WARRIORS OF THE WAY
SIGNS AND WONDERS AND SAYING GOODBYE
I awoke very early the next morning covered in dew and with eight curious eyes staring at me impatiently. I gasped startled, moaned and snuggled way down in the blankets and covered my head. “Go away!” I protested, my voice muffled by the thick skins. “Rise and shine thy light!” the man sang melodiously. ”No!” I snapped back, “My head hurts! My stomach aches! I think I am dying.” “No, you’re not.” he assured me, “You just think you are. I felt the same way when first I awoke. But I’m all better now. Here, drink this.” He waited for my head to find it’s way back into fresh air and handed me a steaming cup of something that smelled repugnant. “Drink it!” he commanded and forced the cup to my lips against my will. I drank and gagged. Drank again and gagged. Drank again….and felt remarkably better! I looked at his stern face in the soft morning light and he nodded and smiled, “See? You should always listen to me. I know what I’m doing.” “Yes, Physician.” I grumbled, falling back upon the blanket. “So, you just happened to have an antidote for something you’d never heard of before, is that it? Well, I……” But my words were silenced by the deer grabbing the top blankets in his teeth and pulling them off my legs.
“Stop that, thou naughty boy!” I scolded him but he kept pulling and I seized the blanket corners and returned them to my lap. Tenaciously, he snatched them back and we launched into a battle of wills and strength that lasted until the man shouted, “Enough!” and picked me up and threw me over his shoulder and headed for the camp fire. I started to beat him about the head and shoulders but remembered his battle wounds at the last moment and relented. Silently I endured his domination and lifted my head to see the horses and deer following behind us in a sort of bizarre parade. If animals could smirk, I imagined that I saw smirks on their faces, though the deer dropped his head when I caught his eye. Depositing me upon my appointed stump, the man handed me a bowl of vegetable broth with big chunks of carrots, potatoes and onions and the other vegetable we couldn’t name. He threw in a piece of hard bread and placed a cup of hot leftover tea in my other hand. “I’ve already had my breakfast and got us all packed and prepared to leave. As soon as you're ready, we shall begin our little journey. But please hurry.” I nodded and began to devour the hot food. The deer took his place by my side, watching every move that I made. I found him a carrot and he ate it with gusto and signaled for more. It was almost as though he knew that this would be our last meal together.
I hurried to the arbor with a pail of water, washed myself and changed into fresh clothing. He had warned me that we would be riding into changing weather so I dressed in long black trousers, a white collared shirt and black tunic. I fumbled through my belongings to find the pair of black knee high boots that I had left behind at the tree and gladly pulled them on. Brushing my tangled hair, I discovered that one of my gold earrings was missing and gave out a cry of distress. I pulled my long hair over my left shoulder and tied it with a velvet ribbon. Then I grabbed a heavy black hooded cloak and covered everything else up with the skins, wondering if they would be safe there while we were away. I’d never gone off and left my things behind. I scurried to ask the man about it and he greeted me with my missing earring. “It was on the blanket.” he explained while I attached it to my ear. “It must have fallen off while we……” and he stopped speaking and turned away with a red face.
“I believe our belongings will be safe here while we travel. I don’t sense any danger but here are your weapons. One never knows.” And I took my daggers and put them in my boots and climbed upon Snow’s back who was already saddled and bridled and chomping to go. He handed me my sword, bow and quiver and I put them in their convenient sheaths and nodded. Our saddle bags were packed with water and food and whatever else he had thought necessary to take. “The box is in my bag.” he said at the precise moment I thought of it. I had no intention of leaving that behind! Everything else a thief might take, but not that treasure. It was irreplaceable. I had four sets of clothing, two pairs of boots, one pair of shoes and various and sundry other items and most of that I could part with if I had to but not that magical gift. The most important things were in the leather bags hanging on either side of the horses. “Ready?” he asked and swung himself up in the saddle. “Yes.” I answered and we turned away from the cold, smoking fire with the deer trotting between us. He threw me a red apple and took a bite of one of his own and we headed out to begin our tour of a place I did not believe existed. If only I could be given a sign! A sign that would make me know that he spoke the truth.
We rode for some time, stopping to water the animals at a spot that only the man had visited. The oasis stream was part of a much larger body of water that had split off into two streams, one going east towards the oasis and the original flowing southward. It was there that he had caught the fish and had found the vegetables growing north of it’s banks. We pulled up fresh carrots for the deer and exclaimed over the red juicy vegetables we found growing on bright green vines. “Never saw those before.” the man said, making a bewildered face. “We’ll gather a supply when we come back through.” We had to cajole and then force the deer to leave the garden for he was munching happily on all sorts of things and had no inclination to go. He kept balking and making us delay our departure, and finally, I tied a carrot on the end of a stick and held it behind me as we rode away. He spied the carrot and soon caught up, trying his best to reach the treat but was never able to. “Where did you learn that trick?” the man asked me, smiling. “From my friend.” I answered. “When I was a little girl. There was a baby lamb I wanted to keep as a pet and it refused to come with me. I couldn’t carry it and I couldn’t make it do what I wanted but my friend showed me what to do and it worked. Although, when I got it home, the servants wouldn’t allow it into the house. My teacher got word of it and gave me a long lecture about taking things that didn’t belong to me and my friend’s father came and took it away and later, I heard that he beat my friend severely for giving me the lamb.”
I grew sad at the distant childhood memory and shook my head. “His father was a very cruel man. The only cruel man in the whole village that I can recall. Everyone feared his sharp tongue and terrible temper. He lived on the outskirts of the village and owned many sheep but spent most of his time away from home and left his son in charge of the flock. He was the best shepherd in all the land. Everyone said so. He was nothing like his father. He was kind and gentle and loved people and animals. But I was his only real friend.” I brushed a tear away and remembered something that I’d wondered about.. “Why did you call me ‘Princess’ yesterday when you gave me the feather and rose?” The man shrugged. “No reason. I just thought you looked like a princess sitting there. Very regal and royal and princess…y. You are of a royal house, are you not?” He grinned and I laughed aloud. “I’m not a princess. No one has ever called me that. I’m only a girl who happens to be the daughter of a king.”
He listened with interest and then he exclaimed as we rode on through the clearing that soon turned into a well defined road, “Vaangelika, look!” And off to my right, I beheld several large bushes upon a small hill growing outward and upward into the sky. They were unthinkable and implausible. An inconceivably wondrous sight outside of imagination. We stopped the horses and stared in silence as a soft wind came and stirred them gently, back and forth, back and forth. Instead of limbs, leaves, fronds or flowers, every amazing bush in that shrubbery was covered in vivid, lush beautiful feathers, like those of a peacock! I gasped and looked at him in amazement and he lifted his eyebrow and gave me a knowing look, very smug, very self-satisfied. He rode ahead and I sat there for a moment, still staring, wishing I had something to sketch the image on so that I might keep it forever and as proof of what I had seen. I reluctantly lifted the reins and Snow broke into a swift cantor to catch up with our three friends. And as I did, the man looked back at me and said softly, “There’s your sign.”
For the next two hours or so, we rode through relatively ordinary scenery, stopping again to water the animals at a small spring and partaking once more of the long yellow fruit we had brought with us. The deer took a short nap while we rested and as we roused him, the man said, “I believe his home is near by. I’ve seen many deer in the forest ahead.” My heart panged me at the thought of leaving our pet behind but I knew that it was the right thing to do. How, after all, does one travel about the land with a deer in tow? Even a courageous and heroic deer such as he? We looked back at the sun as it rose in the east and rode further into the west. In the distance, I saw several tall mountains standing majestically against the sky. A number of large birds appeared and accompanied us for a while, gliding and dipping in the currents and then flew away out of our sight. Soon, we came upon a green wooded area and the deer stopped in his tracks as he recognized familiar territory. “You’re home, my friend.” the man said to him and beckoned us to follow him into the forest. It was cool and verdant, alive with ferns and wild life and the sound of falling water. We made our way carefully through the thick trees, moving in the direction of the waterfall and shortly we came upon it falling down the side of a green hill covered with moss and vines. We dismounted and stood admiring the silvery flow of it before it hit it’s mark in a round pool and then disappeared under a natural stone cavity and dropped deep underground. “Shhh!” the man whispered loudly above the noise of the water and nodded his head to the right of me.
Two deer peeked their heads around two trees. Then they vanished. Our deer froze in mid stride and made a small noise in his throat. His tail went up and then wagged and he sniffed the air. The other deer peeked out again and waited and none of us moved for some time. Then cautiously they approached and stood just beyond a huge and ancient looking tree. Snow and Redemption watched silently as their friend took two or three tentative steps and then suddenly took off and flew in the direction of the tree. He ran up to the other deer and nuzzled them, his tail wagging happily. They turned to leave and he looked back at us and a tear ran down my cheek. I removed a bunch of carrots from a bag and had started to lay them on the ground, when he bounded back in our direction and almost knocked me down. I laughed and rubbed his neck as he put his forehead against mine and butted me. Then he did the same to the horses and lastly, to the man. “Take care, sweet boy.” I said, “And stay out of strange forests. Keep close to home. Don’t go wandering off on dangerous paths. I shall never forget you. Never.” He looked at me with those big liquid brown eyes and it seemed that a kind of understanding passed between us. Then he snatched up the carrots and ran swiftly away as though worried that I might change my mind.
“Farewell!” we called to him, “Goodbye!” and turned back to the horses, feeling already his absence in our hearts. We rode through the forest, taking in all the sights and regaling one another with memorable moments with the deer. I was certain that he would miss us as much as we would miss him. In a hour’s time, we came out of the woodlands and saw before us a huge rounded stone mountain gleaming white in the mid-day sun. It curved like a wall. There seemed to be no way around it or through it. It went on forever. I could see evidence of past travelers on the road beneath our feet but none recently. There lay a white dust upon the road that matched the white stone mountain. Soon, I began to notice white flowers growing all around us, some growing on great vines upon the very rocks themselves and hanging down like trumpets, some more delicate blooms covered various trees and their petals fell in the breeze and floated down and made a scented carpet for our feet. The horses kept putting their noses down on the road to smell the fragrance and neighed at one another, sharing secrets that I could only guess. White birds flew over our heads and disappeared on the other side of the high endless wall. I was wondering exactly where we were when the man put up his hand and stopped his horse. “Put on your cloak, Little Flower.” He threw his cloak around his shoulders while I reached behind the saddle to get mine and when we were finished, he said, “This way.” and turned in front of me and rode into an opening that was quite hidden from the road and from my view.
Before I even drew near, I felt a cold and chilly wind blast into my face and I drew the cloak closer around my throat. Outside, the sun was still shining and warm, the grass was green, the air full of perfume and Springtime. I had no idea what I was riding into and no time to prepare myself for it even though I had imagined a hundred different scenes in my mind after we had left the camp. I had been sure that he was jesting about the magical garden and having me on but the moment I’d seen the feathered shrub, that thought had certainty left me and I’d begun to doubt my doubts. If he had been telling the truth about that, why would he be lying about the rest? I couldn't wait to find out. He had ridden on ahead and beyond and stood waiting inside for me to follow. Snow walked up a small incline and approached an indention in the side of the mountain. From the outside, one might never notice the opening but as you grew closer, you could see an entrance to pass through. The reason I discovered for the illusion was that both the outside of the mountain and the interior were snow white so from the road, one could not see when the mountain ended and the inside began. Snow and I inhaled deep breaths and exhaled frosty steam from our mouths and entered. Then we stopped and beheld a landscape that was so different from what we had just left behind that it seemed unreal. More incredible than that, it was an exact replica of the winter wonderland scene in the iridescent silver box!
WHEN HE SAVED THE WORLD | by Efisio Cross
To Be Continued in Episode 22........................as yet, unwritten