THE PATH OF LIFE
They seemed to pass through a veil, and the darkness was consumed by light. Although they were in a tunnel, the way ahead was as bright as day. They rode along a straight and narrow path of grass that carved its way through the very heart of the mountain.
“Where is this light coming from?” Rohan asked.
“I don't know, but it's comforting, isn't it?”
“I knew it!” said Rohan. “We made it!”
Willow laughed at Rohan’s exclamation, remembering that it was he that said that they would be mental to try to come here, but such relief and joy filled Willow’s heart there was no room for teasing.
One would have thought it was early spring. Birds, a myriad of colors brighter than jewels, chirped as they darted ahead of the horses. Silver and gold butterflies fluttered noiselessly through the fresh air. Cotton-like white flowers covered the vivid green grass, and ivy cloaked the rocky walls. The tunnel smelled of new beginnings.
A quiet stream bubbled up from a spring and flowed along as far as they could see. The trio dismounted and splashed their faces. They enjoyed a long drink along with the horses, who then busied themselves with great mouthfuls of fresh grass. After drinking their fill, to Rohan's great enthusiasm, the three decided to walk for a bit to stretch their tired muscles leading the horses behind them.
Even with the perils of the last hour ripe in their minds, it was impossible to feel fear. Death’s power had no hold in this sacred place. Peace, joy, and a sense of fruitfulness resonated throughout the tunnel.
“This is like a dream. I wish we could stay here forever. Eternal Spring -- imagine the Elves in a place like this; a celebration of blossoms everyday.” Willow said. “Where do you think this leads?”
“I assume this is the Path of Life. With any luck, it leads to one of the pieces of armor,” Devon said.
“Did my parents note which one?”
“The Waist Belt of Truth, I believe it’s called.”
“I can’t believe we might really have found one already,” Willow mused.
They walked dreamlike along the flow of the stream for another thirty minutes, soaking up the beauty. At last the tunnel opened up into a wide, level meadow as smooth as a lawn, surrounded by fig trees heavily burdened with tiny pear-shaped fruit.
Wild flowers grew a foot in height, a dazzling display of colors, among the rich grass. The springy turf tempted them to remove their boots. The soft, silky grass massaged their bare, aching feet.
“There it is!” Willow's eyes widened with excitement.
She pointed to the center of the meadow where a stone pillar stood, overlaid with a curtain of ivy. Atop, the silver waist belt blinked in the sunlight.
“Willow, you should be the one to take it,” Devon said. “There is bound to be enchantments protecting it that only a true Torchbearer can cross.”
Willow stepped forward hesitantly, a nervous flutter in her stomach.
“Do you think I need to do anything first?”
“I doubt it. I think the real test was surviving the Valley of the Shadow of Death.”
Willow took another cautious step forward and reached out her hand apprehensively.
Devon and Rohan watched with held breath.
The metal was warm in her hands as Willow picked the belt off of the pillar. Emblazoned with brilliant, red rubies on the front on the belt was the word Truth. The moment the belt was in her hands the pillar sank slowly into the earth, where a fresh patch of turf already began to grow. No evidence of the pillar’s existence remained.
On the far side of the meadow, two lush fig trees with twisted, tubular gray trunks and long, broad yellow-green leaves jumped apart revealing a trailhead. Before their very eyes, the two solid trees became two young and beautiful, vaporous girls. Their sheer, insubstantial bodies swayed in the wind. They had gentle, earthy features, with tall and slender figures and wild, organic hair -- leaves and small purple figs were tangled in their untamed curls. Dressed in curtains of transparent green and brown, shimmery, fabric they closely resembled their alternative forms. The girls presented the trailhead with sweeping gestures.
“Hamadryads!” Willow whispered excitedly. “They’re so beautiful.”
“What are Hama-...Hama-thingies?” Rohan asked, clearly mesmerized by the angelic, billowy figures.
“Hamadryads -- nature entities… you know, Wood Nymphs. I have never seen one before; I’ve only read about them in story books when I was younger. They rarely take their disembodied forms anymore. Not since man encroached on their land, ruthlessly destroying their hosts. If the tree the spirit is bound to dies, the Nymph dies as well.”
Rohan simply said, “Amazing,” as he stared at the scintillating beings.
All too soon, the Hamadryads faded into their rooted shapes, fig trees once more, but not before shaking their knotted tresses loose of several figs – gifts for the weary travelers.
Willow stayed still and examined the fig trees, in hopes of catching another glimpse of those beautiful girls, but they remained firmly planted on either side of the trailhead.
She finally tore her eyes away from the trees and breathed, “We did it!”
Rohan and Willow jumped with shouts of excitement. Rohan linked his uninjured arm with hers, and they danced in a small circle, all smiles. Devon wore a satisfied grin but remained the essence of composure.
After a few precious moments of blessed celebration, Willow handed Rohan the belt to stow in his rucksack. He set it gingerly in the grass and fumbled to open his pack with just one hand.
Willow noticed Devon eyeing Rohan hungrily. But that could not be right, she thought. When she looked up at him again the hunger, if that was what it was, was gone, replaced by a sly smile.
“We did it,” he said echoing Willow’s earlier words. “One down, five to go.”
Willow sighed. The journey was only beginning.
Before lacing their boots and climbing into the saddles, they sampled the fresh figs, lusciously sweet with chewy flesh, smooth skin, and crunchy seeds. After their snack, they trotted towards the opening made by the Hamadryads. As they left the glare of the dessert and the warmth of the meadow behind them, Willow remembered that chilly autumn weather was on its way; goose bumps rose on her fair skin, the soft grass replaced by crisp leaves once more.
“So where to?” Rohan asked Devon.
“From here we head to the Secret Place, which lies one hundred and twelve miles directly south of here.”
“The Secret Place? What makes it so secret?”
“From Willow’s parents’ speculations, the place is not always visible.”
“We are looking for an invisible place? Piece of cake,” Rohan said rolling his eyes.
“Well, not exactly. It’s not really invisible, just hidden.”
“Beyond the Pit of Despair. From what Mr. and Mrs. Payton wrote, they believed the Secret Place can not be seen until one crosses it.”
“Great. First the Valley of Death, now the Pit of Despair. Willow, your ancestors sure made this easy. I’ll be sure to thank them when their brilliant ideas lead me to join them all too soon.”
They rode on for awhile until they reached a crossroad.
“Which way do we go?” Willow asked.
“We head left. That will take us due south. We have a couple of hours of sunlight left. If we continue forward at a steady walk, we will be able to cover another eight miles or so before we have to make camp. To the Pit of Despair, we go!”
“Can’t wait,” said Rohan.
After all the excitement of the meadow, the three traveled in subdued silence.
After some time, Willow pointed to the edge of the path and broke the lull. “Another snake. A flash of red in the leaves.”
Rohan leaned over her shoulder following the line of her pointed finger with his eyes. Devon pulled back on the reins to get a better bearing.
“Just a Fire Snake. There are hundreds of them out here. As I said, they're harmless,” Devon said, urging Apollo forward.
“I’ve never heard of them before,” Willow said.
“They tend to shy away from civilization. It is surprising that you glimpsed one in the Elfin Forest. It's a bit too close to the village for their comfort.”
“Hmm,” said Willow, considering the new information. Instinct warned her to fear these snakes.
They came to a stop by a clear pool of bubbling water as the sky began to turn gray.
“This looks like as good a spot as any to camp for the night,” Devon said dismounting. “I’ll catch us dinner while there's still some light.”
Taking his bow he walked into the woods.
As they started the fire, Rohan asked Willow, “Why do you think the Vanity of Vanities didn’t affect me like it did you and Devon?”
“I honestly don’t know. I have been wondering that myself. I was drawn to it immediately.”
Devon walked up, carrying two rabbits. “The pool feeds off of the hopes and dreams lost by those whose loved ones died violently. It affected Willow the most because she lost her parents most recently. Time has healed some of my pain.” He addressed Rohan directly. “And I’m guessing you haven’t lost anyone?”
“Just my Grams. But I only met her once that I can remember. And she died peacefully in her sleep.”
Willow meekly turned to Devon. She wondered if the question she wanted to ask was too personal, but curiosity got the better of her. “May I ask who you lost?”
“My parents were murdered,” he said walking off to skin the rabbits, clearly closing the subject.
After a quiet dinner, Devon lost in thought -- presumably over the memories that Willow’s question conjured -- Willow asked, “May I see my parents’ journal?”
Up until this moment, Willow had refused to look at it, afraid of the emotions that looking at their familiar scrawl would let forth. She pictured her parents’ different writing styles. Her mother’s flowing loops, and her father’s straight, hard lines. Back at Credo, she had every one of the letters her parents wrote stored in an ornately carved wooden box under her bed -- hundreds of them.
After today’s trials, she felt ready to see their script once again, knowing these journal entries were the last she would have of them. She hoped that reading their thoughts would drive the images of their decomposing faces from her mind.
“Sure,” he said walking over to Apollo and pulling the journal from the saddle bag.
He handed the ragged book to her as Rohan scooted closer to read it with her. Devon walked off to cater to the horses, politely giving Willow and Rohan some privacy.
Willow opened the small book at random and was greeted by the graceful curves of her mother’s hand. She traced her finger over the loopy letters and let herself cry until her hand fell slack and Rohan took it in his. She was grateful for his touch.
Willow cleared her throat and read aloud:
Close call today. The Angels Grim are gaining ground. We met with Mrs. Marlow, a dear friend of a late Torchbearer-”
Halfway through the last sentence Lindsay Payton’s voice rang out clear as day, as if she were present among them. Willow gasped and dropped the journal which snapped shut. The moment the book snapped closed the voice cut off mid-sentence.
Rohan’s mouth was agape.
“So I’m not mental. You heard my mom too.”
“I thought I went off the deep end for a moment there.”
“Devon...Devon!” Willow called.
“What? What’s wrong?” Devon asked walking swiftly from the horses.
“Do you know what this journal does?”
“No. What do you mean ‘does’?”
Willow found the page and began to read the sentence again and once more was interrupted by her mother’s voice. A voice like sweet music, one she thought she would never hear again.
“Did you know about this?” Willow asked again in awe, closing the book on her finger to hold her place.
“I didn’t have a clue. I never had a reason to read it out loud, so I guess I never unleashed the enchantment,” he said.
He seemed nervous.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, of course not,” he said shaking his head. “I’m just surprised. I had no idea,” he said walking back to the horses.
Willow turned her attention back to the journal eager to hear her mother’s voice:
“Close call today. The Angels Grim are gaining ground. We met with Mrs. Marlow, a dear friend of a late Torchbearer, said to have information on the whereabouts of the Sabatons of Peace. The Grim showed up halfway through the meeting. It was a narrow escape for all. Poor Mrs. Marlow was nearly scared out of her wits. As we fled I observed a cloaked figure hovering outside the house. This is the third time we have caught sight of him. We are not sure what to make of his appearances. Each time he has been present we have been in grave danger. His presence concerns me, though he does not appear to be directly involved;he remains on the outskirts of the action. We will maintain careful diligence and monitor the situation.”
Her entry ended there and with the final punctuation her voice died out.
“I can’t believe I can hear them! It’s almost like they aren’t really gone at all.”
“Willow,” Rohan said, sympathy heavy in his tone. “This journal can’t bring them back. It’s just an echo of the lives they lived, that’s all. Not the real thing.”
“I know,” Willow said defensively.
She stood and walked a little ways into the trees taking the journal with her.
“Willow,” Rohan called after her.
“Not right now,” she said.
Though he wanted to be with her, Rohan stretched out in front of the crackling fire, giving Willow some space. She spent several hours listening to her parents’ words, alternating between her mother’s curvy entries and her father’s linear ones. Their entries were far from reassuring, fear and tension were paramount in all but a few, but just being able to hear their voices -- tenuous though they may be -- was a comfort. Propped against a lumpy rock, she slowly nodded off. When she woke, it was cold. And so she joined Rohan and Devon and drifted back to sleep, dreaming about close calls and desperate escapes.