“Once Upon A Time” and Redemption

Snow White

Taking a break from my tales tonight to reflect on something that’s been both an inspiration and a frustration to me as I’ve been writing them.  My husband and I recently discovered the ABC show, “Once Upon A Time.”  We loved it from the first episode, and have been watching it almost every night for the last six weeks or so.

But what started out as a really truth-filled, faith-bolstering fairy tale seems to have lost its way in the episodes we’ve watched recently.  The most disappointing choice that the writers have made is in Snow White’s storyline.  (Warning: spoilers ahead.  If you’re a fan and haven’t yet gotten to the end of Season 2, you may want to read this post after you do.)  You see, Snow White’s “talent” was that she was pure of heart.  Even faced with the darkest acts of evil, she was always able to see the potential for future redemption in her enemy.

But then, Snow made a dark choice herself.  She chose vengeance rather than love.  That, in itself, was not disappointing to me, because that made her human.  It made her relate-able.  The disappointing part is the way that the show presents her redemptive path.

Rather than showing that love, repentance, and forgiveness are the key ingredients in redemption, it is instead required that Snow earn her redemption by doing good deeds, specifically toward those whom she has hurt.  But even when she has done these things, Snow is still tormented by the knowledge that there is a dark spot in her previously pure heart.  It seems that the show’s writers understand that good deeds can never equal redemption; but they don’t know what to do with that fact, so they just send Snow on an endless journey, attempting to earn her purity back and purge the darkness from her soul.

Isn’t this just like what so many of us do?  We feel that there is something wrong in our hearts–that we’re not pure as we ought to be–but we don’t know what to do with that knowledge.  So, we just keep trying to do our best–to give to charity, to be kind to our children, to volunteer at the local public school or soup kitchen, to recycle and compost our trash–but we never seem to quite expunge the guilt that lies underneath our conscious thoughts day after day.

Here’s the hard truth, one that the “Evil Queen” tells Snow in the show:  There is no way to remove the dark spot in our hearts.  Like Lady Macbeth, we are doomed to spend our lives crying “Out, damned spot!” and wringing our hands in futility.  Unless…

Unless we invite the One who truly is pure of heart to take the stain from our souls.  Y’shua (Jesus) is the only one who has the “magic” necessary to clean our hearts.  He doesn’t require that we perform a list of good deeds or ritualistic activities to earn His love and favor.  All we have to do is ask, and believe, that He can free us from the unwieldy weight of our own bad choices, and He will.  He will clean our hearts and restore us to the relationship with God that we all deeply long for.  Whether we’ve been believers for a long time, or are just now finding our hearts opened to acknowledge God’s existence, we need to know that it’s not our own efforts that can save us from ourselves.  It is only God’s effort on our behalf.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that they can be beaten.” Jesus took the punishment that we deserve–death–and then he overcame it, like a knight defeating the world’s most gruesome dragon.  Like the fairy-tale prince that He is, Jesus overcomes evil and offers to rescue our hearts, if we’ll let him.

I hope that “Once Upon A Time’s” Snow White finds some peace, but whether the show’s writers figure out a way to do that or not, I’m grateful that the Author of my fairy tale has written a “Happily Ever After” ending, and that He invites us all to partake in it.

We can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
― C.S. LewisThe Last Battle

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The City of El – “Philip”

dead_king_dimitar_stoykow

The City has been my home for as long as I can remember. Since boyhood, I have spent my days safe within its high, white walls. I never thought I would leave its sun-warmed cobblestone streets or spend my days out of earshot of its ever-flowing fountains. But that all changed the night the survivors came.

Watching them limp in through the city gate, past the library where I was working late, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. This kind of pain, the ugliness of what had been done to these people, it was something I had never seen before. Never before had I been face-to-face with the consequences of Evil. Sure, I had read about it in many of the books in the library—about the First Ghoul Uprising and other, more ancient battles; about the dark places on the edges of the kingdom where strange things were seen and where only the strong of heart dared dwell. But this was the first time I saw such things with my own eyes. And it was the first time I felt fear rise in my heart at the thought of what Evil was capable of.

But it wasn’t just fear that I felt that night; there was also anger. And something else—a need to help, to undo what Evil had done, to right the wrongs that had been perpetrated on these people.

I went out into the streets and began pointing the wounded toward the Healing Homes. Then I saw a man who could barely walk on his own. One of his ankles was bent at an odd angle and he was limping in horrible pain, leaning against walls and a too-short staff as he moved very slowly along the street. I went to him and put my arm around his back.

“Lean on me,” I said. “I’ll get you to the Healing Homes. The nearest one is only a block or two farther.”

He acknowledge my offer with a nod and leaned heavily on me. He was in too much pain to speak, and so we made our way in silence, broken only by an occasional grunt as he tripped over an uneven stone or stepped across the gullies where the water ran through the streets.

But when we reached the first Healing Home, it was full to overflowing. The man’s slow pace meant that many had passed him and reached the Home first. It was the same at the second and third Healing Home. Finally, after climbing more than half-way up toward the center of the City, the man said breathlessly, “I must rest. Please.”
We found a stone step and I lowered him carefully onto it. “I can go get help,” I said. There is a Healing Home near the center of the City, at the top of the hill. I’ll bring someone and we can carry you the rest of the way.”

“No,” he said. “Please—” he ground his teeth in pain. “Please don’t leave. I need someone to keep me awake—I’ve lost too much blood—”
It was then that I noticed that his boot and pant leg were soaked deep red. I looked down the street behind us and saw a thin trail of it where we had walked.

“You need help now,” I said. “I’ve got to get someone. If they don’t stop the bleeding, you’ll die.” I felt myself getting queasy as I looked at the pool slowly forming around his foot.

“There isn’t time,” he grunted out. “We need to make a tourniquet. You’ll need to help me.”

The nausea that I’d been trying to hold back washed over me then, and I felt myself begin to tremor. “I—I don’t know what to do. I can’t—it’s better if I get help. I’ll run. I can be back with help in a matter of minutes.”

“I don’t have minutes,” the man said, and I saw his head begin to droop. Exhaustion and blood-loss was overtaking him.

“Okay! Okay” I said. “Tell me what to do. Just don’t pass out.”
“Tear off my pant leg,” he said.

My hands shaking and my stomach threatening upheaval at any second, I reached down and grabbed the blood-soaked cloth. Then, clenching my teeth, I tore the fabric up to the man’s knee.

His ankle was broken. The bone was protruding from his skin. Blood flowed down his leg and over his foot. I felt myself retch. The wounded man was not the only one in danger of passing out now.
Then I felt his hand on my shoulder. I felt his lack of strength as he tried to squeeze my shoulder in reassurance. “You can do this,” he said. Though his voice was weak, there was confidence in it. I squared my shoulders. He was depending on me. “I can do it,” I said. “Tell me what’s next.”

With a voice barely more than a whisper, the man talked me through tearing a strip of the cloth and then tying it around his leg, above his knee. At first, I was afraid to pull it too tight, but he insisted, and as I pulled it as taught as I possibly could, I saw the blood begin to flow less freely from his wound.

“Thank you,” he said. And then he slumped over.

I felt for a pulse in his neck. It was still there, though weak. Knowing there was nothing else I could do for him there on the step, I took off running as fast as my feet could carry me up to the last Healing Home.

I reached the Home and shoved open the doors. Other wounded were already there, but I was able to find an attendant and quickly explained about the wounded man. Shouting an order at another healer, he quickly followed me from the house and we both sprinted back to the man who I’d left slumped against a doorpost several blocks away.

When we reached him, the healer quickly examined his injury, then said, “We’ll need a litter. We can’t carry him without one or we’ll risk injuring him further.” Immediately, he began knocking on the nearest door.

A moment later a woman appeared, carrying a candle. She gasped when she saw the man passed out nearby and the pool of blood beneath him. “We need a bedsheet and two long poles of some sort,” the healer said to her. “Do you have those things?”

“I have a sheet, but no poles. But the man next door, he’s a carpenter, he might have something.” Without waiting for the healer to instruct me, I immediately ran to the door she had indicated and began pounding on it with my fist.

“What’s the ruckus?” said a man, pulling the door open.
“Please sir, can you give us some poles or something we can use to make a litter?”

Seeing the injured man, he said, “I don’t have any poles, but I have some long branches. I was going to make bedposts out of them. Follow me.”

I followed the man into his workshop. The floor was thick with sawdust and there were several half-complete pieces of furniture leaning against the walls. I could tell at a glance that his workmanship was of the highest quality. But I didn’t stay to admire the chests and chairs. He handed me two long branches, with the white, paper-like bark still on them. Thanking him, I took the branches and made my way quickly back out to the street.

The healer was waiting for me with a sheet and we quickly formed a litter. Then, carefully, we moved the wounded man onto the sheet and hoisted him up, the healer carrying the front of the litter and I the back.

“Will he be alright?” the woman asked, standing in her doorway.
“We can’t know yet,” said the healer, “but we’ll do our best to help him.” And with that we started off, moving as quickly as we could toward the Healing Home.

When we reached the building, I was asked to wait outside. Even this, the last and most remote healing center in the city was already full with patients. I wanted to go in, to see that the wounded man was taken care of. But my nausea began to creep back in as I saw so many injured people waiting for treatment. So, I waited on the front steps, my head in my hands—exhaustion and a sense of soul-weariness weighing me down. So many wounded. And how many more were dead, left on the battlefields to be ravaged by the Ghouls?

The streets were silent. All the wounded had found places to rest and receive care. The other citizens of the City, many of whom had come out into the streets to help, had gone back to their homes. I was about to get up and head back to my rooms near the library, when I heard footsteps in the alley beside the Healing Home. Turning my head toward the sound, I saw a group of six men—generals by their armor and insignia—carrying a litter up a stairway and into an adjacent building. I could not see who was on the litter, but I knew it must have been someone important to be carried by such high-ranking men.

My curiosity got the better of me and, despite the heaviness in my limbs, I decided to climb the steep steps and see if I could get a glimpse of the person on the litter. As I reached the top step, though, one of the generals came out, nearly running into me.

“I—I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I saw you carrying someone inside, and I was curious. I should have minded my own business. Forgive me.”

It was then that I noticed the tears on the man’s cheeks. “You needn’t apologize,” he said, and then sighed heavily. “The news will reach all ears soon enough anyway. The man we carried in was the King. He is dead.”

I staggered backward and nearly fell on the top step behind me. The general caught my arm. “The king?” I whispered, incredulous. “The king is dead?”

“Yes,” he said softly. “As hard as it may be for any of us to believe.” He moved past me then, starting down the stairs. “You should get home,” he said to me, looking over his shoulder. “Rest while you can. Tomorrow will bring more grim news than just the king’s death. We should prepare ourselves. Our City is about to become a battleground.” And with that he hurried off into the dark streets.

The City of El – “Melinda”

snuffed candle

I’m lying here, feeling my life flow out of me from the wound in my side. It is warm and feels gentle as it leaves my body, as if it were saying a sad farewell.

I am sad to see it go. I have had a good life here in El. I enjoyed many adventures, the best of which was becoming a mother. Maryam is in the City now. I wish I could say goodbye to her.

The king is dead. I don’t understand how that can be any more than I understand how the warm blood flowing from my veins carries my life away with it. The king was said to be eternal. Now, as I face death, it seems strange to me that I am not eternal, too.

How can a life be tied to such a small, temporary thing as a body? How can this great, ever-growing essence in me end? Even now, as my moments grow small, I still feel myself becoming larger—the very experience of dying expands me, give me more understanding, and more questions. Will they never be answered? Will this curiosity which is in me, which has led me like an adventurous friend into so many experiences and relationships, will it just end? Be snuffed out? Even a candle leaves a vapor, a whiff of growing, dispersing smoke when it dies. Will I? Or will I just be gone, like a footprint in the dust after the wind blows over it?

It seems impossible, and yet I have never been told otherwise. Death—the untouchable subject. No one talks about it. The dead are here one day and then gone the next, as if they never existed; their names are not mentioned.

But why? And why am I only now seeing the foolishness in this? Why did it take the experience of my own death to make me realize that we have been wrong all along? It is wasteful to let death take our loved ones. It is cowardly. No, perhaps we cannot stop their bodies from ceasing to hold their life, but we can keep ourselves from closing the door on their lives as if they never existed at all. Why should we not talk about our loved ones that have gone through death? Why should we close our lips and our hearts to the memories of them—both joyful and painful? Why should death be the end of them?

And what if it isn’t the end? What if they, like the candle’s smoke, expand into the air all around us, becoming part of the very atmosphere of our days? What if they simply shift into another way of being, leaving their bodies behind, but not ceasing to exist any more than the light of the candle ceases to exist when it leaves the flame, than the heat of a fire ceases when it leaves the hearth? The light and the warmth remain, though no longer embodied by wood or wick.

Perhaps these are the foggy thoughts of a woman whose breath grows weak and whose eyes are becoming misted over. Yet I feel, as death draws nearer by the heartbeat, as if clarity is just beyond that veil, as if the words—the understanding—which cannot function in this too-mortal clay, will burst upon me once I shed this body. Perhaps this is not the end after all?

A retraction

So it’s 10:00 pm on Friday night, and I haven’t written a fairy tale in 2 days. I’m afraid I shall have to (at least temporarily) retract my promise to publish a tale every day. My sincerest apologies.

You see, we’re at a family retreat, and while I had hoped to be able to continue to write while I’m here, it’s not working out that way.

It’s not that I don’t have time…there are plenty of moments when I could have sat down and punched out some words on my laptop. The real issue is that I’m an introvert in a non-stop social environment right now, and during the occasional hour I have to myself, I find that I need to just decompress and rest, so that I can re-engage socially again at the next event or meal.

I wish that writing could function as that decompression time for me, but it doesn’t. Whether it’s because I’m just creatively sapped from all the interaction, or whether it’s because spending time with my characters feels almost like yet another social engagement, I haven’t been able to sit down and bring their stories to life these last 36 hours.

But don’t worry…I have characters and plots floating around in my mind, gaining more and more coherence as the hours go by. Soon I will share them with you all. Please be patient. And please stay tuned!

I’m so grateful to all of you who are reading and who have sent me encouraging messages about how much you’re enjoying the stories. Writing is my great passion and I am so happy to be able to share my tales with you all.

As Christopher Robin wrote in his ill-fated note to Winnie-the-Pooh and friends: “Gon Out. Bisy. Backson.”

~Sarah

The City of El – “Pied”

footprints

I am known by many names in the Kingdom of El.  Some call me the Gypsy Song, others the Invisible Whistler.  But the most common is the Piper of Pied.  Some have thought that this title referred to my clothing—which they mistakenly believed to be made of many different colors of cloth.  But this name actually refers to the older meaning of “pied,” which is “foot” or “feet.”  For you see, it is only the footprints of my followers that are left behind after I visit a village.

I discovered my gift when I was just a child.  I was given a small flute as a birthday gift one year, sent by an anonymous giver.  For weeks on end, I did nothing but practice that flute.  I took it with me everywhere I went.  Then, one day, when I had finally become quite good at playing it, I noticed that some of the other children in my village were following me around.  I thought they liked my playing, so I began to play louder, making my way throughout the village streets.  Soon other children and even adults began to join in the parade.  By the time I’d finished my song, the entire village had come out and begun to follow me.  When I finally took the flute from my lips, they all seemed to shake themselves and look around.  They seemed surprised to find themselves in the village green, where I had stopped, as if they did not remember following me there.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this strange phenomenon.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that every time I played my flute, the people who heard me immediately stopped whatever they were doing and began to follow.  It was fun for awhile.  Then it became frightening.  More than once, a fire was set or a baby temporarily abandoned because someone followed the sound of my music, leaving the task they had been engaged in.

No one ever discovered how or why these things were happening, for after I stopped playing, no one could remember why they had left their home or their work or what had made them walk to some other place in the village.  The people in my village, including my own family, thought that they were subject to some kind of strange illness or a curse of some sort.  Eventually, they sent to the City to ask for help.

In the meantime, I had learned to use my talent for my own gain.  I began sneaking away to other nearby villages and settlements.  Once there, I would play my flute loud enough for all to hear, then lead them far from their homes, out into the wilderness.  Then, as they were “waking” from their trance, I would run back to their houses and barns and gather their belongings—anything valuable and small enough to carry easily.  I would carry these spoils back to my own village, where I hid them in small cave I had discovered not far from my family’s home.  I had no specific plans for all my laid-up treasure.  I just enjoyed collecting it.  I thought that someday perhaps I would take a great, long journey and would use my trove to fund my trip.  But mostly, it just made me happy to think that I had tricked so many people out of their belongings and no one was the wiser.

I continued my “raids” for several months, while more and more people began to send messages to the City to ask for help.  They had begun to believe that a very dark magic had taken hold in the area and that only an emissary from the king himself could solve the riddle of their strange behavior and missing possessions.

Meanwhile, I had discovered something interesting about my gift and its limitations—although my music would immediately weave its spell over most people, there were some who were unaffected.  These were always children—usually the younger ones.  I came to the conclusion that the reason people followed my music was because, for awhile, it made them forget their sorrows.  When they heard my music, people got a look of dreamy contentment on their faces.  Even people who I had never seen smile before seemed happy and peaceful when they followed me.  My music somehow made them forget the deep sorrows that they never talked about but that lived deep in their souls and weighed their hearts down from day to day.  But children, especially the youngest of them, had no such sorrows to forget.  It was disconcerting for me to return to a village now emptied of its people and to see a tiny child toddling about, wondering where everyone had gone.  Fortunately for me, there was rarely a child left behind that was old enough to talk—so no one gave away my identity when the adults returned.

Then, one day, just as I was stashing my latest haul in the cave, I heard the sound of trumpets coming from the village green.  Quickly crawling out of the cave, I ran to see what was happening.  To my great surprise, standing in the middle of the green, surrounded by my family and the other villagers, stood the King.

He had heard of the troubles in this part of the kingdom and, rather than sending an emissary, had decided to come himself to see if he could help.  He said he would stay in the village while he and his attendants attempted to get to the bottom of things.

Fear gripped me.  What if the king discovered that it was me that was causing the trance-like wanderings and the disappearing possessions?  What if he found my cave of booty?  Would he punish me?  Take me back to the City and throw me in a dungeon for the rest of my life?  Or would he tell everyone what I had done and leave me at their mercy as they beat or pilloried me for all the trouble I’d caused?

I decided that I would do everything I could to stay out of the king’s way while he was there.  If he never met me, then he couldn’t suspect me.  And I would take a break from my pillaging for awhile.  Maybe if things calmed down for a few months, if there were no more complaints, then I could resume my activities more subtly in the future.  But for now, I would lay low.

But my plans to avoid the king failed.

The next morning, as I was attempting to sneak out of the village, planning to spend the day hiding among the tall grasses of the surrounding fields, I heard footsteps behind me.  I turned to find myself face-to-face with the king himself.

“Y—Your Majesty,” I spluttered, dropping to one knee.

“Rise, Patrice, I have something I wish to speak to you about.”

Surpised that the king knew my name, I had no choice but to do as he bid, and I stood shakily.  I tried to appear calm, but inwardly I was trembling in fear, sure that the king was going to condemn me to some terrible fate for my actions.

“I know that you are the one who has been putting the people into trances and stealing their goods,” said the king.  I started to protest, but then fell silent.  The look in his eyes, while not angry, was stern, and I could tell he would brook no argument.

“Yes, your majesty,” I said quietly, bowing my head.  My fate was sealed.  There was no escaping it.  My actions had caught up with me and now I was going to pay for them—with death, perhaps, or something even worse.

“Patrice,” said the king, beckoning me to walk with him into the field.  “Do you know who sent you that flute when you were younger?”

“No, sir,” I said.  “It came with no note.”  Inwardly I wondered if some dark sorcerer or other purveyor of evil had sent it, to lead me astray and cause chaos among the villagers.  Perhaps it was part of some larger nefarious plan.

“I sent it,” said the king.

“You?  But why?”  How had the king even known of my existence?  And why would he send me something that would lead me into a life of evil, when he himself was renowned for his goodness?

“Because I knew that you had a special gift—the ability to lead people with your music.  And I knew that you might never realize your talent, unless someone provided you with an instrument upon which to play and thus learn of it.”

“But I don’t understand,” I said, still waiting for him to proclaim my punishment.  “I have only done harm with my music.  Why, if you knew what I was capable of, would you want to help me along that path?”

“I had hoped that you would choose to use your gift to benefit others, not to hurt them.  I am still hoping that you will make that choice.”

“You—you mean, you’re giving me another chance?”

“Yes, on one condition.  You must return all that you have stolen and work to make amends to those whose property was damaged by fire and other consequences of your actions.”

Stunned that I was not being sentenced to death or dungeon, I quickly agreed.  “Yes, yes, I’ll make amends.  And I’ll never play music again.  I’ll never lead people away from their homes or their children.  I’ll destroy the flute.  Here, I’ll do it right now!”  And I pulled the flute from my pocket, ready to crush it with my heel.

“Don’t destroy it,” the king said, putting his hand on mine to keep me from throwing the flute to the ground.  “There will come a day when your talent will be put to good use, when people will need you to lead them where they would not otherwise follow.  Your flute, and your talent, will be needed one day.”

“But how will I know when that is?”  I was worried that if I kept the flute, I would be tempted to use it again for harm.  Better to destroy it now and never again face the desire to entrance and steal with it.

“You will know,” he said confidently, “if you learn to listen to your heart and not your selfish inclinations.  For it was I who gave you this talent, when your parents brought you to the City as a tiny baby and asked that I christen you.  I gave you your name, and I gave you your gift.  And if you listen closely to your heart, you will know when it is time to use it again.”

Many children in El are given their names by the king.  But I had not know that I was one of them.  For some reason, my parents had never told me this.  Now that I knew that my talent and my name were gifts from the king, I wanted to keep them unsullied.  In the future, I wanted to be untainted by greedy and rebellious actions.

When the king left that day, I thought I had been released from a terrible punishment.  I returned the things I had stolen, and attempted to make right the other harm I had done—both in my own village and in the others nearby.  But what I hadn’t realized is how heavy a punishment it would be simply to live among those who had come to distrust and even hate me.  Most of them, once they found out what I’d done, didn’t want anything to do with me.  They ceased to call me by my name, “Patrice,” and began to call me “Pied.”  The avoided my eye and kept their distance when I was about.

Eventually, I decided that I had to leave.  I had only sixteen summers at this point, and was not technically old enough to leave home.  But staying in the village had become too painful for me.  The looks of disdain, fear, and anger were too much for me to bear day after day.  Though my family told me I should stay, I could tell that they were ashamed of me and wished me gone as well.  I thought I would be better off in some distant place where people did not know my past, the things I had done, where maybe I could begin anew.  And so, with my flute in my pocket, I left Braed permanently.  Or so I thought.

The City of El – “Layla”

My name is Layla.  I am a citizen of the City.  I work as a laundress—I clean and repair clothes, and sometimes make them.

Last night was my sentry shift.  I was assigned to the North gate.  It had been a long day of washing and mending, and I was tired.  At thirty-four summers, I am not as young as I once was.  The work of scrubbing and wringing the clothes and hanging them, wet and heavy, on the lines is tiring at times.

But I reported for my shift on time.  With news of the Ghoul attacks in the North Country, it is more important than ever to guard the City. For if the City is lost, then the whole kingdom is lost.

The three-hour shift was uneventful.  Our relief had just come and I was about to go home, grateful to be able to finally sleep, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye.  Though she moved swiftly, I recognized the shape of a young girl slipping out through the gate into the darkness beyond.

Quickly I whispered to the next guard on duty what I was going to do.  Then I followed her out, keeping to the shadows where she wouldn’t see me.

I can’t say why I didn’t just grab her and bring her back into the City.  Something told me to wait, to see what she was going to do.

I followed her for about an hour.  She kept to the road, and it was not hard to stay near her, though I had to hide quickly a few times when she turned to look behind.  But she seemed to not notice me.  Then, suddenly, she dove into a clump of heather beside the road.  I thought that if she had seen me following then this was a foolish move, as I could have quickly overtaken her in her hiding place.  But then I saw that it was not me she was hiding from, but the shapes on the road.

Following her lead, I moved swiftly off the road and into a clump of bracken.  As the shapes drew nearer, it was all I could do not to cry out.  For they were none other than the king’s army—torn and battered, some wounded beyond recognition, many limping or dragging themselves along.

How could this have happened?  How could our king, who had never before suffered defeat, have failed?  And why was he not leading the procession?  Surely he should have returned with his troops—should have ensured their safe return to the sanctuary of the City?

The girl I had followed stayed hidden during the entire procession.  I debated about running back to the City to tell them to prepare to receive the wounded.  But the same instinct that had told me not to accost her as she left, now told me to wait, to stay near her.

I waited, crouched in the bracken for nearly an hour as the wounded passed by, my heart aching more and more with each broken soldier that went past.  Then I saw the generals.  They were standing tall, in spite of being wounded themselves.  At first they were too far away for me to see the formation they marched in.  But as they drew nearer, I realized that they were arrayed in two rows—three men in each row.  Immediately, I felt the breathe knocked out of my lungs.  Such a formation could only mean one thing.  They were carrying a litter.  And if the generals were carrying a litter themselves, rather than honoring the other soldiers with the task, then there could be only one man upon that litter—the king.

As they passed, I felt hot tears begin to stream down my cheeks.  The king was not merely wounded, as I had dared to hope.  It was clear by his white-grey face that he was dead.  It was all I could do to hold back the sobs that were rising inside me then.  The king, dead?  How?  How could it be?  The king who had reigned over the Kingdom of El from time immemorial—the one who everyone said was immortal—how could it really be him lying on that litter, returning to the City he built generations ago for his friends and followers?  How could the one true king be dead?

As I wrestled with these thoughts and the fear and horror that threatened to engulf me, I heard a rustling nearby.  I turned to see the girl emerge from her hiding place.  She stared after the generals and their unthinkable burden for awhile, then turned and began to head north again.  This time I knew I had to stop her.

I knew that if I cried out or made a sound that she would run and I might never catch her.  So, pushing down the flood of emotions inside me, I began following her quietly, gaining on her step by step.  She was more cautious now, more skittish, looking around her every few moments as if afraid that more of the wounded would appear.  I knew that they would not, that every soldier who had survived the battle was now behind us, drawing near to the City.  But the girl’s increased vigilance made it difficult for me to get close to her.  I had to keep ducking behind bushes and into gullies beside the road.

Finally I drew close enough that I thought I could make a break for it and catch her.  But at that moment she turned her head and caught sight of me.  She cried out and began running full tilt down the road.  I took off after her, but as exhausted as I was, it was hard for me to keep up.  After nearly ten minutes, the girl slipped and lost her footing.  In a moment, I was upon her.

I tackled her to the ground, trying not to injure her or myself in the process.  She beat at me with her fists and flailed like an animal in a trap.  But finally I subdued her, pinning her arms above her head and sitting on her legs to keep her still.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said at last, out of breath.  “I’m trying to help you.”

“Who are you?  What do you want?” she snarled.  “If you’re trying to help me then let me go!”

“Didn’t you see who was on that litter back there?” I said.

“Yes, it was the king.  So what?  I’m glad he’s dead!  He stole my parents from me and now he’s gotten what he deserved.  So let me go.  I won’t live in his stupid City.  I’m going home, to the North Country, where I belong.”

“No you’re not,” I said.  “However you feel about the king, it was his power and strength that kept this kingdom peaceful and safe.  Now that he’s dead, there is nothing to keep the dark creatures and evil men in check.  You’ll be dead before you reach the next village.  And we’ll both be dead if we don’t return to the City right now.  In fact, we’ll be lucky to make it, as it is.  You led me on quite a chase and there’s a lot of distance between us and the safety of the walls right now.”

“Even if it was the king’s reputation that kept everyone in check,” spat the girl, “no one knows he’s dead yet.  Except you and I.  So they won’t be out for blood until the word gets out.  That will take days, maybe weeks.”

“You fool,” I said, becoming frustrated with the obvious ignorance and the stubbornness of this girl.  “It wasn’t the king’s reputation that kept them in check.  It was his very life.  His life force prevented dark things from being able to take hold in the kingdom.  With him dead, every filthy, twisted thing that has been holed up for as long as the kingdom has existed will be slithering out of their holes and shadows.  By the time this night is over, the kingdom of El will be a vastly different place than it has been before.  The only chance we have—the only chance anyone has—is within the walls of the City.”

“But my parents,” she said, trying to twist out of my grasp again.  “They’re out there somewhere.  If what you say is true, then they’re in danger and I have to get to them.  I have to go to them now!”

“Your parents aren’t out there, girl.  If they survived the battle, then they were among the wounded that passed us on the road.  There is no one left in the villages.  Everyone who couldn’t fight was evacuated to the City.  Everyone who could fight is either dead or on their way into the City right now with the remnants of the king’s army.  You and I are the only two out here.”

This realization seemed to stun her into submission for a moment.  Her hands dropped limply to the dirt.  “But my parents,” she said weakly.  “I didn’t see them.  I don’t think they were among the wounded.”

“You never know,” I said, trying to put some confidence into my voice.  “Many of the survivors were wearing blankets over themselves to keep warm.  Your parents could have been among them…then you wouldn’t have been able to see their faces well enough in the darkness to recognize them.”  I didn’t say that they also could have been among those so disfigured that even if she’d seen them in daylight she might not have known them.

“Come,” I said.  “The only way to know if your parents survived is to return to the City.  And quickly.  We’ll have to run the whole way if we’re to make it alive ourselves.”  The thought of such a run made me feel weary to my very bones, but I knew we had no choice.  As if to confirm my words, a low howling sound began to echo in the distance.  The girl started up.  Then there was a rustling in a bush somewhere much closer.  I pulled her to her feet and we both began running—running as if our lives depended on it.  Because they did.

The City of El : “Clarissa”

I’ve always loved the mountains.  As a little girl, I used to stand outside our cottage and stare hard into the distance, trying to make them out against the horizon.  Sometimes, on a clear day, when the light was just right, I could see their outline far away, calling to me.

When I was ten, my father took me north with him.  He was a weaver, and he would make beautiful rugs and blankets and fabric from the wool that the local shepherds brought us.  Once a year, he would load up all his textiles onto our wagon and take them north to the villages near the mountains, where the cold winters made his wares a valuable commodity.

I could hardly wait to set out on our trip.  I danced around the wagon.  “Are you ready yet, Father?  Can we go now?  How long?  The sun will be up soon.  Let’s go, let’s go!”  My mother and grandmother kept trying to reel me back in.  “Clarissa, come here.  You need a heavier jacket.  Did you pack your thermal undergarments?  Where are your mittens?”  I ignored them.  It was barely autumn. The air was still warm, even this early in the day, before sunrise.  I couldn’t understand their worry.

Finally, all was ready.  My mother handed me my bag, full of all the warm clothes she could fit in it.  “I know you’re excited to be going to the mountains, Clarissa.  But be sure to heed your father—the roads of El are not safe like our village.  There are many dangerous things out there.”

My grandmother squeezed my hand.  The excitement that danced in her eyes matched my own.  “Clarissa, you will finally see the mountains, as I know you have always desired.  Perhaps you will even have an adventure or two.”  I hugged her tight.  My grandmother had always understood me better than anyone else.

When I’d kissed my mother and each of my younger siblings, it was finally time to get underway.  The sky was just beginning to turn gray in the East when we mounted the wagon’s high seat and waved our last farewells.

“Good-bye Melodie,” my father said to my mother.  “Good-bye children, good-bye Mother!  We’ll see you in three weeks, four at the most.”

“Good-bye!” I called out as the oxen began pulling us away toward the road that would lead us north.  “Good-bye!  We’ll be back soon!”  Now that the journey was actually upon us, I began to feel a little nervous.  Three weeks away from my family and my home.  It suddenly seemed like a long time.

My father put his arm around me.  “Don’t worry, Clarissa,” he said.  “You’ll see them again very soon.  And in the meantime, we’ll have some grand adventures.  Just wait and see.  Did I ever tell you about the Little People of Meridanth that live in houses made of grass on the southern slopes Mount Tanden?”  And he began to regale me with stories of all the people and places we would see on our journey until I completely forgot about the home I was leaving behind, and thought only of the wonders ahead.

Five days into our journey, we stopped at a village called Braed.  The mountains had grown larger and larger as we travelled north.  From our room in the Inn, I could see them turning red and pink in the sunset light.

“Two more days and we’ll reach the hill country,” my father said.  “Then one day more, perhaps a day-and-a-half, and we’ll be in the foothills.  That’s where we’ll sell most of the rugs and blankets.  It stays cool there all year, and the winter comes early there.  We might even see snow.”

I’d never seen snow, and as I climbed into bed the image of tiny white gems floating in the air and coating the ground beneath my feet made me smile as I drifted off to sleep.

I woke with a start sometime later.  The fire had burned low and the sky outside was black like coal.  I looked to where my father should have been sleeping, but his bed was empty, his blankets still neat and untouched.  He had never gone to bed.

Surprised, I slipped out of bed, wrapping one of the blankets around my shoulders.  Where could he be?  Maybe he had gone down to the common room and fallen asleep in front of the fire there?  Or maybe he was checking on the oxen in the stable.

When I got downstairs, there was no one in the common room.  I peeked into the kitchen, but there was no one there either and the cooking fires were banked for the night.

Finally, I snuck quietly out the front door.  I knew it could be dangerous for a girl to be wandering around on her own at night, but I had to find my father, to make sure everything was alright.

When I got to the stables, I found the door open wide.  The animals were each safely shut into their stalls, but there was no one else in sight.  I went to where our two oxen were sleeping, nuzzled against one another for warmth.

“Hello Bodkin,” I said.  “Hello Darla.  Have you seen father?”  They opened sleepy eyes at me.  Darla gave a low grunt.

Where could he be?  And where was everyone else?  Although it was late, it seemed strange that no one was about at all.  At most of the inns where we’d stopped, there were always a few travelers in the common room into the small hours of the morning.  And it was not unusual for the innkeeper and stable boy to be up late as well, welcoming late-arriving boarders.

I slipped back out into the inn yard, closing the stable door behind me.  The night was very quiet.  I was becoming quite worried, and scared.  I decided to go out to the main road that ran past the inn.  Perhaps there was some trouble somewhere in the village and my father and the others had gone to help.  But when I reached the road, all was silent.  The houses along the road were all dark, no candles burning in any of the windows.

Truly frightened now, I began backing toward the inn yard, when I saw something that made me stop.  In the road were many footprints.  This was not unusual itself, but what was unusual was that they were all going in the same direction, north—out of the town–and that there were no cart or animal hoof marks among them.  It looked as if a great group of people had all walked along the road recently—right out into the wilderness.

Just then I heard a wailing sound begin in one of the houses nearby.  I jumped in fright, but as I listened a moment more, I realized that it was not some weird and terrible creature, but a baby, who must have woken from its sleep.  I hoped to see a light in the house and to hear the baby quiet as it’s mother got up to tend to it.  But the windows remained dark, and the crying continued, growing stronger and more desperate with each passing minute.  Finally, I could take it no more and I moved to the door of the house.  To my surprise, it was not completely closed.  I pushed it carefully open, my heart thumping wildly in my chest.  What if there was something hiding in the shadows?  But as my eyes adjusted, I saw that the single room of the cottage was empty and motionless, except for a cradle in the corner, where they crying was coming from and where two tiny fists were reaching up, shaking in distress.

I went to the cradle and saw an infant about three months old lying there.  The blue blanket told me that it was a boy child.  The room was cold, and the baby was shivering as he cried.  I quickly picked him up, wrapping the blanket tight around him and holding him close to my chest.  Having four younger siblings had taught me what to do with a crying baby.

The baby quickly quieted and began sucking his tiny thumb.  “There, there,” I said, patting his back.  “Where are your mama and daddy?  Where has everyone gone?”  I was still frightened, but somehow having this little baby to care for had made me a little braver.  I was not completely alone.  And, there was someone who needed me to be strong, to try to make sense of things.

Searching the room, I found some fresh milk in a clay pitcher.  I remembered that my mother had sometimes fed my brothers and sisters milk with sugar in it when she was unable to nurse them.  I set the pitcher in the coals of the nearly dead fire to warm it.  Then I found a crock of sugar and mixed some into the milk.  But I could not find a skin bag like my mother had used to give the milk to my baby siblings.

“Nevermind,” I said to the baby, who was now falling asleep in my arms.  “I’ll use one of the water skins we use for traveling.  I think I can make it work for you.”

Hefting the now warm pitcher in one arm and the baby in the other, I made my way back to the inn.  Still, I saw no one about.  Once I thought I saw movement on the road, but it was just a clump of grass swaying in the wind.

Back inside the inn, I lay the baby on my bed.  He began to fuss and whimper, but I was able to fashion a make-shift teat for him from my water skin and he happily drank the warm sugar-milk from it.  When he’d begun to fall asleep again, I gathered up my possessions and my father’s.  But I couldn’t carry them all down to the stables without leaving the baby alone in the room, which I wasn’t willing to do.  What if he were gone when I got back?  What if he disappeared like everyone else?

Instead, I fashioned a sling out of a shawl my mother had packed for me, passed it around my shoulders and carefully placed the baby inside.  He stirred slightly, but then curled against me and went back to sucking his thumb, his eyes closed peacefully.  Then, gathering up our belongings, I moved quietly down to the stables.

I woke Bodkin and Darla and led them out to where our wagon sat in the yard and hooked them into their harnesses.  My father had placed oiled skins over the piles of textiles.  Loosening one tarpaulin, I pulled several blankets from beneath and placed them on the floor beneath the wagon’s seat.  Carefully I tucked the baby into his little nest of colorful woven fabric.  He would be safe and warm there.

Stowing my bag and my father’s beside the baby, I climbed up on the seat and slapped the reigns.  Slowly, the oxen began to pull the wagon out of the yard.  I turned them north, following the footprints on the road.  We were going to find out where everyone had gone.  And, more importantly, why.