WARRIORS OF THE WAY
BECOMING SOMEONE ELSE
I let him have his fun and took my humiliation silently though inside I was not as angry as I pretended. It was quite the humorous scene all in all and though I wished that it was not me there drowning in the mud and looking ridiculous, I carried on in some sort of dignified degradation. Ignoring my appearance, I looked into his eyes and said as seriously as I could, "There was something in the forest.....running. There was...it was breathing...I heard...something coming. Perhaps we should.......run." And my heart began to race again as I remembered the terror.
The man stood looking at the wood thoughtfully and then back down at me on the ground. "It was probably one of the Weremen. They will not venture out of their dark fortress of trees. At least not in daylight. They will lure you in but you cannot lure them out while the sun is full." "Weremen?" I exclaimed, "Pray tell, what art Weremen? I recall a fable from my childhood....but...... ." and I stopped my words at his expression. We looked in unison at the forest and then back at one another and he said quietly, "It is no fable, that, it is...the truth. I wish it were not so but so it is. Half man, half beast, they are and ravenous. With great teeth and shaggy fur and fleet of foot. In the full moon, they are strong beyond comprehension and unstoppable save by skill and cunning. I have grappled with the beast men and only barely escaped with my life." "I have no doubt," I said, doubtfully, "But I should like to know how thou.......
And at that, the man reached down and grabbed my muddy hand and pulled me quickly to my feet. "You will revisit the brook but first you must wait by the fire until I return. Here is water and a bite of bread. While you bathe I shall prepare breakfast. Thank you for finding the pot and spoon. They have long been companions of mine." I hunkered by the campfire munching on hard bread and sipping long sips of the water, holding bread and flask in my filthy hands and wondering why the man had left me thus. He had walked out of my sight beyond the boulders, turning once to see if I had obeyed his wishes. With good reason, for I had at first hesitated to wait there alone, wondering if I should trust his counsel about the thing in the forest and doubting that the story was true. Only in fables and old wives tales had I heard of such a thing. No one believed these things existed, did they? No evil thing lived within the borders of my father's kingdom, only on the outskirts and then only in lands you could not cross and in shadows you could not see through. But still, only stories, surely...............
True, there existed many strange people in the kingdom and many races, cultures and with many shades of color. Some huge, some small, some tall and fair and some short and squat. But all with brown eyes and all speaking in the same tongue. Some had come talking in different languages but all had come to learn the manner of speaking of the Royal House. Though there arose the occasional squabble in the village, we had all existed peacefully on my father's grounds. I had been gone so many years now, I wondered if it were still so in that place. There had been a breath of change in the air when last I had visited there. An excitement, an expectation.
Upon receiving word of the passing of my teacher, I had traveled back home with a grief and a joy in my heart that only he could understand. He had left us in his sleep some years after I'd set out to journey throughout the kingdom, the quest given to me by my father after my own insistence. "Thou hast learned well," were the last words my teacher had said to me, "Thou hast learned well." And his eyes had shone with pride and tears as he embraced me and watched me mount Starshine and ride away on my mission. "I will never forget thy words!" I called back to him over my shoulder, not wanting him to see the tears flowing down my own cheeks or the aching in my eyes at our parting. He had been a true friend. He had been...........everything I needed.
Thinking back to my childhood, I realized now that indeed I had had two companions, Starshine and he. One a playmate and horse and one a stern faced scholar obsessed with books and learning and given the task of turning a wild, impulsive girl full of spirit into a warrior full of knowledge and wisdom. He had been like a father to me and had treated me like a daughter. My nurse had been as close to a mother as she could have been despite the fact that I had often pushed her away in resentment, longing to have my real mother at my side. Perhaps my childhood had not been as bad as I'd thought it was. Perhaps I had just not seen what I should have seen because I was selfish and childish and blind. I needed to re-think the matter at length, and I did as I waited for the man's return.
Once or twice I heard noises coming from the forest and I started and looked around for some weapon I might use. I refused to look at the long cooking spoon and thought how stupid I must have looked brandishing the thing at my unseen foe. I wiped at the mud dried hair around my eyes and picked at the caked mud on my arms and legs. If I could not plunge myself into water soon, I would surely turn to stone! A petrified being standing there for all eternity surrounded by Weremen dancing in the moonlight! While I mused on these images and lost myself in imagination (as I had always done), I suddenly felt the prickling of fear again and though they could not, the hairs on my arms valiantly tried to stand up. Something had it's eyes on me, I was sure of it. It was devouring me. The sensation was overwhelming and so alarming that I thought to run in the direction of the boulders for safety when at last the man strode back into view and hurried to the campfire. He was wet and breathless, carrying his vest and shirt. And the black cooking pot. I gasped at the sight of his unclothed chest and looked away but then settled myself and rose to meet him.
"What has alarmed you?" he asked, drying his hands with the shirt and setting the pot full of water upon the flame. I watched him in wary silence, my eyes taking in the sight of him standing there on the muddy ground, fast drying now in the sun's warmth. His shirt he had thrown on the grass, and wore the vest hanging out of his breeches like an apron. With his dark hair curling all around his head, he threw more wood on the fire and repeated the question. "Why? Dost thou not know?" I finally responded and watched him. "Always, thou seemeth to know..... everything." And he looked puzzled and shook his head, droplets of water flying into my face. "I don't know everything," he said softly, "I don't know half of what I should." Long moments passed as we stood there trying to read each other, then I sighed, using his words, "You know much more than I do." And the moment passed and I turned deliberately away from him.
I did not understand the feelings that came over me when I looked at this man. It was almost like a spell had been cast over me. It was frightening. And.......wonderful and.....frightening. My teacher would not approve! I told myself. He would tell me to be on my way and to fend for myself and to not be afraid, of course. But I was afraid! Of the thing in the forest and the thing I could not remember and this strange land in which I found myself. But most of all, I feared the eyes of this man! Whether he looked at me or whether he did not. I wanted him to look at me but trembled when he looked. I did not understand this. A thousand mad thoughts raced through my mind and I tried to reign them in as I remembered that he, the owner of those beautiful frightening eyes had read my thoughts out loud already so many times and I especially did not want him to read them now.
"Everything will be alright." he murmured and turned me to face him. "I will not let you be harmed." He ran his thumb down my dirty cheek in vain to clean it and left it there upon my lips. My knees buckled and my heart raced, now, not so much in fright as reveling in his touch. I fought to control my emotions and could not win the battle so I turned and ran towards the boulders. Glancing back, I saw him standing there at the fire watching me run with an unreadable expression on his face. The very air seemed full of feeling. I was running in the wrong direction, I wanted to go back but I dared not! I briefly glimpsed the silver colored horse on my left as he stared at me in surprise but it barely registered in my brain. I only wanted to reach the water, plunge in and let it wash my muddy, feverish body and mind back to sanity. So many changes had come into my life of late, maybe I was mad. I didn't know myself anymore.
Running out of the encampment, I was disoriented for a moment and then realized that the lush oasis was some distance away. I made for the willow trees and bushes hanging full of berries and the sparkling brook as fast as my legs could carry me. As I neared it, I noticed the same white bird that had waved to me, sitting in the top of a tree watching my approach with intelligent eyes. I stared as I ran past and found the place of my previous camp and the shores of the deep clear stream. As I peeled away my clothing, I noticed that my necklace was gone. I felt a chill rush through me and I gasped at the way it took my breath. A flash of memory came to me then and I saw the huge door and my own small hand upon it and the sparkle of something indescribable and then it was gone. Gone and would not come back no matter how hard I implored it. Then the chill was gone and the sun was warm and the water inviting and I waded out into the deepest depths and washed away my garment of mud. I felt reborn when all trace of dirt was gone and I swam for a great length of the brook, feeling no fear and seeing no trace of anything magical or evil. I felt, for a few moments, like the child I had always been. Like me. Again.
To be continued in Episode Nine..................