Chapter 15: River's Edge
Although Ava was able to fall asleep her last night in the cave, it was a fitful sleep at best. She could not help but ask herself if she had done enough to train the boys, to prepare them for the task of survival. She was plagued by nightmares of ghoulish creatures sneaking up on her children in the dark. But always in her dreams, Archereus stepped upon the scene to rescue and guide. No danger could befall them when he drew near. Her dreams seemed to be at war in her restless mind; her spirit was vexed by fear vying for control, but hope reappeared in each dream to restore peace. Hope was insistent; hope came in the form of Archereus. In her dreams, Ava began to look for him when she sensed danger lurking.
By morning light, she found herself in a dream where no fear or danger stalked her or her children. She dreamed of Archer’s face, of his crystal blue eyes that called to her like pools of refreshment. She plunged into the pool; finding him standing there with her, she pressed her lips to his.
Ava sat straight up like a bolt of lightning! In the first dim light of day, she looked around the cave, disoriented. It was only a dream, but she felt embarrassed. Archer was already up and out of the cave. She thought she could discern when he was reading her thoughts, but she did not know if he had perceived her dream. She did not want him to know of the feelings stirring in her heart toward him, for surely such a man could never view her as anything more than his charge. When she made her way out of the cave, she found him with the horses. He was stroking Anani with great affection. There seemed to be a special bond between him and this magnificent creature.
As Ava and Archer set out to find her children, her mind was plagued with mixed emotions. The days she and her boys spent at the cave were some of the happiest she had ever known. She did not realize until they trotted away how attached to the place she had grown. Had it not been for the earthquake that forced her to set out in search of her boys, she might have been content to simply stay there. She recalled Archer’s warning about the ground itself being cursed. Had it cast a spell of complacency on her? Would she have ever really left the cave as long as they felt safely concealed there? Her desire to deliver her boys to Menetoy may have been diminished by a delusional security. Her heart was now filled with a renewed anxiety about the safety and whereabouts of her children. The brief encounter they had had with this cave, and all its illusions of peace and tranquility was over. They were back to the routine of facing uncertain danger, but with a new unwelcome and unplanned twist: they were setting out to cross unknown lands separated. For the first time, they were not facing the world together. She felt like a raft set loose upon a slow moving current, adrift with no paddle or oar.
By dusk of the first day Ava expected to be reunited with her boys, but it was not so. Neither was she reunited on the second or third. They found the cave where the boys had made their exit, and she was comforted to see not only the letter M carved on the face of the mountain, but Onar’s smiling symbol as well. They were in good spirits and wanted to comfort her. They were well acquainted with her habit of worrying over them. On this occasion, they would consider her justified, perhaps. What struck terror in her heart was their ignorance of the possibility that they could be walking into a trap.
How large was the party of peacekeepers that razed her hut and barn? Were there others who had gone on ahead, leaving just those three to watch? Were there other peacekeepers roving the countryside in packs searching for them? The month of Islar was drawing near; moon monsters would be roaming the hillsides all too soon. That is no time to be out in the open.
Twice they found Stranth and Onar’s campsite. Yet still the boys eluded them. The symbols were present indicating they were well and on course for Middletown. And it was apparent by tiny bones near the extinguished fires that they had enjoyed success hunting. But that was not enough to satisfy Ava’s longing to be with them, to be assured of their present safety. Archer seemed to be brooding about something as well, which only increased her anxiety.
In the distance, they could see the bridge across the river, but Archer did not want to cross it without first determining its safety. He sensed a presence in these doleful woods and hills that he did not trust. The bridge might be under surveillance. He needed to be certain.
As he tracked Stranth and Onar down to the bridge, he came upon a tree with an M carved into it; but below that, they had carved a bridge over a stream with an X marked over it. Before Ava had time to examine it herself, Archer pulled her down off Anani and shoved her behind the tree just in time to avoid being pierced by an arrow from somewhere up the hill.
Archer managed to retrieve the bows from his horse and scatter the other horses out of the line of fire under a hail of arrows. A large rock jutted up from the hill beside an enormous dead oak just a few paces down the hill toward the river. He instructed Ava to crawl there for cover while he worked his way around behind one of the assailant’s position.
“I cannot tell how many there are, three or four at least. Be on guard.”
He watched her descend about half way, periodically firing off arrows to draw their attention. He rolled away to a nearby ash that gave him good cover to advance the hill a few paces. One of the attackers had climbed an ancient elm with a crossbow and could see Ava making her way to the rock. Archer shot him through with an arrow seconds before he fired on Ava; then he hurled his dagger at another peacekeeper charging her on the ground. He observed a third assassin duck behind the same cluster of rocks from which the second man had charged. Archer launched a fistful of pebbles beyond his location and used the distraction as an opportunity to advance closer. Weaving his way silently through the decaying wood, he charged upon the man with his sword. Archer made quick work of him, but at that moment, he heard Ava cry out. He raced back down the hill to see her engaged in a fight with a fourth attacker with much greater skill. Ava was fighting for dear life, but she would not stand up long against a seasoned warrior. Archer shot multiple arrows into the man while running to her aid with all the speed and sure footed grace of a cougar charging his prey. The assailant seemed undaunted by the arrows. As his attention was diverted to Archer leaping over a nearby boulder, Ava pierced him through his side with her sword. Archer slit his throat with his dagger as he fell.
“Thrust!” he said to Ava, making a lunging demonstration with his sword. “Like this: thrust! You really must work on that.”
In her frustration, she mimicked his motions toward him, and he met her challenge with an impromptu lesson in sword fighting.
“Enough!” she finally shouted when she realized how sorely lacking her skills truly were. “I want to find my children!”
“I know,” he calmly responded, slowly putting his sword into its sheath. “But you must also learn to defend yourself. This is what we’re up against,” he said, indicating the fallen attacker. “That one up on the hill was definitely a peacekeeper. His face was distorted with the sure sign of one who has drunk of the wine of decadence Cam serves his minions. These are not mere wandering ruffians, Ava. You are being hunted.”
He whistled for Anani, who came quickly with the other three horses in tow. Examining the landscape, Archer discovered the direction the boys had gone. He tracked them down to the river’s edge where they followed their path along the bank of the river for several leagues. He was impressed by their speed on foot.
Archer and Ava came upon an abandoned canoe. It appeared that two canoes had landed there, but one apparently had returned to the river. Archer examined some tracks leading away from the shore. He surmised that Stranth and Onar had engaged a band of four on this short stretch of beach. Fowl tracks were also evident. Fowl blood had been spilled, but no dead beast lay nearby, only the body of two dead men and what appeared to be the partial remains of two others.
He returned to find Ava examining some markings on the rocks protruding into the river – the letter M with a canoe beside it.
“Evidently a fowl came upon the altercation with the four attackers. All four are dead, but I believe Stranth and Onar escaped by boat.”
Indicating the markings on the rocks, “I think you’re right. Should we take the other boat and follow them?” Ava asked.
“We’ll hide the boat for now and ride down the river a ways. They may have used the boat only to cross, in which case we’ll see the canoe on the other shore. We need to keep the horses. We’ll cross with them when we have the other canoe in sight. The water is too rough here.”
She trusted Archer’s judgment, but her anxiety continued to grow. She was not a good swimmer, and the thought of crossing the river on horseback was a frightening prospect.
“They’re safe, Ava.”
She made no response. She mounted Anani and waited for Archer to mount as well. They rode on in silence. Archer pressed the horses to go as fast as they safely could along the untamed river’s edge, yet time seemed to drag. The sound of the horse’s hoof beats, whether striking a rock or mushing through soggy sand, echoed in Ava’s ears, each note lingering and suspended on the dull air. Archer kept a sharp eye on the distant shore, while Ava kept the memory of her sons’ faces fixed in her mind’s eye as if willing them to appear before her.
Dusk was hastening the day to a close when Archer finally saw the canoe on the other shore. They had come to a sandy stretch of beach with a high cliff wall rising up behind them. Several large cypress trees dipped their roots into the slow water’s edge. Spanish moss dangling beneath drowsy limbs created a secluded location. It was a well-protected spot to camp for the night. Archer was glad to try his hand at fishing, while Ava gathered wood for the fire.
Before Ava could bring herself to sleep another night, not seeing or knowing the exact whereabouts of her children, she had to find some way to expunge the restless wringing of her heart. Anxiously, she paced around the enormous tree that would lodge them for the night. Her mind reeled with the injustice of this life. It was madness! Her thoughts turned to spiteful musings about her husband as she poked and prodded the fire she had lit to broil Archer’s catch. The flickering flames responded to her abusive strokes with sorrowing cracks and sizzles reminding her of the charred remains of all she had once called home. Her mind flooded with memories of the little hovel where she had raised her children and feared her husband. Her whole world had succumbed to the devastation of an all-consuming fire. Archer returned with a large trout and a pocket full of berries just in time to see her turn in a fit of agitation toward him, almost stumbling into him.
“Why, why, WHY?” Ava moaned. “My love wasn’t enough to satisfy him? My love couldn’t redeem him? And now,” she fumed, “my children are off alone in the dark, facing countless dangers because he did not have the— the fortitude be a husband and a father!” she blurted out in a rage. “We weren’t enough for him— and now his spirit mocks me from whatever forsaken pit they threw his wretched carcass into.”
She plopped herself down on a log by the fire and threw her face into her hands with an exasperated groan. “What did we do to deserve this?” her weary voice whispered.
Setting the fish down, Archer sat beside her on the log. “Ava, you did nothing to provoke Les’s behavior. You are looking in the wrong direction for answers. His choices had nothing to do with you.” She gave him a confounded look as he continued. “Unlike most people of this age, you understand the depth and meaning of love. You understand that it goes beyond feeling. Les did not comprehend this truth. Like so many others of our time, he had too shallow a heart to feel beyond his own flesh.”
Archer described man as a depraved creature. Some men recognize their depravity and are grieved by it; but most enjoy their corruption and revel in it. Given an opportunity to escape it, they would remain as they are.
“But do not despair, Ava. Love is a commitment to the very idea of love itself. It’s a pledge to the recipient of that love. Few souls in this age apprehend that, and even fewer are able to attain it. You are one of the few. Take comfort, therefore; believe your best and brightest days are still ahead of you. You will find love again.”
“Can you see the future, Archereus?”
“No. Not when I walk in Terra Dombren. It is hid from me here.”
What am I to do now?
“Sever the cord of that commitment,” he answered her thoughts. “To such you are not bound.”
“And then bind yourself to another— to one who understands on the same level you do” . . . to me.
Ava looked into his astonishing blue eyes, windows to a soul at peace, a soul that possessed the strength and honor that she longed for her sons to attain. She saw a soul that possessed more than strength and honor, but wisdom, kindness, and loyalty were there too. Could such a man be in this age?
“Are you asking me for my love?” she whispered.
“I am,” he admitted, “Once the end has come to pass.”
Now she was confused.
“I have reason to doubt that Les is dead,” he said, gazing into the fire.
Ava was speechless. How can that be?
“I’ve sensed his spirit roving but not in the fallen state. I believe he has shifted.”
“Transformed . . . I sense that he has become a dongrel.”
“You know this?”
“I cannot be absolutely certain unless I look upon him with my own eyes.”
They sat in quiet communion for a long time.
Scores of peacekeeper packs had set off from Dem in search of Ava and her sons. Word had spread to lesser villages on the outskirts of Dem. Posses formed and set out in every direction.
Archer moved away to scale and gut his catch. He set the fish over the fire, then sat back down beside her with the berries, offering them to her. She continued to stare into the fire, rocking gently back and forth on the log, rubbing her arms. He knew they ached to hold her sons.
His own arms ached to hold her, this amazing woman who possessed a finer essence than the world she inhabited; but he could not as long as Les was alive. He knew that her own sense of honor would prevent her from receiving his love or giving her own as long as Les drew breath. He wondered how it would affect her love if he should be the one to slay her husband.