THE VALLEY OF WEEPING
Willow woke to the clatter of the river. The grass beneath her was terribly cold and wet.
Devon was awake and was returning with the horses after their morning graze. Still seeking space, Rohan was snoring just within sight, huddled at the base of a large trunk. How had things gotten so complicated?
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” Devon said in greeting, after catching her eye. “We should probably head out soon if we want to make it to the Valley of Weeping this afternoon.”
“Alright. Would you mind waking Rohan? I’m just going to wash up a bit.”
“No problem. We’ll be ready to leave when you get back.”
“Thanks,” she said, picking herself up off the ground. She walked a ways up the river and knelt by the bank and splashed ice cold water on her face and arms that chilled her to the bone. Still, it was refreshing to free herself from the grime of travel. When she made her way back, Rohan refused to look at her.
“Rohan asked if he could ride Apollo today. I hope you don’t mind keeping me company on Bellefire?”
Rohan was astride Apollo, his gaze set straight ahead at the cliffs looming in the distance.
“Okay,” Willow said awkwardly as Devon helped her into the saddle behind him.
Devon took up the reins and gave Bellefire a firm kick.
“You can hold on a bit tighter, I won’t bite,” Devon said turning his head to wink.
Willow silently obeyed, wrapping her arms around his abdomen. His chiseled muscles flexed beneath his thin shirt as he drove Bellefire forward. She had dreamed of this very moment from the first time she had set eyes on him. How different this felt compared to her imaginings. He still took her breath away, and a part of her longed to wrap her arms snugly around his waist and ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after, but a stronger part longed for it to be Rohan sitting in front of her.
Rohan and Apollo trailed behind as they rode up to the base of the mighty cliffs. The pinnacles towered threateningly above them. Willow could not resist occasionally glancing back at Rohan, but was met each time by an angry expression, exponentially fiercer than the last.
Devon prattled on, flirting with Willow. “So when we get back to Speratus, you’ll have to show me around. And you’ll have to save me a dance at the winter formal. Credo has one, of course? Every quality school does, you know. In fact, you should just accompany me, that way I don’t have to share you.”
What could have possibly gotten into Devon? Up until then, he had always remained a bit aloof, and had never shown much interest in her except what common chivalry required. Of course, she constantly fought the urge to read more into his actions than reality demanded, but she had never thought for a second that he was attracted to her.
“So what do you think? Will you go with me?”
Credo did indeed hold a winter dance every year, hosted by the playful Fauns. It was a glorious celebration very similar to the Opening Ceremonies Celebration. Instead of the rich green lawns of August, the dance floor became a beautiful blanket of fresh powdered snow and the students danced beneath the light of a full moon as soft flurries floated down to earth.
“Your silence is certainly not helping my fragile ego,” Devon said with a smile.
Not a trace of uncertainty could be found in his tone. Clearly he had never before been refused.
Willow and Rohan had gone to the dance together every year. She could not imagine going with anyone else, even Devon. As she struggled to formulate a polite refusal, Rohan broke his silence with pure venom in his tone.
“That’s a splendid idea! Of course she’ll go with you. ”
Willow felt as though she had been punched in the gut.
“Perfect! It’s a plan then,” Devon said blissfully ignorant of her pain.
Around noon they approached a narrow gorge forcing its way between massive cliffs, a rocky track along a roaring river that echoed loudly against the sheer rock walls. Above the noise of the river, Willow heard the wild howls of a pack of jackals. The horses let out nervous whinnies.
The further along they traveled, the darker the path ahead became. The jackals’ howling was more pronounced, and Willow feared that they were riding into the very mouth of their den. The air was acrid and dry, and Willow found it difficult to breathe.
Though the pass was gray and dark, Willow felt as though the heat of a thousand suns was bearing down upon them. The ground beneath them was parched. A tangled bramble of thorns bit at their legs between the jagged walls of the cliff they rode against.
Willow wrapped her arms more securely around Devon’s waist, resting the side of her face in the protection of his broad shoulders.
Rohan gave Apollo a hard kick, and they plunged into full darkness and disappeared.
“No, Rohan! Come back! ” Willow called through a steady flow of tears. “Quick, Devon! We have to go after him!”
“We have no idea what is up ahead. We can’t just go charging into the dark after Rohan,” Devon said in an infuriatingly calm tone.
“Devon, we have to. It’s Rohan! He could get hurt!”
“We’ll keep a look out for him, but we’re taking it slow.”
“No! We can’t!”
“Willow, calm down. Did you ever think we might be better off? He has a bit of a temper, that one. And honestly the tension is getting out of hand. And it’s not like we really need him. I can easily protect you on my own. I mean, just look at me.”
“Are you insane? It’s Rohan! Calm down? Calm down! If you won’t go after him, I will!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Willow.”
“Watch me! Let me off this instant!”
“I said, LET ME OFF!” she screamed, pounding his rock hard back in furious panic.
Her punches connected fruitlessly. Willow took a deep breath and braced herself against Devon’s shoulders, swinging her left leg over Bellefire preparing to jump.
“Stop it, Willow! You’ll break your leg, and I still need you! Fine! Have it your way, then. We’ll go after him.”
Out of breath, still fuming but relieved, she swung her leg back over. She could not believe the words that had just come out of his mouth but was too desperate to find Rohan to really consider them.
Devon dug in his heels. Bellefire trotted forward, but their pace felt excruciatingly slow. It was all Willow could do to contain her anxiety and keep from screaming in panic.
“Rohan! Rohan!” Willow called, straining her eyes in the bleak light.
A despondent cry swelled in the stuffy air that seeped through Willow's skin. Bellefire reared up in fright. Willow clung to Devon to avoid being thrown.
The air was stifling, and the heat dizzying. Their struggles through the desert were tame in retrospect.
“We need to stop for water,” Devon said after a long while.
He pulled back on the reins, and they dismounted. Willow hurried to the edge of the raging river, and flung herself down on the sharp rocks. She cupped some water with her hands and found it surprisingly warm. The moment the water touched her tongue, she retched, spitting it out. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Devon do the same.
“Salty...tears...river of tears,” Devon coughed out.
They stumbled back to Bellefire whose coat was matted with sweat, their mouths drier than ever. The saddle rubbed painfully against Willow’s sweaty inner thighs, chafing, as they continued a slow march forward.
Willow had no voice to call out to Rohan, but continued to search the limited light. Willow spotted movement up ahead and prayed that it would be Rohan. But a freshly devoured carcass of a large animal blocked their path. In a matter of seconds, they were surrounded by a pack of rabid jackals.
The wild dogs were skeletal, their bones poked out under a too thin layer of skin at extreme angles. Their frenzied eyes glowed bloody red. Foaming at the mouth, Bellefire made a desperate leap, Willow and Devon holding on for dear life. Willow used her mind to throw rocks at the beasts, but the rocks only bounced off the jackals' hides enraging them further. Frothy, yellow saliva dripped from their mouths.
Suddenly an earth shaking roar echoed through the gully, and the wild dogs turned tail and ran whimpering into the gloom. A magnificent lion paced in front of the horse; his bushy mane was a golden halo, his tawny hide was stretched taut over granite muscle. The beast’s deep brown eyes bore into her very heart, and Willow was confident that she had seen those eyes before, the exact shade and depth of Salvador’s.
Bellefire’s wild frenzy dissipated instantaneously, and the horse bent her forelegs and lowered her head in a perfect bow; paying humble homage to the king of beasts. The bow before the Unicorn paled in comparison; a cheap counterfeit of this -- the real thing.
Devon was whiter than a sheet and trembling from head to toe, but Willow could not tear her eyes away from the glorious creature.
A source-less light reflected off of his dazzling golden hide. The lion turned his massive body; his velvet paws the size of saucers. Willow was filled with the desire to follow him. Devon failed to take up the reins, but it was no matter. Bellefire obediently followed the graceful brute.
The lion was headed for a thorny archway directly ahead. A wooden sign nailed haphazardly across the top read: The Door of Spero.
As they approached, Willow forced her eyes away from the lion. The light resonating from him allowed her to see clearly for the first time since entering the Valley. Lining both rocky banks of the river were weeping men and women of all ages and races.
The despairing cry she had been hearing was the chorus of these weary mourners. These brokenhearted people, lost in their despair, did not look up as the lion approached. Willow wondered who they might have been, what brought them to that place and why.
“Only those whose heart is set on the pilgrimage will find the strength to survive the rigors of the journey, and in time revel in the fruits of their destination,” came a disembodied voice from out of the arch.
Willow looked through the archway but only saw more of the same desolate valley.
“Do not let the pain of trials consume you; it is merely the refining fire. Rise and enter through the Door of Spero,” the voice continued.
Willow watched, waiting for the pilgrims to rise and answer the calling, but not even one so much as lifted his head. The lion turned its huge head to look once more into Willow’s soul before walking under the arch and vanishing into thin air. Willow gasped, but had little time to wonder at the impossibility of it all before Bellefire took a fearless step through the Door of Spero.