The Rain Falls

The rain falls, crystal drops of purest liquid.

Without sound, they slide from the petals of a flower

Down the cool stalk into a limpid stream

Which glides into a pool of purity and peace.

 

The rain falls, crystal drops of purest liquid.

Without sound, they slide from my eyes

Down my cheeks until they stream down my face

And gently become the heralds of peace.

 

What brings the rain? A mystery.

But without the rain,

Lands and lives would be parched.

No flowers or eyes could bloom.

Meadows and souls would be empty.

All would be black.

 

The rain falls, crystal drops of purest peace.

 

 

Posted in response to d-verse poets Water, Water Everywhere prompt.

Photo by Matthias Cooper from Pexels

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A Meditation on Isaiah 66:1-2

(see Isaiah 66:1-2)

 

The King is terrible

With stars hung about his throne like candles flickering.

The solar systems smoke and whirl like braziers of coal.

The sun is but a golden speck lit in the flagstones.

 

 

Man brings a single stone, polished and cut with all his craft

And demands the King’s court be contained within.

 

 

The King looks at His raftered hall with nebulae hung as pennants

And galaxies laid at his feet in polished, gleaming splendor.

“I have made Myself a dwelling place.

 

 

But, I will consent to live in the smallest penitent

Who fears the sound of My name.”

 

A Meditation on Depression

The numbness comes like a cold hand

Dragging me beneath icy waters.

I cannot stir, deeply sluggish,

With my frantic mind caged,

Throwing itself against the bars,

Screaming in terror.

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And yet my heart is limp

Under the press of crushing depths.

And my mind gives one last shake

Before it too falls back into darkness.

 

I see those who love me

Frantically search the whitetops,

But I have sunk too deep.

Even their cries cannot reach my ears,

Drowned by the fathoms of sorrow.

 

My heart cannot open its mouth

Even to plead for its own life.

Then all is silence,

Even the echoes swallowed by darkness.

 

And in that absolute silence

Where even death would feel like warmth,

My hollow heart catches the faint pulse

Of a Presence.

 

Slowly,

slowly,

The Presence grows.

 

And my heart tries to flounder

Back to Life and Warmth and Movement.

But the heart has drowned too long ago.

Nothing is left with which to flounder.

And the stillness grows more still.

 

And the Presence grows more Present.

 

My ensnared heart can only wait

In wonder and death

As Certainty and Life

Embrace my entire being.

And I cannot flee.

Truth and Knowing begin to seep

Into every fiber of my reality.

Life fills my every limb and extremity,

So abundant and temperate

That all memory of activity before the wave

Pales in comparison.

 

Buoyed by a surge of Hope

So strong that my soul bursts to the surface,

I find myself walking upon the waters

That had previously dragged me down.

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And I do not walk alone.

 

Revitalized beyond any likeness of my old life,

I see the waves,

Not as enemies to me

But as servants to the One by my side.

 

Without true stillness,

There would have been no Voice.

Without true numbness,

There would have been no Warmth.

Without true death,

There would have been no Life.

 

And my life is more abundant

By the tinge of sorrow,

Which needs Faith to overcome.

A Meditation on Jeremiah 2:2-3

(Compare to Jeremiah 2:2-3)

 

A tender maid stands forth,

Delicate and doe-eyed.

With shining eyes

She follows the broad shoulders

Of her love into the desert.

 

In the wilderness,

The jackal calls and roars of hungry lions

Do not daunt her slender neck

Or hunch her straight back.

 

Her warrior leads the way

And she follows,

Knowing the strength in his shadow.

 

Any brigand who lays hands on her

Falls with face frozen in awful terror

At the feet of her spouse.

 

Queen of a harsh land,

She walks in full confidence.

A Meditation on the Twenty-third Psalm

(Compare with Psalm 23)

 

As a lamb, I did not want. But, oh, how I longed!

My needs were met, but I wished for a gentle voice,

A firm discipline, and answers to all my questions.

 

The pastures were green, but I could not see

That the gray skies made them verdant.

I nibbled absently at stems that grew in my reach

But felt no energy to pursue more.

 

My still waters weighed me down, dragging me,

Drenched and chilled, to a halt.

I could not lift my head to look for brighter days.

 

My restored soul came at the cost of angst and anger and frustrations,

Arguments lost in the night air and tears too many to count.

 

The paths of righteousness are not paved,

But filled with thistles, briars, and stones

That pull and rip and tear at everything dear to you.

 

And in the valley, I did not fear evil;

I feared the Shepherd’s good.

I flinched beneath each tap of the rod.

I shied away from the staff waving gently before me.

I trembled and crouched and balked.

I never saw the ravine that opened before me;

I did not feel the comfort of being corralled.

 

I tried not to see the enemies at my table.

I called her, “Friend” and her, “Colleague” and her, “Self.”

It was only when the oil ran into my eyes like tears

And obscured the world that I could begin to see.

My cup overflowed with pain and anger and misery

Until it finally ran clear.

 

It is only now, as Mercy whispers into my ear

And I turn my head to see goodness fill my wake,

That I realize I was always in the Lord’s house,

And He is the Good Shepherd.

Poetry: an Apologetic

I never did learn the rules of writing free verse poetry in my creative writing class. My instructor liked to revel in the idea of poetry rather than set forth any rules. And I am a person who looks for rules.

I understand the use of meter and rhyme, but I am not motivated enough to write ambitious poetry. I make poetry a tool, to visualize the emotions welling up inside too deep for normal words and contain them safely on a page before they overwhelm me. I use “free verse” as an excuse for putting down metaphors that don’t conform to the classic idea of poetry.

I think I also choose the form of “free verse” (at least as close as I can come to it) because it reminds me of the translations of poetry I read in the Bible. I love the power of the metaphors, cloaked in lines and repetitions, not constricted by iambics and pentameters. I enjoy the Psalms, but I love the prophets. The power of conviction and eloquence wrapped up in a symbol, spreading over the page of text, moves my heart as few other things can.

And so I share my poetry. Personally, I struggle to read others’ poems because poetry to me is about release, not relation. If you wish to understand me, read them. Maybe you can find a piece of your own story or heart contained here. But, if you don’t read them, I will understand. And don’t read them if you know the rules of poetry, because I don’t.

The Lowly Squire

Once, three sons of a king consented to travel together. They wanted to pursue rumors of a magnificent land of fruit and wine and beauty fed by a waterfall of purest gold; gossips even added that if one unfolded the riddle, he could claim that land as his own. Rather than share their glory with others, they had agreed to travel with only one squire to serve the three of them and to speak of their destination to no one else.

This servant was the son of a penniless noble who labored beside his own farmers and had no pretensions about his own position. Since the castle dwellers sneered at the father’s “lack of pride,” the son was always saddled with the most unpleasant tasks of the castle rather than training with the other squires to be a knight. Most days, he was little better than a scullion.

“Jack, the stables need mucking out, and the grooms are busy. It’ll build muscle for jousting.”

“Jack, these pots need a strong arm. Clean them as your practice for the sword.”

“Jack, the princes want someone to attend them on a journey, but only one among the three. You’ll do, lad.”

And so Jack found himself trailing behind the royalty with a string of pack horses, one for each prince and two more for general provisions. Not only that, but he was responsible for the four riding horses, cooking, cleaning, setting up the camp and tent, and helping their highnesses dress and bathe. He found himself grateful that the princes had deigned to share a tent.

The first night was a fair sample of how the camp was to be run. Upon coming into a pretty forest glade, Prince Leonard the eldest lifted a hand to halt the company and called, “Squire, we’re making camp here. Be so good as to erect the tent immediately.”

Jack creaked as much as his saddle when he dismounted, but he made his way to the pack animal with the tent and began tugging at the straps securing it. The other three also dismounted (somewhat stiffly, Jack noted with glee) and dropped the reins to make themselves as comfortable as possible in the open space.

Prince Edward plopped next to a fallen log to watch Jack as he wrestled with the tent poles.

“Page, never mind that now. You need to fetch the water and firewood, or else we won’t eat until long after sundown.”

Jack heard his father’s voice in his head, “Never insist on one noble’s rights above another. Follow orders, and let them sort out who has precedent.”

The boy set the tangle of poles on the ground and fetched the soup pot from the luggage. He was hunched down, watching it slowly filling in the stream when the youngest Prince George approached him surreptitiously.

“Jack, my boy, wouldn’t fresh meat for the pot suit all our hearty appetites better than travel rations? Fetch us some, and I’ll make sure that you are well-rewarded.”

Jack recognized a command, so he was obliged to leave the half-filled pot on the shore and take up his sling in order to hunt rabbits in the meadow. Prince Edward saw him pass and inquired into the fire and state of dinner. With hands clasped behind his broad back, His Highness Leonard stared down the heap of canvas and rope that was supposed to be a tent and courteously queried as to why it was not standing as he requested. Prince George crossed the camp in two strides, shoving his book in his pocket, to begin a whispered discourse to his oldest brother, complete with many gestures and a few hearty smacks on the back. Prince Edward looked up idly from his cards to wink at Jack and pantomime a striking motion and blowing in cupped hands.

With a sigh, Jack stumped off to find game and bring back firewood if nothing else. His father had always said to find the easiest task to complete first, since the satisfaction would make the harder work that much sweeter. With only a little trouble, he brought down a grouse and gathered up a stash of dry wood. Laying these in the midst of the clearing, he turned his attention to the tent, which went up with only minor trouble in his deft hands. Truly, it was too large a tent for one man to erect efficiently, but he had used every trick he knew and was content. Prince Leonard looked up from trimming his beard in a propped mirror and nodded in satisfaction.

The little squire built the fire next, hauled the kettle, plucked and cleaned the grouse, and soon had a vegetable soup simmering and a bird roasting to show for his industry. He unsaddled and picketed the riding horses, removing the burdens from the others, and attempted to groom them. But the princes were impatient for their dinner, and he had to leave his work undone in order to pile the wood higher so the blaze would speed the soup. He also thoughtfully moved back the scorching grouse and added a few potatoes to the coals.

Prince Edward requested some of the wine from his own pack horse, “not the swill that Jack brought.” He filled a cup and was returning the skin as Prince Leonard emerged from the tent, demanding his trunk of clothes be brought in as well as his bed. Jack managed to haul the chest into the tent but had the unfortunate duty to inform his lordship that, in fact, with no wagons, there were no beds, only bed rolls. Prince Leonard swallowed this news with a little difficulty but managed not to choke entirely. Jack returned to find dinner a hair away from burning and in fact only saved the potatoes by deft thinking and even defter boots.

He served soup and bird from the fire, bread and wine from the supplies, and even a few honey cakes cajoled out of Cook that morning. (“A bribe of kindness never hurts one’s standing, eh, Father?”) The princes ate and drank each according to his custom, but no matter how delicately Prince Leonard used his utensils or how much Prince George nudged his brothers and laughed, they all ate with equal appetites and even Prince Edward was hard put to keep up with them. Upon finishing their meal (not without Prince Edward sending him for a few delectables squirreled away in the private stash first), Prince Leonard announced that they wished to retire to their tent for the night. And so poor Jack had to go from footman to valet, setting out their bedrolls and fresh shirts, a basin for wash water, and a lantern for light.

All alone, he ate his cold potato and the bite of soup left in the pot with a swig from a water skin to wash it down. After he had scoured the burned bits from the pot’s bottom in the sand of the stream and refilled the skins, he returned to water and groom the grazing horses before tumbling into his own cloak by the fire. In a moment, he was asleep.

The days of their journey passed much as that first day, although Jack became adept at finding and killing game from the saddle and gathering kindling when they halted for a brief repast. But a few weeks venturing into unexplored mountains and forests ran their supplies low, and even the princes had to rely on water to quench their thirst. Prince Edward no longer sent Jack to fetch things from his pack horse’s panniers but would casually find himself nearest them when his brothers were farthest away.

Prince Leonard was heard to comment, “It is such a pity that we are reduced to wearing the same travel stained clothes day in and day out; people will mistake us for vagabonds rather than princes.”

Prince George joked with Jack that a nice stag about now would raise him to the seat of hero in this camp. Jack was just thankful the packs were becoming less heavy to lift and the saddle more soft to sit.

After days and days of travel, they had been following the winding path through a particularly dense forest over a mountain when a turn abruptly revealed the tree line ended and the sun making long shadows on the sides of mountains.

His highness Prince Leonard brought the string of riders to a halt with an imperiously raised hand.

“This is perhaps an excellent location to hold a consultation; we should ponder a new direction in our quest. In fact, I propose we set up camp.”

But none of the party was paying the least attention to him, staring off into the distance with intent gazes, and Jack’s jaw had even dropped a little.

His handsome mouth set in a pouting line, Prince Leonard turned to see what drew their attention rather than descend into an unbecoming quarrel. The strained pucker of his mouth relaxed under the sight that met his eyes.

They finally had stumbled upon their destination, hidden far from their father’s kingdom. A color drenched valley filled a cup between the wooded mountain they had just left and the next one in the chain. The most arresting sight was the waterfall that fed this magical place. Falling from the steep sides of a mountain, the liquid gold tumbled down a series of rocks until it finally contained its joy in a deep pool. In turn, it fed a brilliant stream with crystal fish, and emerald plants stirred the shining waters. Trees with silver leaves and jeweled fruit sprang from those sparkling shores, and even the grass seem more lush green silk than a turf to be trod upon.

Still in a daze, Jack wanted to stand and gaze without ceasing on this unearthly place, but fear tugged at him too. “This is no place for mortal man,” he thought.

Before he had a chance to ask the young lords their pleasure, they had each set spurs to their horses and were riding recklessly down the sloped path. He followed at a more sedate pace, finding the pack horses needed to be persuaded to risk their necks on the descent more than the princes’ chargers. After navigating the animals into the meadow, he drew them along to the place where the princes had paused near the falls themselves.

Prince George seemed to voice Jack’s thoughts when he asked, “What is this place?” but he continued, “What is the riddle?” Then Jack realized that impatience and not wonder was goading the questions.

“My lords,” called a quicksilver voice, all melodies and mirth. Even the horses turned with interest to look as a maid approached them from the foot of the falls. Her lustrous skin was filled with the rich color of life. Her hair drank in the sunlight until it glowed with health. Her eyes made the stars seem pale and wan, and humor chased elegance through her face until the watcher was dazzled. Hastily, Jack dismounted and knelt to her with bowed head, knowing his place before royalty. The princes were slower to follow, and their courtly bows seemed clumsy in the light of her grace.

“Fair maiden,” Prince Leonard began to say, but Prince George pushed forward in great eagerness.

“My lady, I have come to claim these lands.”

The elegance did not fade from the woman’s face, but something came to replace the mirth, earnestness or concern, though worry seemed foreign to such a face.

“I am keeper to these lands. All may enter freely and choose one thing. But,” and here her earnestness deepened to a severe gravity, “be warned. Your choice will reveal if you are worthy of this place, for your choice will reveal your heart. Many have entered,” and with sorrow touching her deep eyes, she added, “but few have left alive. This land will judge you with exactness.”

All three brothers stirred and opened their mouths, each ready to call out his claim to preferment, but Prince George sprang to the side of his packhorse and began to drag it toward the falls. Jack hastily released its lead from the other horses, so that only one followed the prince and not the whole string.

“I have chosen,” he called above his brothers’ squabble. “I choose the golden falls themselves.”

Prince Edward began to laugh. “Don’t be an ass,” he said. “You can’t take anything so wet home with you, whatever it may be made of.”

“That,” panted Prince George as he wrestled a large basket off the side of the horse, “is where you’re wrong. I have planned for this and many other possibilities ever since I first heard the rumors.” He began to pull and lay out a series of bladders from the basket, until he had over a dozen in a neat row. “The falls will themselves never run dry, so even if I only have the one choice, it will last forever. And I will be recognized for my cleverness,” he added, with a nod and wink toward the lady.

Jack felt his heart sink into his boots. “This is no place for cleverness, your highness,” he thought.

The maiden stood with inscrutable face and spoke softly, “You have chosen. Collect your prize.”

With a smirk, Prince George seized the largest bladder and advanced to the foot of the cataract. He opened the bladder to its widest, thrust it into the surging liquid, and watched the humble container fill with the wealth of nations. It was quickly filling, and Jack hastened to his prince’s side with a second bladder. Prince George lingered with eyes only for the golden mouth not quite complete. The bladder sagged under the weight of its contents, causing the prince to teeter at the edge of the falls. Without releasing his prize, the prince could not recover his balance, and so, with a cry and soft plash, he fell into the foaming current and was sucked under the weight of the falls themselves.

After a few moments of horror-stricken silence, while Jack fumbled with his boots and jacket, the maid raised a gentle hand to stop Jack’s dash into the river. “You will be lost too, if you follow him. Stay and live.”

Turning to the other princes, she swept a searching gaze into their faces and said, “Do not share your brother’s fate. While you may choose freely and I am sworn to hinder no man’s choice, think carefully. This land did not look kindly on the heart that longed for unfailing riches.”

The remaining princes moved their lips in silent incantations, but Prince Edward shook off his stupor first.

“Fair maiden, I know my choice. I do not seek to steal the riches of this land, but truly, I would wish to taste them.”

“What is it you choose?”

“I choose the fruit of the land: anything that grows in this enchanted valley, the dishes made from its produce, and the wine shaped from the rich berries and wondrous stream. Of these things, I would like to partake.”

With an inclined head and extended arm, she said, “Come,” and led him to a seat and table close to the falls.

A flagon of wine sat there, surrounded by dishes of ivory cheese, delicate cakes, shining bread, and a basket of the jeweled fruit. Upon closer inspection, the fruit sparkled with color but the skin was ready to burst with tenderness rather than the polished cut of gems. With his back to them, the prince fell to eating immediately, and even Jack’s mouth watered as the rich aromas washed over him. Bite after bite, faster and faster, barely pausing to take a draught from the flagon, Prince Edward consumed the dazzling feast. But he faltered during a bite and then halted; Jack wondered if he was satiated.

The table rattled as Prince Edward slapped his hands down before turning towards the others. His eyes were bulging, face red, and his hands were grasping at the air. Even as understanding dawned on Jack, the prince’s lips turned fully blue, and he fell heavily to the ground. Jack bent over him, prying at his mouth, until he drew back in fear as a vine began to uncurl from inside the prince, opening flowers and unwrapping feelers.

“His heart is revealed,” she murmured. “These pleasures are meant to be taken in reverence and measure, shared and tasted rather than devoured alone. He has consumed in these few minutes what was meant to be enjoyed for a thousand years.”

The maiden turned to face the crown prince and asked in compassionate tones, “Will you still choose, knowing your brothers’ fates?”

Prince Leonard stood licking his lips and breathing heavily, casting his eyes first at the falls and then at his brother’s still form now shrouded in vines and flowers.

Jack felt compelled to dissuade him from rash actions. “My lord, let us leave. None of this is worth your life.”

Prince Leonard continued to cast about him, swinging his arms, muttering of tricks, until his gaze fell on the woman before him. It lingered admiringly as he pushed his squire away.

“Fell enchantress,” he began. “Tell me. Is there any choice that will not lead to my death?”

Her face was calm as she replied, “Yes. All choices have consequences, but not all those consequences lead to death. Will you choose?”

He frowned. “I think I see your ruse now, sorceress. I will make a worthy choice, and that choice is you.”

He took a sharp step toward her until they almost touched, locking eyes with her, and seizing her hand.

“If you are mine, your spells will not work against me,” he said as he bent to claim a kiss from her lips.

She stood still beneath his advance and then stepped back; he stood frozen in his position. Already, a sheen was spreading over his features, and as he stood locked in a lonely kiss, the gilding spread deeper into his skin until only a statue remained.

Her face was full of pity as she said, “To seize what is not yours without even the humility to ask is the height of vanity. I am sorry, but these are not my enchantments. I am only the gatekeeper.”

Jack felt his heart begin to sink as he realized that he was left to return to the king and try to explain why his sons would not come home. “You’ll be headfirst in a pot of boiling oil before the words are out of your mouth,” he thought sadly.

“You, young squire,” the maiden  addressed him. “Do you wish to choose anything?”

“Me, your highness? It’s not for the likes of me. But…” And he faltered as he looked at his charges, foam hanging from bits and heads drooping, even as the sun began its own droop towards the horizon.

“Yes, young squire?”

“Water, your highness. The horses badly need it, if I’m to return them hale and whole to the castle.”

“You intend to return with your masters dead?”

“Yes, highness. I may not survive my news, but I’ll not skulk away like a thief and murderer.”

“Then come. There is water close at hand.”

Past the gilded statue of a man, past the laden table and the mound of rich vegetation that marked a prince’s grave, past the foaming gold plunging into its basin, she led him to an outcrop of rock from which a trickle of water flowed. A simple clay bowl lay in a niche, and a stone trough rested on the ground. Grasping the bowl, he patiently filled it and poured its contents into the trough. Again and again, he let the water rise to the brim and empty into the trough. The horses wandered over to him and plunged their noses into the draught. He only stopped filling after all the horses had quenched their thirst and began grazing in the twilight. With almost no thought for what he did, he put the bowl to his lips and emptied it in one satisfied gulp.

Only when he lowered the brim and saw the lady’s sparkling eyes and wide smile on her face did he realize that he had made his choice. The eagerness on the lady’s face almost ate up every other passion, but mirth (was it mirth?) tugged at her mouth.

“Your heart is revealed,” she said in exultant tones and took his hand with no modesty. He stared, dumbfounded, at his hand in hers. It began to glow with a luster to match that lady’s.

“You have chosen the greatest treasure of all, for that is the water of life. You have chosen it in modesty and industry, with no selfish thought or greedy desire.”

He stood, marveling at his own hand as it flushed in the dim twilight, and she continued.

“The king of this land has long waited for a worthy heir. Come, let us meet your new father, and claim all that you see as your own.”

A Hiatus

It’s been some months since last I posted anything. Summers are long for me, full of heat and indecision, fuzzy thoughts and paralyzing days. I had worked diligently on a story in the spring, but, since this one did not leap whole into my brain, I had to craft it and recraft it around the single metaphor that had captured me. After months of letting it sit idle and more than one long rewrite, I think it is time to give it its wings and see where it flies.

Apology to my Readers

I can’t tell if it’s great humility or great pride that prompts me to write an apologetic for my fiction. I probably have a mixture of both. It takes great boldness to set the thoughts of one’s soul to paper and then publish them. Yet, refusing to write without justifying the matter may point to a desire to be known and recognized. So instead of analyzing endlessly, I will just write it.

I have struggled as a child raised in a Christian home who rebelled against the hypocrisies of her parents and her narrow community and yet never rebelled away. I wanted things fixed, not removed. But those same inconsistencies and rules sparked discontent and resentment until I had lost sight of Jesus Christ, my first love.

And stories are what helped bring me back to that love. A Carpenter contradicted unrepentant rule-makers, leaving them sputtering in helpless rage. A Leader both comforted and confounded his own troops, wanting them to see the heavenly war for the Kingdom beyond the sight of the crowds. An affectionate Son ardently pleaded with his Father and fondly teased his mother, demonstrating the uttermost lengths to which a human soul can honor his parents. These stories showed my human heart how to love the seemingly-distant Divine, and my resentment melted under the steady warmth of a dazzling God-Man.

Once my love was renewed, stories sprang up everywhere. After reading in the Bible, a particularly rich metaphor would set me scribbling out a meditation. During sermons or devotional reading or Christian hymns, I began writing down inspirations and bits of tales, wanting to capture afresh the wonder and deep joy of serving a good God. I felt a call to write again, and the long-buried desires came to light under the steady light of the Spirit’s presence.

bossfight-free-stock-photos-notebook-pencil-white-orangeSo, much to Professor Tolkien’s chagrin, I have begun composing allegories from the tidbits I have found. I have tried to clothe them more like Grimms’ and less like Narnia, but the modern intuitive style is part of me, so I will be content with form only. Please be patient as I grope for my own voice to shed light into the images overrunning my imagination. I will try my best to dust and arrange them carefully before placing them in the light of day.

The Loyal Soldier

A soldier stood before a dark wood. The path which wound its way into the trees fell into deep shadow immediately upon full entrance. With no breath of wind to stir the branches and no sound of birds, he felt a shiver of apprehension touch him lightly. He stooped to light the lantern at his feet but had no pack to shoulder. His headquarters stood on the other side, and he must deliver his report at all costs, provisioned or not.

As he sped quickly along his path, a glittering light sprang up ahead and he quickened his steps, hoping for a brook in which to refresh himself and quench his thirst. What he found was a heap of gold coins and jewels spilling onto the path. Greed seized his heart, and he began to stuff the richest pieces into his pockets until they bulged.

He stopped to admire a particularly large ruby, muttering, “Worth more than a hundred years of soldier’s pay.”

The lantern light made it wink and scatter bits of light into the darkened trees until his eyes were dazzled. He closed them and gripped the gem harder. As the jewel bit into his palm and he shifted his weight, he came to realize how heavy his prizes were, and he opened his palm to let the ruby drop to the dirt. With great reluctance, he emptied the pieces from his pockets until nothing met his groping hand.

He spoke aloud to the silent trees, “I must hurry.”

He stepped over the treasure and continued his journey.  He almost imagined a sound of clicking and chittering behind him, like that of carapaces and beetling legs scurrying when a rock is overturned, but he did not look back.

As he traveled, he heard the sound of fair voices lifted in mirth. Deeper and darker into the woods, he found the road led through a clearing, and in the center of this clearing, surrounding a merry blaze, reveled a group of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Light and fair, dark and rich, hair and eyes of every color with gowns of the lushest hues, they crowded around him, calling out to him, plucking his sleeves, laughing merrily behind their hands, and inviting him with every glance.

His heart longed to join the fair maids as they left him to return to their bonfire, and his feet itched to join in their intricate dance as they swayed and twirled. But his message pulled him on, and so with heavy heart and reluctant feet, he turned his back to their merry fire and capering shadows and set out. He almost fancied that the shadows writhed and became sinuous, even falling to the ground to slither away, once his back was turned, but he knew that was foolishness.

As his journey carried him deeper and deeper, he grew faint with hunger and exertion. A most enticing smell began to beckon him onward, of roast meats and warm bread. Rounding the bend, he came upon a table, laid out for a royal feast, piled high with plates of sliced beef, roast fowl of every description, a whole suckling pig, sweetmeats of every color and texture, flagons of wine, barrels of ale, pitchers of mead, and baskets overflowing with crusty loaves. At this sight, he stopped short.

He had thought lightly of the abandoned treasure, wondered at the women, and now he was overcome with uneasiness. Who would set a feast in the middle of a forsaken forest? What would come of him if he ate? And yet hunger pains gripped his stomach and his body trembled in protest as the rich smells told it he need fast no more.

He stood debating with himself even as his knees shook and threatened to spill him onto the ground. He had lived off hard tack and soldier’s gruel for so long that his desire was acute, and yet he was filled with sudden clarity. If he sat down to this feast, he would never stop until he had grown too fat to move. So he pulled his belt tight, forcing his stomach to submit and left without touching a crumb. His steps hurried him down the path, lest the smells linger too long and weaken his resolve. Perhaps it was only his uneasiness that made him see furriness and glittering eyes and waving pins on the edges of the table where only food and drink should be.

After so long a journey and such strange encounters, the soldier’s feet had begun to ache and his vision swam as he stumbled deeper into the night. He noticed that no light, even of deep twilight, entered the forest outside the halo of his lantern; he found himself longing, just a little, for his humble bedroll and cramped tent. Just as these thoughts occurred to him, he happened to glance out into the darkness and saw the vision of a steaming bath and quilted featherbed on the forest floor. He felt very alarmed indeed at the way this apparition came as if summoned by his thought. Now he began to have some idea as to the nature of this wood.

“No,” he bellowed aloud. “I must go. My message is too important.”

He began to run down the path, staggering in his haste and weariness, refusing to look back as the tub and bed boiled over into hundreds of stinging tails and pinching claws, striking indiscriminately until they made their separate ways back into the wood.

He ran until no breath was left in his body, and he doubled over his knees to gasp it back in. A quiet whicker and the jingle of metal made him throw his head up in alarm. A magnificent horse stood squarely on the path, nosing at the grass on its edges, dragging bridle reins beside it and handsome saddle polished until it gleamed. Upon noticing the gray coat with white dapples and stockings and blaze, the soldier uttered the mystified word, “Blaze?”

The horse raised its head and snorted at the sound of its name. The soldier moved with stiff steps toward the animal and stroked its nose as he murmured, “I saw the lieutenant hale and whole after the battle. How did you get loose?”

The horse tossed his head a bit and sidled up to the man, as if inviting him into the saddle.

“I always resented your master; he was no better than me. Yet he had all the luck, riding such a fine animal while the rest marched, giving orders to men his superior in all but rank, and hanging on the captain like a girl on her mother’s apron strings.”

He idly grasped the stirrup and said to the tilted ears, “You wouldn’t slow my message, would you?”

The horse stood still as stone, well-trained to expect a rider to mount. A vision of his galloping through the rest of this dismal forest and out into the open fields filled the soldier’s head. And who knew? Perhaps when he entered the camp, he would find that something indeed had happened to the lieutenant, and Blaze could be his.

The thoughts of sunshine and riding freely, leaving all behind him, overtook his mind, and his foot was in the stirrup before he knew it. But the weight of his message rose up and overpowered that happy picture, and he came to himself. Hastily, he disentangled himself. How could he have forgotten so quickly the lesson of the bed and the feast? This forest was seeking to trap him.

He dared not cast one last look at the horse as he trotted down the trail, too afraid to walk and too weary to run. He could hear the animal thrashing and stamping, strange in a beast that had been so sedate only a moment ago. He almost thought to return to the poor animal’s comfort, but the cough of a monster and the smell the sulfur floated to him. Horrible pictures of dragons from his boyhood came floating back with unusual terror, and he resumed his tired trot with a jolt of fear.

Despair began to grow in the soldier’s heart after such a night of exertion and fasting, interrupted by strange sights and encounters that left him afraid. His heart rose up in anger to fight the lethargy of soul that was stealing over him. With each step, he became more enraged with the enemy who fought his company; he thought to still be at headquarters if not for their attack rather than wandering through a haunted wood. Even as his blood boiled, he stumbled in the road and looked down to roundly curse the root or stone that hindered him, only to find a man’s sleeping form.

Shielding the light of his lantern with a hand, he looked upon the face of the enemy captain, fresh from the battlefield, who had almost succeeded in killing him. Lit by the fires of emotion rather than reason, he never stopped to consider why his enemy would be here or remember the other tricks of the forest; instead, he cast his lantern aside and knelt swiftly in order to grasp the man’s neck with both hands and so end a miserable life. But the light of his lantern did not die, even as it rolled back and forth on its side, and the lights cast on the man’s face wavered wildly, now showing him peaceful and still, now showing the lines of trouble and heartache.

As the soldier looked deeply on the face of his enemy, his wrath began to melt, and pity welled up in its place. His fingers began to relax and fell to his side, and he stood to continue his journey, grasping his lantern anew. He strode over the sleeping man and continued on his way, but, as he was passing out of sight, the sleeper stirred. The soldier caught a glimpse of sharpened teeth and bent form that filled him with dread, and he began a labored run that lasted until he was spent and had to lapse back into his faltering walk.

Finally, it seemed the trees thinned and light from a distant dawn was leaking in. The soldier felt more confident that his journey was nearing an end with each step, and he drank in the air clear of the forest gloom with renewed vigor. Even his lantern was almost forgotten in the new brightness. His path ran along the edge of a steep embankment, and in the hollow at the bottom a camp bustled with life.

To his horror, someone immediately pointed to his figure and called out, “Look it’s the hero.”

Every eye fell on him, and he froze under the weight of those stares. And then the cheering began. Every man put down his burden in order to raise his fist and voice with more and more gusto. People draped in rich silks and jewels began to emerge from tents, and they added their more demure claps to the rising sound.

The soldier stood awash in a sea of adulation, and he longed to bask in their applause. But the flags they flew and uniforms they wore marked them as the enemy, and shame rose up to choke him and would not be assuaged by a few cheers. He turned away as stiffly as a rusted wheel and began to hobble in any direction but that of the crowd.

The trees were so sparse that he could see glimpses of a meadow and even the ribbon of stream that marked his own headquarters. He threw one look over his shoulder, half in dread and half in longing, only to see the soldiers of the camp scrambling up the embankment after him. Even as he watched, dumbfounded, the soldiers shed their disguises, and he beheld an army of goblins and orcs and twisted creatures pursuing him.

He turned away from the band of monsters and began to run toward the meadow; fear and hope mingled together to give him new strength so that he outran his pursuers through the last of the woods and into the open land. He stayed ahead of the mass, panting, tripping, splashing through the stream, only to sprawl facedown into the grass and loam on the far side of the water.

He lay waiting for the bite of a sword in his back, but no matching sound of wading accompanied him. He raised his head to see the horde halted before the sparkling brook, waving weapons and shrieking horrifically, but none dared touch the water. He stumbled back to his feet. A few archers loosed shafts at him; he dodged and wove his way to safety.

Immediately, he was challenged by sentries on the edge of camp, soldiers in his own uniform. He stood for a moment in relief before stating his need to deliver an urgent message to the general. He was pointed to the general’s tent, and with measured tread he approached. The general looked up from his maps and gazed at the dirt and torn clothing of the soldier.

Have you returned from the recent battle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then report.”

“The battle was a failure. The enemy ambushed us, and we were overwhelmed. The captain showed his mettle. He regrouped our scattering troops and led the soldiers in a successful charge that broke the enemy lines. But he took three arrows in the process and died when the enemy captain ran him through. All this because we were betrayed by one of our own.”

“You know this for a fact? Who?”

“I am the traitor.”

The general’s aids all gasped and grabbed their sword hilts. The general staid them with a raised hand and locked the traitor’s eyes in an intense scrutiny.

The guilty man took a deep breath and plunged on.

“I have always resented my conscription into this army: the privations, the marching, and the obeying of officers. In exchange for a skin of wine and a fine cloak, I spoke at length to the enemy captain. From my sodden tongue, I think he learned much of our numbers and position.

“I was surprised as the next man by the attack, but I thought to press my advantage. Rather than join our captain and company, I fled to the enemy lines, calling out my allegiance. At an order from their captain, they sent a hail of arrows at me, the same arrows that struck our captain. You see, he had followed me to bring me to my senses and back to the safety of the company.  The enemy captain drew his sword and tried to run me down. Our captain met him in the field and took the attack meant for me. The enemy captain thrust him through, leered at me, and followed the retreat.”

Tears sprang into the collaborator’s eyes, and one trickled down a cheek.

“I stared in horror as my captain fell from his horse, and I rushed to his side. I tried to lift him in my arms, to find help, to staunch the flow of blood. My resentments were melting under the wash of life’s blood that covered my hands; I wept and asked ‘Why?’ again and again. With an agonized smile, he gasped, ‘You are my subordinate. I do not lose my own.’ With a final whisper, he said, ‘Tell my father,’ and then he died in my arms. And so I am here, General. Your son, my captain, is dead at my hand and my folly.”

The soldier fell to his knees and bowed his head until his neck was exposed, ready for the sword.

“I have carried this message to you at his request. I deserve death. Please deliver your judgment.”

The general stood like a stone, and the long moments weighed on the soldier like centuries. The general finally spoke.

“My son has died so that you may live. No more death is required. You will now serve in his place.”

The soldier stood up, attempting to shake off his stupor of disbelief and shame. From that moment forth, he followed the general all the days of his life, none more loyal or ready to risk life and limb.