WARRIORS OF THE WAY
BANQUET FOR THE BEAST
The creature stood a mere twenty-five or thirty feet from me as I peeked out from a non-glowing tree. I stifled a gasp and wondered what he would do next. ( I wondered what I would do next!) I had no idea. No plan. No escape route. No horse in the forest directing my actions. No one. "Please!" I begged silently to the guiding voice but heard nothing. "I need you!" I reached for an arrow and put it to the bow but before I could steady my hand, the wereman had strode nearer to me on quiet feet and stopped in the moonlight. I gulped air and pulled myself up as tall as I could manage but felt tiny and insignificant in comparison to the silvery beast. Trembling like a leaf, I let fly an arrow, then another and another, all missing their mark, all falling vainly to the ground. The creature swerved with graceful movements, dodging the arrows as a child might dodge a ball. Frustrated, I grasped a dagger and flung it at his heart but he caught it in his left hand and stood there with an almost human look of amusement in his dark eyes. I quickly reached for another dagger but the first dagger was thrown back at me with such force that it knocked me backwards and pinned me, helpless, by my garment against a tree.
"No!" I cried and attempted to pull my way free but I could not before the beast was upon me, his claws around my neck, his fetid breath upon my face. He gazed into my frightened eyes until my legs gave way then threw his head back and howled an ear piercing howl that turned my insides to wax, my soul to despair. "Fear not." I heard the voice say at last and I retorted, "That's easy for you to say!" before I knew what I was doing. I had never spoken back to the voice before. I had always accepted and obeyed and responded in gratitude. I had lost my way! Given in to rebellion! "Forgive me!" I pleaded in a hoarse whisper, "But I've never been a banquet for a beast before! Surely, you understand!" The wolf creature went quiet and held his shaggy head as if listening, his ears on alert and a questioning growl coming from his throat. He looked in all directions, then back into my eyes and released his grip on my throat. I slumped against the tree and felt for the sword at my side. There was not much I could do until I freed myself but I hadn't much strength left. The beast stood back and watched me warily but did not touch me. Mustering a bravado I did not feel, I straightened up and shouted at him, "And from what level of Hell didst thou come, Animal!?"
Wrenching myself back and forth, I felt the dagger in my left sleeve give way and I fell forward onto the creature. For a strange few seconds, I felt myself enveloped in two hairy arms and pressed tightly to the wereman's chest as he smothered me against him. He howled...... I howled..... and butted my head against him as hard as I could and pulled myself away and went running back to the arbor and jumped up into the bunk. Grabbing more weapons, I made as much noise as I possibly could, screaming and screeching like a banshee and as he approached, began to fire arrows and daggers and lastly, my spare shoes. "Get away! Get away, foul beast!" I shouted and threw a fur blanket upon his head. It was so dark I could barely see and could not effectively do my worst. He had the advantage on me with his wolf's eyes and kept coming no matter what I did. Grabbing at me as I slunk back into the far corners of the arbor kicking, his eyes fell upon the glint of gold from the music box and stopped and grabbed it with his furry paws. (Oh, how had it fallen out of it's bag?!) As he held it aloft in wonder, the lights from the pale trees blinked back on and we both froze in amazement. My chance had come!
Summoning all the strength from the bottom of my soul, I sprang forward, grasped the sword with both hands and swung it at his head. The blade caught him in the left eye and he screamed a piteous scream and grabbed for his face with his left paw, never letting go of the music box in his right. Blood streamed down the white furry face and into his snout as he snarled and wriggled and cried out in agony. His two companions rushed to his aid. They ran towards us growling furiously, leaving the man still lying by the dying fire. There was no where to go! I was trapped in the arbor! My heart pounding, I began to pull on the skins that were attached to the branches and trees and pulled them down upon my head. In the melee, I heard the beasts grunting noisily as they attempted to find me in the covers. They reached into the bunk with their horrible hands and clawed this way and that but could not penetrate the multitude of heavy skins.
Suddenly, they stopped and withdrew but I dared not peek out even if I could have. I heard a muffled sound behind me and felt a movement. No! I pleaded silently. I could not get to my sword. I was done for! The swoosh of an arrow passing above my covered head took me by surprise and I heard the yelp of a wereman and then a mighty thud as he fell. Cries issued from terrified throats, (one of which was mine) and a loud and lengthy battle ensued all around me and at several points, on top of me. I moved to get out of the way, grateful for whatever help had been granted but could not imagine who had been sent to my aid. Finally, all was quiet and I waited long fearful seconds and began scrambling out of the heavy shield of skins.
When my eyes adjusted, I saw the body of a wereman four feet from me, lying upon it's back with an arrow protruding from it's chest. The creature was brown. There was no sign of the others nor of my defender. I jumped to the ground with my bloody sword in hand and cautiously approached the beast. I kicked it with my toe. It did not move. I noted the strange white arrow and touched it. It burned my hand! Gasping, I fell back, then caught myself and stumbled upon a hideous object: A brown furry arm and clawed hand, covered in blood and clutching a piece of fabric. It made a strange sizzling noise which frightened me all the more. I took a deep breath and ran in the direction of the camp, toward the fire that was barely more than coals. I saw the man still lying there deep in sleep and oblivious to all the danger and death going on around him. I was puzzled. How could anyone sleep through all that? Was he dead? Or dying? Had the medicine he had swallowed rendered him completely unconscious? I looked towards the black trees and caught a movement in the moon's glow.
The silvery white wolf monstrosity had pulled his wounded companion to his feet and slung him over his shoulder. (I noted he was missing an arm.) For a brief moment, he stopped and looked in my direction and I felt the rage and torment in him as he threw back his head and howled a long and threatening howl that echoed into the night and bounced off the boulders and surrounded me. I stood defiant in the moonlight, clutching my sword above my head and claimed the victory. I held my breath as he turned to walk into the forest then exhaled smugly and shouted, "Thou hast lost, Beast!" Then to my shock and sorrow, I saw in the light of the setting moon, the unmistakable gold of my music box held up proudly in the beast's right hand.
Speechless, I sank to my knees in the hard mud. Anything but that! Anything! Take anything from me but that! My soul began to sob deep inside without sound but could not contain it and I wailed and wept aloud for my loss. It was all I had left from childhood to love and cherish. Except for my teacher's books and a lone pressed flower kept within two pages of The Book Of The Kingdoms. It was all. All. I had lost everything. "Oh, Starshine!" I sobbed, " I need thee! Father, please! Please, tell me what to do! Why must I lose everything most precious to me? Why? I don't want to do this anymore! I want to come home! Please, may I come home? I can't bear anymore!"
And I wept and wept until I was exhausted and my voice was weak and spent with crying. Dragging myself to my feet, I wearily thought to make my way to the horses' arbor and let Snow comfort me in her equine way. I needed the touch of another. I glanced towards the man's still form and broke out in fresh weeping. I was sure he was dead now. Of course, he was dead! Why wouldn't he be? My loss was complete. I shrank to a tiny bit of nothing in my grief and with slow, laborious steps began to stumble toward the horses. My mind was numb and my body felt ancient and ready to turn to dust. I could hardly remember my name. My name.... My name!" I thought in the depths of my despair. Someone was calling my name! I looked tiredly about but saw no one. "I am delusional now." I thought, "My mind has snapped like a twig. That's what I deserve for being headstrong and rebellious. Everybody warned me. Everybody. But I never listened. Now I'm being punished."
"I suppose I should save the fire." I said to the empty air and walked back and threw more sticks and branches onto the embers and fanned them into a flame. As I stooped there tending to the task, tears rolled down my cheeks and fell hissing into the fire. I was so mentally, physically, spiritually debilitated that I did not feel the hand touching my shoulder. And I did not feel it still until it shook me hard and a voice said sternly into my ear, "Vaangelika!" Finally the word pierced the fog of my brain, and I sprang to my feet and attempted to draw my sword. Then I was halted by the sight of the blue eyed man who stayed my hand and smiled forlornly at the confusion on my lost and lonely face. I looked at the form lying behind him still wrapped in cloak and blanket, still wearing his boots. I looked at the barefoot man before me. I looked away.
Rubbing my desperate eyes, I mumbled, "You're not real. None of this is real. I'm insane." Seconds passed, dreamlike, until I heard the horses stirring in their shelter and Snow's voice calling out to shake me from my insensibility. "Vaangelika, look!" the man said, rushing to the form lying on the ground. He threw back the covers and cloak, picked up the boots and held them in front of my eyes. "It was a ploy! I was never there! See? It's me, Little Flower! I'm not dead! I'm here! I'm not an apparition. I'm here." And trying to comprehend what could not be comprehended, I fainted dead away and collapsed in a heap on the ground. The sword dropped from my hand and I fell into deep darkness, not knowing what was real or unreal anymore. It was all, simply, too much.