedly, urging me on, shouting at me new places to hide under and to run through while my teacher had followed my every step, stumbling and fussing and threatening me with dire expectations.
At the end of the day, remembering his face when he had fallen into the pig pen on the far side of the village, (as he attempted to stop me as I walked around the top of the fence like a circus rope walker), had been the best birthday present I had ever had. I laughed beneath my bed covers far into the night and when I fell asleep, I dreamed I was laughing and when I awoke, a smile was still on my lips. "I hope thou art happy." my teacher sniffed as he began the next day's lessons, inspecting his arms and legs for imagined injuries and pulling out his charts and books. "Quite happy." I said honestly and smiled at him in feigned innocence. Impulsively, I went to him and put my little arms about his waist and embraced him.
Looking up into his stern face with brown eyes big as saucers and sparkling with mischief, I had said as sweetly as I could, "Beloved Teacher, thou has done well. When thou wert falling into the pig pen and being eaten by the swine, I was not afraid! I remembered all of thy teachings and lessons that lasted for a thousand years, and I feared not! Wast thou afraid, Teacher?" And holding me close against him without my knowing if I would be rewarded with swat or sweet, my teacher began to shake in helpless laughter which could not be contained and which exploded into gales of mirth that soon encompassed us both and ended in a happy dance around the teaching room. And to this day, was a treasured memory kept within my heart.
"I fear nothing!" I said through clenched teeth, peering into the depths of shades and shadows in that unwelcoming wood and gathering my courage from the spirit of my teacher. A tiny beam of sunlight pierced the gloom unexpectedly and I squinted my eyes to see the cooking pot there yards ahead underneath a particularly evil looking tree. "Oh, no!" I groaned and brandishing the stew spoon as a weapon, I decided to run like lightning, grab the pot and get out of that cruel place in three beats of my heart. One step, two, very slowly, three...though my heart was racing like a wild thing in my breast, I inched towards the beam of sunlight. "Run, thou fool!" I admonished myself but did not heed the warning. "They art only trees! Thou canst outrun them!" The sound of a soft growl reached my ears then and a snap of twig and a gust of icy wind whipped around me and grasped me in it's chill embrace, then let go of me so quickly that I fell to the dirty, mossy ground.
Scurrying to collect what I'd dropped, I whirled around in fright so many times that I lost my sense of direction and for a moment, felt more afraid than I had ever been. "Fear not, child!" I seemed to hear my teacher say in a calm and loving voice and the sound of it quieted me. When I began to breathe almost normally again, I realized that I could hear the sound of loud breathing not my own and chills went down my spine. Keeping my eyes on the pot lying in the ray of sun, I gathered every drop of bravery that I could find within me and holding the spoon like a sword, I ran toward the thing with feet that flew as with wings. Amidst cracking noises and deafening breathing and trees that seemed to grab at me with menace, I grabbed the pot, swirled and ran toward the forest's opening that seemed somehow to be a thousand miles away.
But on I ran, hearing the rush of feet behind me and the chase of something bigger than I and more terrible than my mind could conjure. I ran to the opening of the trees, into the grassy field and sunlight, into the muddy, bare brown dirt and toward the camp and blazing fire that looked more welcome to me than anything I had ever seen. "I have found it!" I shouted, holding up the pot and spoon and rushing excitedly toward the man and as far away from the forest as I could get. "I knew you would." the man said to me, watching me run but not knowing why I hurried so. "And in good timing too as I have found our breakfast and made the fire ready."
I wondered if the creature in the forest would pursue me here and I opened my mouth to tell the man of the danger, when in my haste, I slipped in the mud and went flying across the camp still holding the spoon, and came at last to rest at the boot of the owner of it. I was covered in mud and looked, I was sure, like a wild thing and worse. My hair flew into my eyes and tangled itself around my body like a vine. My long tunic swirled around my waist and my bare legs stuck out like a broken doll's. I thought to cover them but saw that they were already covered in thick mud. I raised one humiliated hand to push the hair out of my eyes and unknowingly wiped a trail of mud from cheek to forehead.
All was quiet for a while as I sat there trying to get my bearings and then the man with sky colored eyes said, with laughter in his voice, "My, my my! Aren't you a lovely thing fresh from the morning, covered in dewdrops and with flowers in your hair? Never have I seen anyone so anxious to return to my company and to my cooking and so enamored of me that thou hast thrown thyself down at my feet!" And I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry so I did neither. I just sat there looking up at him and holding the spoon and thinking about my teacher.
TO BE CONTINUED IN EPISODE EIGHT..............
please read and comment.......Voo