WARRIORS OF THE WAY
I AM NOT FORGOTTEN
"Thank you for breaking my fall." I said stiffly as I pushed my way off the man and stood slowly to my feet. I felt as though I had fallen down a cliff instead of out of a tree. My right arm was on fire and my neck hurt so badly I wanted to cry but I would not allow myself to do it. "My pleasure." he murmured, getting to his feet and looking me up and down. "Are you alright?" he asked, his dark hair a tousled veil over his face. "I'm fine." I insisted with my teeth clinched. "My neck is broken and my right shoulder is out of place but I'm fine." Grabbing my right arm without warning, he pulled on it sharply and I felt my shoulder snap back into place but the pain was excruciating. I screamed but immediately felt better. "Warn me next time, please." I said, groaning and rubbing my shoulder. "If I had, you wouldn't have let me." he said in a knowing tone. "Now, stand still." He went behind me, threw my hair to one side and began to massage my neck. I didn't know why, but I didn't want him to touch me now. An unreasonable terror of him had flooded my being but the pain was awful and the kneading of his strong fingers began to soothe me. He had the hands of a physician! After a time, the tension began to flow out of me and I lost my balance and fell back against his bare chest. "Better now, little one?" he said, his lips very near my right ear. "Shall I continue?" "Please!" I pleaded involuntarily."The gift of healing is in thy hands."
He rubbed my neck and shoulders until I forgot the pain and even the fall. His touch was paradise. I began to feel strange feelings I had never felt before. My stomach burned, my skin burned, my lips burned. And I felt him sharing my feelings. Pulling me closer to him as we stood beneath the tree, he gently turned me toward him, his hands upon my shoulders. I felt like wax melted in a candle stick. He buried his face in my hair, murmuring words I did not recognize, kissed my neck, my throat, his lips burning me on their way to my mouth. I believed I would faint from the anticipation.
But just as his lips had lightly touched mine, a strange voice spoke from out of nowhere and we jumped apart, the man pushing me behind him and brandishing his dagger. "Who's there?" he shouted, sounding as fearful as I felt. We looked everywhere and saw no one. "Over here, naughty children." the odd voice called and we heard the fluttering of wings and began to walk towards the sound. Puzzled, I could see no man there, no source of human voice and I kept my place close to the man's back as we made our way to a small boulder close to the berry bushes. All was silent for a time and then I spied what appeared to be a hawk perched upon the boulder. He was larger than the average hawk, a rich golden brown with stripes of red and flecks of gold in his luxurious feathers. We three, stopped and stared at one another and then the man stepped away from me and moved towards the bird, I thought, perhaps to shoo it away, but instead, he burst into laughter and shouted in a welcoming voice, "Shree! My friend! How hast thou been?" I thought he had lost his mind and began to back away from the two of them.
Noticing my retreat, the man turned and beckoned me to him. "No, come! Come! This is an old and dear travelling companion of mine! Come and meet him!" I stopped and stared at him, not understanding but not running away. "Shree, the maiden is afraid of you! Please assure her of your good intentions." The hawk fixed his eyes on me and said in a strange sounding and human-like voice, "Greetings, Vaangelika. I did not mean to frighten you. Forgive me." And he lowered his head as if to bow, which frightened me more. A talking hawk! And he knew my name! I rubbed my hands over my eyes, thinking perhaps I was suffering from hallucinations or a concussion from injuries in the fall. "How can this be?" I asked, finally, and the man took my hand and led me closer to the bird. "This is Shree." he introduced us. "And obviously, you know more about this fine lady than I." he said to the hawk. "Until this moment, I have not been aware that the warrior possessed a name. Hello, Vaangelika." he said softly and bowed to me likewise.
I curtsied to him out of old habit and he laughed and then the bird laughed and I thought then that I truly had gone mad. Turning to the odd creature who had dropped to the ground at our feet now, the man inquired of his health and made reference to things I did not know and did not want to. "I have had a long journey." the hawk informed us. "I have suffered injury, as you can see." And he turned and showed us a bloody spot on his right wing where several feathers had been plucked out. "The tree I was perched in for the night was struck by lightning in a fierce storm and I was dispatched to the ground suddenly and was forced to hobble around in search of shelter. I almost drowned!"
The man and I looked at one another thinking of the storm and the sound of a tree falling early in the morning. Before we could ask, the bird went on. "Then this morning, the very same tree fell upon me in my little den underneath a cropping of rock in the forest! It took many hours to fall and should not have fallen but fall it did and on me! But I survived, and scenting water, I made my way to the brook to nurse my wounds. But alas, that was not the worst of it for as I napped to regain my strength in the sun, I was visited by Maladi, my worst enemy." Feeling faint, I went to the boulder and leaned against it, keeping my eyes on the bird and he, turning to keep his eyes on me. "Who is Maladi?" I asked, curious, but fearful of his answer. The man made eye contact with the bird and shook his head slightly. "It is of no importance," the hawk replied, "I have won the battle....for the moment. She is gone now, nursing her own wounds." I slumped to the ground, feeling nauseous and weak. "I will bring you water." the man said to me, "But first, tell me why you have come, Shree. What message have you? What can I do for you, my friend?" The bird said nothing to the man but drew close to where I sat against the boulder.
"The message is for thee." he said sternly. "From thy father." "My father!" I exclaimed and tried to get to my feet. "What of my father? How dost thee know my father? Tell me, quickly!"
Confusion began to run through my brain. The man put his arm around me, lifted me to my feet and held me. "Tell me!" I insisted sharply, watching the bird fly back to the top of the boulder where he perched at eye level. "Vaangelika, thy father sends his love and his greetings. He has said to me, "Tell her to be strong as she has always been strong. But stronger now than ever before for thy feet now trod in the land of trial and tribulation and thou must beware of traps and snares and dangers from all fronts. See that thou pass the greatest of all tests which lies before thee and be ever mindful of thy mission given in childhood. Hate no one, nay, no thing but fight the battles that come before thine eyes and to thy mind and listen always to the voice within thine heart for it will surely guide thee and protect thee from all harm. But only if thy heart is willing. Be strong, Vaangelika, and vigilant. Believe not even thine own eyes in most cases and none of what thou hearest....except in certain circumstances." This is the message given to me and now my mission is accomplished and now I fly to home. Farewell." And the hawk rose up and began to fly towards the east. "Wait!" I screamed after him, reaching in vain while the man held me. "You must tell me more! I don't understand the message!" Looking over his right wing, the soaring hawk shouted only, "Be strong in thy spirit, little one! Resist evil and do good and trust not thine eyes!" And we watched him fly until he was out of sight and the late afternoon sky was empty, save for one small white cloud.
The man brought me a flask of water and bid me drink. I emptied the whole thing and asked for more. "Come with me," he urged, "I have found a fresh water spring coming out of the ground downstream." Supporting me gently, he led me to the banks of the brook and quickly slipped on his boots and a tunic and black leather vest. Looking momentarily embarrassed, he picked up the black leather cuff and slipped it on his left wrist and tied his wet hair back in a long ponytail. Retrieving his carrying bag and dirty clothes and putting them with the pails of fruit under a tree, he again took my arm and we walked down westward against the flow of the brook. Between the pain and the shock of meeting the hawk and his subsequent message from my father, (not to mention the meeting with the viper), I felt no desire to speak and limped along silently beside him. "Did the hawk's message lighten your heart?" he asked, cheerfully. I didn't want to answer but I shook my head and sighed. "It.....was confusing to me. I've never heard an animal speak before and don't understand how it knows my father or how it found me." The man smiled. "Shree is a very intelligent, very resourceful bird. We have been friends for many years."
At that, I pulled away and looked at him, frowning. "You keep saying that he is your friend but I did not notice him speaking to you or greeting you! He barely acknowledged thy presence! He seemed purely focused on me and giving the message he said was from my father but I don't know if I believe that. After all, even he said to believe not my own eyes or ears." "In most cases." the man reminded me and took my arm again and we walked on. "But you can trust Shree. I promise you. He never lies. And he always delivers his messages. So, fear not and take his words to heart." Then, "See? Your father has not forgotten you."
He reached up into a tree and plucked two juicy peaches down and handing me one, bit into his with gusto. "Mmm!" he said. "Delicious! My favorite fruit!" "Mine, too." I said and took a bite. "I think I could live here forever. This place has everything we.....I..I..need." Blushing, I looked away and wiped my mouth, though there was no residual juice. The man made a small growling sound in his throat and said, throwing his peach pit away, "I don't think so. This place is not what it appears to be. Enjoy it but don't become attached to it." "Why not?" I asked angrily and threw my pit into the stream. "Why do you always have to be so.....mysterious? You drive me mad!" Chuckling, he wiped his lips and face with a white handkerchief out of habit and put his arm around my shoulder just as I spied the spring pouring out of a small hillside to our right. "Ah, but Little Flower, everything in this land is mysterious! Do you not realize that yet? These things do not happen without reason or by coincidence. They are planned, orchestrated even.....and we are here to make choices. True, each choice we make has it's own price to pay and it's own consequences but we are creatures of freewill, are we not? And we learn maturity in the abundance of our choices and experiences."
Listening carefully to his words and seeing the truth in them, I nodded hesitantly and dropped to the ground beside the spring. "Then, can we make the choice to stay here in this place and travel no further? I have traveled for twelve years now and I am....tired." He nodded and began to fill the water flask with the cold water. "I understand fully." he sighed and sat beside me on the grass taking in all the wildflowers and pink roses and peonies that grew around the spring in abundance. The fragrance of the flowers was intoxicating and we sat there breathing in their perfume and smiling. "I, too, am tired of this road I am on," he said huskily, "I'd like to stop sometimes and just...smell the roses...as it were. To let down my guard and relax. To have a...home and a fam...." And then he stopped talking and closed his eyes. This was my chance!
I leaned closer to him. "How is it that thou hast no family? No mate? How long have you been on your journey?" He did not answer me or give any indication that he had heard me. I put out my hand and brushed the hair off his forehead and his blue eyes opened and stared into mine. "You are too curious, Vaangelika. Some things are best......unasked." I shook my head in annoyance. "Ha!" I said, "If thou dost not ask questions, thou will never know, my teacher said to me on a thousand occasions! So I learned to ask questions rather than remain in my ignorance. Why can you not answer me? Have you a hidden secret? A past? Are you not what you appear? I demand that you answer me!" And I sat back and away from him, crossing my arms. He laughed and lay on his side, looking at me in amusement. "You demand, do you? Aggressive little thing! You will get more honey from this bee if you ask sweetly and do not demand! Otherwise, I will simply sting thee." Groaning, I covered my face with my hands and tried to think of another strategy.
Before I could conceive one, he said very softly, "Vaangel, my angel, calm the storm in your mind. You think too violently. I will tell you all you need to know. Just ask." "Right!" I said, not believing him and stretching myself out on the ground beside his body. I thought for a few moments and then asked carefully, "Alright then. How is it that you have no mate? Why are you travelling alone?" "Why art thou?" he asked almost angrily and calmed himself. I waited impatiently. Then he said hardly above a whisper and without looking at me, "There was someone once. We were to be married. But she is....gone now."
I was torn between being sad for him and being happy at the news that there was no mate in his life. I bit my lip and inquired, "So, how did she die? Was it a natural death? How long ago did this happen?" Tormenting me with his silence, I moved to touch his sleeve to remind him that I was still there but he caught my hand and said darkly, "She is not dead. She is just.....gone."
I caught my breath and a stream of questions began to issue forth out of my childish mouth. "You do not mean she is...one of the Prodigals? Wandering on the outskirts of the world....not knowing.... ? Was she taken of her own accord or against her will? Do you still love her? And she, you? Is she the reason for your journey? How long....?" And he put his finger upon my lips and shook his head. "I warned thee. Thy questions rush at me like a raging river and overwhelm me. Be still now." And he traced the outline of my mouth and caressed my face to quiet me and I must agree that the plan worked for I all but forgot the subject we were discussing. I groaned when he took his hand away and put both hands underneath his head and looked up at the sky.
"She is not a Prodigal." he said very coldly. "She was not taken against her will but went willingly and haughtily. She loves....the dark...more than the light." His voice trailed off so low that I had to lean forward to catch his words. Realization hit me suddenly and I sprang back and asked in amazement, "You do not mean that she is one of the Reprobates? The lost ones? Surely, she....." But he shook his head and would not say more. I was dying of frustration and curiosity but another word on the subject he would not say. I lay back and tried to imagine the situation. I had heard of these things all of my childhood and had actually seen some of these people on my journeys but had never known one personally, to my knowledge. It was something that no one in my father's household liked to talk about and when they did, it was in hushed undertones and behind hands and closed doors.
Whatever I had learned about Prodigals and Reprobates, I had learned from eavesdropping and asking other children and my teacher. He was not very forthcoming regarding the subject but had answered when I insisted. A Prodigal was bad....but a Reprobate! I shuddered, remembering some of the rumors I had heard. The lost ones! Wandering the earth in darkness and rebellion! No longer truly human but more cunning than any animal. Caught between two worlds, in and out of other dimensions. Aimlessly searching for pleasure and fulfillment and never having enough. And this man had loved one such creature! How I longed to know more of his experience! Why would he not tell me? I lay there in silence, my mind racing here and there and coming up with no suitable answers. It then occurred to me that I had broached a subject of much pain and heartache for the man and I began to feel guilty in spite of my curiosity and the odd stinging in my heart at the thought of another girl in his arms.
The very thought of this man with another filled me with anguish and a rushing-like feeling of my stomach up into my throat. Never had I felt such agony. If this was love then it was certainly disagreeable! Why had no one ever told me of this pain? I had assumed that love would be gentle and sweet and comforting when it came and not this raging storm of unsurety and wounding. I felt an urgency to touch the man beside me and drew closer to his body and kissed his face. He pretended to be asleep but then suddenly pulled me into his arms and kissed my hair. "Vaangelika!" he moaned and then violently thrust himself away from me. I was stung with rejection and did not understand. He went to the spring and threw cold water into his face and then drank thirstily from his palms. What had I done? I wondered wildly. Why did he hold me tenderly one minute and then withdraw himself the next? Didn't he like me or was he just playing with my childish emotions? Surely he knew with his amazing foresight that I had never held a man in my arms before, let alone kissed one or wanted to kiss one! Surely, he knew that I did, indeed, want to kiss him and be kissed in return.
In my confusion, I watched him longingly and wished I could turn back time and make this pain go away. Then it came to me. "Oh, my neck!" I cried, "It hurts!" But he paid me no attention and kept on drinking from the spring. "Please, won't you rub my neck again for me?" I pleaded, "It hurts so!" He stood to his feet, wiping his hands and pulled me up and stepped behind me. Just when I thought he was about to touch me again (and I was eagerly anticipating that touch), he abruptly walked away and started down the incline to the brook. "Is that so much to ask?" I said loudly, feeling like I had been slapped in the face and dismissed. "A simple neck rub? Can you not do so little a thing?" He walked on slowly as though he had not heard and then without turning, he said over his shoulder so that I could not miss it, "It is a very great thing you ask of me, Vaangelika. You have no idea. And though I do not want to, I must walk away. And though I may do as you request at a later time....I dare not touch you....now."
And he walked away out of my sight and I sat looking at his retreating back and wondering over his words. I was beginning to understand. And I suddenly felt like a woman and not a little girl. He was not rejecting me. He was protecting me. From myself and from the tide of emotions that had swept over both of us. An unknown, un-experienced hunger that I had never felt before and did not know what to do with. He was much stronger than I. I felt ashamed of myself and withdrew into the hiding place in my heart that I sometimes went to. Only this time....the man was in there, too. And I had the feeling that he would always be there. It was frightening and at the same time, I felt like I had a sort of covering, a shelter over me for the first time in a long time and I felt cradled in the hands of one who cared. I marveled at this new revelation. And then I thought of his strength and character and concern for my innocence and I hugged myself and smiled.
To Be Continued in Episode 13.....................................