Mindy Smith & Matthew Perryman Jones - Anymore of This
WARRIORS OF THE WAY
THREE DAYS AGO
When the man did not return, I grew tired of sitting there by myself and walked down to the stream. I took off my boots and rolled the bottoms of the buckskin trousers up to my knees and put my feet into the water. There was a soft breeze blowing and the sun was making it's way slowly into the west. The temperature was neither hot nor cold but perfect and sweetly refreshing. I sat there swinging my bare feet through the water and thinking that a swim would help the pain still throbbing through my body. I determined not to think about the viper but to enjoy my time alone and to daydream and let my thoughts run free. There was no one there to read my mind and so I let it race wildly from thought to thought. Gazing into the clear water, I thought I saw the flash of something suddenly and gasped. There were no fish in the stream and therefore I could not think what it might have been. But I was stirred and could no longer sit there idly playing.
Standing, I took off the trousers and waded into the water and farther out until it reached my waist and looked in vain for something the color of silver. I saw nothing. I shrugged and ducked myself into the water and swam for the deepest pool. Back and forth I swam, working the soreness out of my shoulder and giving myself to the current like a mermaid. My teacher had sworn that I had been born in water. "Thou art a fish!" he would exclaim upon finding me swimming when I was supposed to be studying. I liked water much more than books, although I loved books, too. Swimming was like flying to me. Flying in water. Or so I imagined. And I imagined more than I cared to admit. It was my freedom, my salvation. In the land of my imagination, I could be anything I wanted to be....even a happy child with a mother. And I had many friends and animals there....and no lessons to be learned! I could run to the tops of mountains and swim to the bottoms of oceans and all my many questions would be answered. It was the place in which I always felt that I belonged.
I shook myself out of my reverie and waded back to shore, grabbed the wet trousers and made my way back to the spring and the flower covered hillside. How beautiful it was here! Like an illustration in one of my childhood story books. It would be very hard to leave this oasis and head out on another dusty trail into the unknown. I folded the buckskins and put them under my head for a pillow and pulled the wet white shirt down as far as it would go. Hopefully, it would be dry before the man returned from his walk. I wondered where he had gone and if he would be kind to me again when he came back. I liked him so much better when he was kind. Although I found him especially attractive when anger made his eyes flash and tension made his back straight and proud.
Thinking of his eyes and how dark they had become earlier, I began to give in to drowsiness and soon fell fast asleep in the shade of the tall tree by the side of the spring. I was dreaming that I was running through fields of golden flowers, in an odd slow motion, wearing a long white dress (which I seldom wore) and trailing a long white scarf behind me. I felt light as a feather. It seemed as though I was preparing to take flight and join a flock of white birds in the sky when I began to feel something hitting my face, arms and legs and falling on the ground where I lay. Something very soft and sweet smelling and lovely but I thought it was part of the dream. I kept my eyes closed as I came out of the realm of sleep and was surprised to find that I still felt the feather like objects falling on me.
Startled, I opened my sleepy eyes and beheld the man standing over me smiling. He was tossing rose petals on me and over me and all around me. Pink rose petals. They lay in heaps all around my body. Frowning, I looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. He lay the last remaining rose that he held upon my heart and put his hands behind his back and stood quietly above me. My pulse began to race in my veins and my heart leapt towards him. It was a moment so sweet that tears formed in my eyes and I choked back a sob. "Forgive me?" he asked softly and I sat up and held the rose to my nostrils and tried to fight the urge to fling myself into his arms. I quickly pulled on my wrinkled trousers with my back turned to him and said airily, "Of course! What is there to forgive? I was being a...spoiled child, as you have recently pointed out to me. Did you have a nice walk?" And he pointed to some sticks leaning against the tree that held four fish. Delighted, I cried, "Wherever did you find fish? For I have seen none and I looked very carefully!" "I see that you did." he said, noting my still damp hair and clothing. "Did you find....anything... of interest?" I shook my head and bent to examine the fish. "No, I thought I saw something in the stream that caught my eye but it must have been the sun on the water." He nodded and searched my face with questioning eyes.
"I found another stream that joined itself to this one up the way a bit and was happy to see it full of fish. I hope you like fish. Because I make a really good fish. And I found potatoes and onions growing in a rather strange garden and brought some back in my pockets. I think we should get back to the camp and check on the horses. They're probably wondering where we've gotten to by now." The horses! I had lost track of time and forgotten my wonderful new friend, Snow. I wondered if she would show her displeasure at my absence. "You're right." I said, gathering up two of the branches he'd used to spear the fish. "We have been gone a long time."
We walked comfortably side by side back to the place where he had left his clothing and the pails of fruit and loaded up our arms and headed back towards the encampment inside the boulders. I dragged my feet slightly, but I knew that we should hurry back there before nightfall. It was, after all, a safe place and there was a nice bed and a fire for cooking and my sword and my treasures waiting there for me, some that I thought had been lost forever. "We'll come back here tomorrow." the man said reading my thoughts. "Perhaps we'll bring the horses and ride them upstream to collect more potatoes." I nodded, distracted, and looked ahead at the long walk we had to make to camp. I didn't feel like running now but ambling slowly and making the day last as long as possible. I looked back longingly at the willow trees and berry bushes and sighed.
"Be careful what you wish for." the man warned, clearing his throat. "All that glitters is not gold and even what first appears perfect may be tainted. In two days time, I will have to leave here and ride east. There is something that I must take care of and I don't know how long I'll be gone. I don't want you to become so enamored of this oasis that you cannot part with it." My heart fell when I heard those words and though I tried not to show it, I felt a fear descend upon me. "Why must thee leave?" I asked him. "Am I not allowed to travel with thee?" I could not look at him now but strode angrily ahead of him, my head lowered and my heart, lower. "No, you cannot come with me, Little Flower. This task was planned before we ever met and must be done by me alone." I immediately thought of the girl that he had planned to marry and wondered if finding her was the task.
"It has nothing to do with the past." he said quietly. "It has everything to do with the future. I have no choice but to go. Before, I had no one else to concern myself with and now, I think I shall have to worry....." "Worry not thyself with me!" I said childishly, "I can, as I always have, take very good care of myself. I need no supervisor! I will stay in the oasis for a few days and then ride south." "South towards the River?" he asked, sounding very concerned. "There is much you do not know about the Red River and the villages and lands this side and that of it. I will tell you everything that you need to know, that I know, in the morning. There are many treacherous people between here and there and many dangers and wild beasts and.....Symbelons." He barely whispered the last word but I heard it and exclaimed, "Shapeshifters? Here, in this land?" "Those and much worse, I'm afraid." he nodded. "You have no idea what you will run upon. I have made the journey to the River many times and each time there and back, I find new species of....man and animal."
The boulders stood tall and regal just a few yards before us. I heard the horses call out as they heard our approach. The man's forehead was furrowed deeply as he pondered how much to tell me and was secretly furious, I suspected, about this new wrinkle in his life: Me. I could not believe that he was going to ride out of here and leave me as though we had never met! It was the last thing that I had expected as we walked into the sunset and made our way to the opening of the twelve huge stones.
"Listen, Vaangelika," he said urgently, turning to me and taking the fish and pails out of my hands and setting them down with his own. "You must understand. I must make you understand! Nothing you have ever experienced or lived through can prepare you for what you may soon meet face to face! That is why you must take your father's message through Shree very seriously and soberly. In that message, you were given the keys to your only hope! You must be vigilant and listen to the guidance that will come to you in your heart. Trust not thine eyes or ears but only the still small voice. It will protect you and guide you in the place of danger and lead you out of the shadows. Promise me you will heed my words! Promise me!"
Then he grabbed me by the arms and shook me forcefully to illustrate his warning. "I..I..promise." I gasped, more frightened now than ever. "I have Snow now to take Starshine's place and I will be.....vigilant and careful. The viper will never take me unawares again." "Forget the viper!" he scolded sternly and held me even tighter in his grasp. "The viper is.....nothing! He is not thy temptation and downfall! Do not dwell upon that creature nor let thy hatred for him blind you. And when the time comes for you to leave here when I am gone, do not linger and do not look back. Ride south as you are led and forget this place, I beg you!" I could not hide the hurt that showed in my eyes and my heart as I asked him in a tiny voice, "Dost thou mean for me to forget thee also?" And he pulled me to him and held me so tightly that I thought I would break and did not care if I did. I clung to him with both my arms and hands and pressed myself so closely to him that I could feel his racing heartbeat as he felt mine.
Drawing back and staring into my brown eyes, he looked at me like a man dying of thirst beholding a cup of water. So many things I saw there in his eyes now filling with tears, even fear and longing and heartbreak. "You will leave here, this place, will you not? You will not linger here?" he pleaded with me. Thinking that he spoke of the danger in the forest and of the Weremen lurking there, I nodded my head and assured him of my intentions. "I will go from here. I will stay in the oasis for a while and plan my departure and look at my maps and listen for the voice to guide me....."
"No,Vaangelika, no! You do not understand me! It is the oasis that is seeking to keep you here! You must fight the desire to stay there when I am gone. The forest is not as dangerous as the oasis to you, little one. And the....water in the brook, it is...wanting you, seducing you to linger in it's stream. But you must not! I cannot tell thee why but this I know! Promise me.....!"
And he shook me violently again and I whimpered and went limp. Catching himself, he let me go and I almost fell at his feet but he caught and balanced me then turned to look back towards the green oasis. "That place is very beautiful, Vaangelika. That is true. It is full of food and water and grass for the horses and soft places to sleep and white birds to watch you and pink roses and soft breezes and shiny things to catch your eye. That is all.....true."
And he turned to me again and took my hands and kissed them while his blue eyes swept over me as though they were memorizing my features because they would never see them again. I could hear something terrible in his voice, something he did not want to say but was being forced to. Something I was forcing him to tell me that I did not want to hear. I shook with trepidation and sighed loudly and resigned myself to hear it. "Tell me." I said simply and squeezed his hands in mine, suddenly feeling very ill. He swallowed hard and looked away from me and then back, the very picture of anguish. His eyes darkening again as they had before in the fading daylight, he said in a strange and awful tone, "Vaangelika, until three days ago, that encampment, that oasis..... did not exist!"
As I struggled to grasp the horror of his words, the horses inside the enclosure began to make more noise than I had ever heard horses make and we grabbed our loads and hurried inside. The horses did not greet us nor could they, as we later learned, for they were tied to trees on the other side and could not free themselves. We looked worriedly around the camp, at the long dead campfire, the utensils scattered here and there, the sun baked earth dry and hard beneath our feet and at each other. It was only after long moments of looking for something not seen at first glance, after we'd set our belongings down against the boulders and made our way toward the dead fire, that we saw what we were looking for.
There in the caked mud and in the grass and on the path of the receding flood waters leading into the forest, were the imprints of many horses' hooves, heavy, gigantic hooves, heavier than I had ever seen or tracked, circling all around the camp like it had been the scene of a wild race. I looked at the man in fear and I felt his own though he did not show it in his eyes. "We've had visitors." I stated needlessly and he nodded, looking toward the dark trees. Seeking to draw my attention elsewhere, he threw firewood on the ashes of the dead fire and lit it to prepare our supper. I felt totally useless, more numb with fer than in pain and couldn't decide where to look or sit or stand. I walked over to the arbor to see if my weapons and things were still there and was overcome with relief to find everything just as we had left them.
I put my daggers in my boots, strapped on my bow and arrows, sheathed the sword at my waist and talked to myself in the voice of my teacher, "Fear not! Fear not!" I repeated over and over until I felt myself strengthen. I carried the man's sword and bow out to him, to the fire started at last, and watched as he began to clean the fish and cook it in a black pan. The air was full of tension and a strange energy. It hung there like an unspoken threat and kept us from talking. What was there to say? We were not alone. Many men on many horses had ridden out of that dark forest and spent time digging up our campsite with their huge and dangerous hooves. There was no denying the evidence. Whether they would return now or in the night, remained to be seen. What they wanted, we had no idea. At least, I had no idea and the man was not sharing his suspicions.
I didn't really want to know his thoughts honestly and hoped against hope that we would have no further visitors. That, too, was another wish that would not be granted to me. For after the fish was cooked and the potatoes roasted and eaten and we had finally settled our nerves enough to speak again, Snow and Redemption began to stamp their feet in the arbor and call out their warnings of impending approach that we could not hear with human ears.
For reasons I will never know, I had the sudden urge to hurry to my music box. To hold it in my hands and listen to it's melody. I had almost made it to the ledge where it was waiting at the bottom of a pile of blankets and skins. My hand was on my sword and I was checking to see how many arrows I had left, when the voice rang out loudly, shattering our illusion of peace. I looked across the camp at the man seated by the fire holding a water flask. His eyes met mine and he threw down the flask and drew his sword. We froze as the voice came again. "Give us the woman, Blue Eyes! We want no trouble. Give us the woman and we will leave you in peace. That is your choice, Small Man, and your only choice. Bring her to the edge of the clearing and walk toward your horses and do not look back! We will take her and be gone in the blink of an eye. Are you agreeable to this or do you desire to die here as the sun goes down?"