NEW TEACHER IN THE SCHOOL OF LIFE
Something was happening inside my heart but having no experience with the complexities of love and the way of a man with a maiden, I had no way to judge it or compare it or know what indeed was happening. I just felt alive and fearful and awestruck. Feverish, cautious and awakened all at the same time. Perhaps I was infatuated. Or just lonely and tired of being on my own without a teacher. Maybe the call of my heart had been heard and a new teacher had been provided, I was grateful, uncertain of what tomorrow would bring, but grateful.
The man gathered fresh garments and cautioned me to stay inside the camp while he bathed but I was not thrilled with the idea. "What about the thing in the forest?" I asked, casting my eyes across the way. "What if it finds me?" I did not want to be alone but didn't know how to make that clear without appearing a coward. These strange emotions were entirely alien to me and,my usually level head and stability had abandoned me against my will, I kept wanting to bite my tongue but it was too powerful for me and spoke of it's own accord. His blue eyes softening, he said while leading the horses to their arbor, "Then come with me. You can pick berries and fruit while I attend to my hygiene. I feel....a quickening here. A threat in the wind. Perhaps, it would be best not to leave you alone." How relieved I was! I shrugged as though indifferent and went to fetch the pails but as I did, I, too, felt a change in the atmosphere. Almost like the icy wind that had assailed me in the forest but icy in another way. The oasis seemed a far better place to be and I hurried to catch up with my companion.
As we walked, he told me that he had retrieved all of the things that I had left behind at Starshine's burial place, the things I had parted with so reluctantly but had no choice but to leave them. The packs and blankets, skins, cooking utensils and extra clothing and boots. The books and trinkets that I had collected along the way of my journey. The most important, I had taken with me and carried on my back, like the music box that my nurse had given me when she'd left the Royal court when I was nine. No man nor beast could part me from that treasure! It played my favorite song from childhood and one I sang to myself when I felt most alone: Dancing In My Heart. Cy-nithia had taught me the words when I was two and sang it with me on special occasions. And when she'd gone, she'd left me her precious music box to keep me company. "Why did th.....you not come along before I buried my horse?" I asked, "In fact, where were you at the time I climbed the tree and he was attacked?" The man looked away from me and kept silent for a long time. "I am sorry that I was not there but I was in another tree on another hilltop at the time. I saw you from a distance but there was a Gorge between us. I wish it had not been so but it was as it was meant to be." I didn't know how to understand that statement so I let it hang between us and the strangeness of it made me feel far from him and lonely.
Suddenly, he grabbed my hand and shouted, "Let's run!" And we ran through the brown fields to the beautiful green oasis before us. It felt good to run and my heart lightened and I laughed like a child, my long curls flying behind me and whipping into his face. Tying the tail ends of the white shirt around my waist, I challenged the man to a race and sprinted ahead of him like the wind. No one could outrace me. No one ever could. I was as fast as lightning. It had been a long time since I'd raced or run in total freedom but I had never lost a race and I didn't intend to now. Looking back at the shocked expression on his face as he fell far behind, I waved and made for the willow trees. The white bird was not there which felt odd but I collapsed into the soft carpet of grass and caught my breath and waited for the loser to appear.
Breathing loudly, my handsome friend ran at last into view and sought me anxiously then made his way toward me and fell with a thud at my side. Giggling, I waited for him to regain his ability to speak and enjoyed my victory. "H hh.... how...did..you...do...that?" he gasped, lying on his stomach and resting his head on his hands. "I have...never...seen anyone run that fast...in..my life! Thou art a gazelle!" That beast I knew and I felt honored at the comparison but I just laughed and lay there looking up at him between my fingers. "I can do many things." I informed him confidently and smugly. "I am no mere maiden." His eyes raking over every inch of my face, he declared softly, "That is a fact, Little Flower, that is a stone cold fact." We lay staring at one another in the silence until we heard the flutter of wings and the white bird made her appearance and set quietly down in the top of a tree to scrutinize us. I don't know how I knew the bird was a "she" but I did and she was beginning to disturb me. "There's my watchful spy." I whispered and turned over on my stomach and away from her piercing dark eyes. The man made no comment so I approached another subject.
"Why didst thou call me Little Flower just now?" Putting a blade of grass between his teeth, he seemed to be weighing the options of answering me or ignoring me until I thumped him on the side of his head and demanded an answer. "Oww!" he complained and rubbed his head, scowling. "Always thou art abusing me! Were you not taught the etiquette of a lady?" Well, I didn't like that but the truth was that I had not been brought up as a proper lady though some had tried. I hadn't wanted to be feminine and sweet but more of a warrior-in-training but I wasn't sure if I should tell him that or just thump him again. My thoughts scattered, I bit my thumbnail and turned back to see if the bird was still there. "Well, you look like a lady," he observed cautiously, "but you travel and fight like a man and you ..act..like..a spoiled...child."
And that did it, I threw myself upon him and pummeled him until he caught my furious fists and held them in a strongman's grip. I began to kick him with my feet and he tried in vain to move his legs away from my boots. "You fight with both ends!" he laughed in my face, breathing heavily. "You are a terrifying beast!" I tried to sink my teeth into his cheek but he cleverly dodged away while protecting himself from fist and feet. Finally, I relented and collapsed upon his chest and he let me fall there, still holding my wrists. I was exhausted and knew that it was improper to lay thus but he would not let me go. "Alright," he breathed out noisily and let me drop to my side and away from him. "We both won. I concede partial defeat."
I lay there in the silence and listened to the brook bubble merrily over it's falls and rocks and into the deep pool before it streamed away down the banks. It was a comforting sound and made me sleepy. Closing my eyes, I had begun to drift away when I felt a strong arm go around my waist and the man snuggled close to me and said very softly into my ear, "I called you Little Flower because the first time I saw you up close, you were lying on a blanket not far from here, sound asleep, with your face on the grass and a yellow flower crushed into your cheek. It was an enchanting sight." And when I started and made to move and speak, he shushed me and held me even tighter, saying "And when you turned away, the imprint of the flower was still there like a tattoo and even later on when you violently attacked me with your deadly sword, the little flower's brand still claimed you. And that's....why I called you Little Flower ....and will continue to do so." I was deeply touched and didn't know how to respond. However, the thought that he had been so near to me while I slept and having had no clue of it filled me with anxiety. What kind of warrior could make herself that vulnerable? I was ashamed and hid my face in my arms.
"You were exhausted beyond endurance and overcome with grief." he murmured, smoothing back my hair and kissing the cheek where the flower's imprint had been. "Be not ashamed. I kept watch over you here during the night. This place...is dangerous. You did not know nor are you now aware of how much danger you, we, are in. Shh! Do not speak! We are being spied upon." And he cuddled against me and pretended to fall asleep as I lay there wildly speculating upon various images and wondering what he was trying to tell me. This place was incredible! A little paradise in the middle of an ugly, desolate land. Everything one could ever ask for on a long journey. I even had it in my mind to stay here for a while, barring rainstorms and creatures from the forest. The white bird was odd, that was certain, but I could run her off with my bow and arrow. I didn't see any danger dwelling here. Still, there was something that gave me shivers, something un-remembered but did an unseen Unknown truly mean to harm me? Every foe and enemy I had encountered until now had been very much human and very visible. Except for the dark wolf. And the panther. But I had defeated them with a warrior's skill and had enjoyed the game. What enemy lay in wait for me in this place?
So far, the only other traveler I had met recently, besides the viper and the white bird, had been this man lying beside me in the afternoon shade. His was the only presence, the only footstep, (except in the dark forest) and yet, he had even been there, close by. A paranoia began to overtake me and I tried to pull away from him and in so doing, I grabbed his left wrist, that had been, up until now, encased in a black and silver cuff. He must have removed it in his preparations to bathe. From the look of things, he must have worn it for a long, long time because the outline of the bracelet stood out now in stark relief against his tanned arm and hand. It was clearly visible and struck me as amusing. I felt his eyes open then and he tensed and tried to pull his hand out of my grasp but I held on and in the grappling, flung his hand down on the ground, looked, and cried out in surprise. "It cannot be!"
We fought briefly and then he stopped and let me hold the arm outstretched and unrestrained. I bent low and inspected the inside of the wrist closely. There was no mistake. "How can this be?" I asked and met his darkening eyes with mine. "This is the symbol of the Way. Of the Warrior. Just like mine." And I turned my left wrist over and put it next to his. The tattoo, the ancient letterings of the Warriors of the Way were identical. All of the air seemed to leave my lungs and I sat back mystified and trembling. A good five minutes passed before he spoke and then, very quietly. Sitting up and pulling his knees up to his chin, he raked a hand through his dark locks and cleared his throat. I didn't want to look at him and yet I had no choice. Seeing the fury in my face, he cleared his throat again and rubbed his mouth. "It is true. I am a Warrior. I have been since I was ten years old. What can I say? Of course, I saw the mark upon you as you slept and I have held my tongue. I had hoped, perhaps, that you would have recognized a fellow Warrior without being informed." He beseeched me with his eyes and the furrow in his forehead deepened with his pleading.
"I have met very few Warriors on my journey," I sighed, finally breaking my silence, "And the last one was three years ago or more. I had begun to think myself the last and only one." "No, little one," he said with a half smile and leaned to pull me toward him in relief. "There are many Warriors out there in the world. Just not so many here in this dark land of Tribul." I stood and stretched my legs and dusted myself off, walking in circles and looking for the white bird who had gone. "Tribul? That is the name of this land? Why have I never heard of it or seen it on my teacher's maps? And why should I believe you?" Standing to his feet, he looked around for the garments he had previously thrown down and gathered them thoughtfully as I headed for the water. I stood on the banks of the stream staring down into it's clear depths looking for something I knew not but searching intently. I saw nothing there but pebbles and water.
"Why is it there are no fish here?" I asked puzzled, turning to him as he joined me. "There should be fish." "Yes, I should think so." He acknowledged and looked up and down the stream as though, he too, searched for something hidden there. Seeing nothing, he began to remove his boots and shirt and suggested to me that I find the pails I had flung down and gather us some fruit for our supper. I was reluctant to leave the water's edge and begrudgingly turned and obeyed his words. I heard a splash as I walked away and for a moment, I was tempted to look back but resolutely went forward and got the pails.
To my right, there was a very large, very beautiful tree with colorful leaves and wonderful fragrances emanating from it and I stood underneath it's branches and realized to my shock that there were several different kinds of fruit hanging there. Apples, pears, peaches and oranges, I recognized, others, I did not. I rubbed my eyes and looked again and laughed out loud. "A miracle tree!" I exclaimed. "How wonderful!" I began to fill one of the pails with two of each kind of fruit. I had a sudden childish urge to climb the marvelous tree and reached for the lowest branch to pull myself up but shrieked and scampered right back down at the sight of a golden viper coiled around a branch hanging full of apples. "Thou!" I screamed in fury. "Thou murderer!" And I looked around in vain for a stone or broken branch with which to smash it's head. "I hate you!" I railed at the creature. "You killed Starshine! And for that, you will pay!"
Making noise enough to wake the dead, I ran looking for a weapon for I had not thought to bring one and was not certain if the man had either. I thought perhaps that there was a dagger in his clothing and ran towards the water but rounding the miracle tree once more, I came face to the face with the man, standing there wearing nothing but a pair of black leather trousers. Alarm was in his eyes and a dagger was indeed in his hand but he stood still and quietly waiting for me to catch my breath."What has happened?" he asked very calmly. "I heard you cry out." I was so amazed to see him standing there beneath the tree that I was speechless and stood there open mouthed, forgetting my enemy above. "How did you get here so quickly?" I gasped and noted the strange and unreadable expression on his face. He barely shrugged and I turned and pointed up to the tree branch and shouted "The viper who killed my horse! The golden viper! He is there! We must kill him! Help me!"
I was almost hysterical in my anger and tried to grab the dagger from his hand. "Give it to me! I will cut him to ribbons and feed him to the white bird!" He wrestled the knife away from me and put his arm around my shoulders to quiet me. "Look," he said, pointing to the branch full of apples, "There is nothing there. How can we kill what we cannot see?" And I didn't understand him and pulled away and tried to climb the tree again. "Then I will kill him with my bare hands!" I shouted and pulled myself upwards, fearless in my fury. Up, I went to the very top, fruit falling to the ground in my mad climbing. But there was no viper to be found! No trace of the snake!
I leaned against the tree, my body trembling violently and the breath coming quick and deep from my nostrils. Again the creature had disappeared from my sight and into thin air! I wanted to scream. And I did. The rage that had overtaken me upon our first meeting enveloped me again but seemed doubled and tripled now and more out of control than anything I had ever felt. My mind seemed to fall into a black abyss and tumble there for endless miles as I sought to understand what had happened, was happening and would happen shortly. I began to hear the man calling to me in a placating voice from the ground. "Come down now, Little Flower." he said, holding his hand up towards me and looking at me tenderly. "It's alright. I promise you. It's alright. You are in no danger. Come down now. Please....." I looked at him for some time, barely recognizing him in my distress and shaking so hard I could barely hold on. Little by little, I began to come back to myself and moved slowly down the branches, keeping my eyes locked onto his and reaching for his hand. And then I fell.