Chapter 22: A New Rider
“Please,” Nell begged. “I don’t care where yer goin’, tho I’m guessin’ yer headed to the Great Wall o’ Fire,” she said, searching Stranth’s countenance to see if his expression would betray the truth. “Even if yer not, I don’t wanna be here, and you don’t either.”
By this time, Archer had leapt down from the loft. “What’s this about?” he asked.
“I got my own horse,” she continued. “And I got more supplies on the porch. There’s no time! But I do need to get up to the pasture to saddle my horse. They can’t accuse me of stealin’ cause Paw gave him to me on my sixteenth.”
By this time Ava was awake and climbing down the ladder. They learned from Nell that Archer’s suspicions about the signal light were correct. A whole posse would surround the barn before dawn. She didn’t want to describe the horrible things that would be done to them. She said that it would be both painful and bloody.
Ava flew up the ladder to awaken Onar. They were back down in an instant.
“So, will ya let me come with ya?” Nell pleaded.
All eyes flew to Archer, who examined her closely. It seemed to be his decision. He sensed in her a real desire to escape the darkness, and a genuine hope that the mythical wall of fire really did exist somewhere in the east.
“Where’s your horse?” Stranth asked.
“He’s in the pasture just up the north road. My saddle’s in a shed up that way, too.”
“Get your gear,” Archer said.
Nell flew to his feet, thanking him profusely on her knees, her arms wrapped around his ankles.
“Up, child,” he said. “There’s no time for that.”
Tears were streaming down her face when she rose to her feet. Archer wiped them away. “You’re welcome,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Could be watchers on the road already,” she warned. “We’ve a trail behind the house that cuts through to the pasture.”
“Lead on,” Archer said when they had collected their belongings and were ready to mount.
Ava sat on Anani, while Archer walked beside him; Onar rode on his horse. Nell’s extra gear was placed on Stranth’s horse, while he and Nell walked side by side ahead of him to guide the group. They hadn’t gone a half mile before Sheghal stepped out from behind a corner post along the path and held out her pendant like some sort of badge.
“Stop!” she hissed.
The company came to an abrupt halt. Sheghal stood before them, trance-like, but with an air of authority about her. Her face was greatly distorted; yet even in the darkness her eyes were visibly altered like the sunken orbs Ava recalled having seen inside the walls of Dem.
“I knew I’d find ya here,” she began. “Ya didn’t think yer was really gonna get away, did ya?”
“She has a shadow,” Nell whispered to Stranth. “Kill her. It’s our only chance.”
Stranth looked at Nell incredulously. The fear and pain in her eyes told him that she meant every word. She was very sorry to be faced with this situation. Before anyone could imagine what to do or say next, Stranth drew his sword in a flash and hurled it at the little girl, piercing her heart. She fell back, dead.
“Stranth!” Ava shrieked in disbelief. She dismounted and ran toward Sheghal. Before she reached her, the pendant Sheghal wore burst into flames on the lifeless girl’s chest. It seemed to sink into a suddenly gaping hole in the body from which an even darker blackness than the cold night air arose, twisting and writhing up above the dead girl’s body. It made a sinister form that hovered there a moment or two; then suddenly it flew at Ava with blinding speed. Anani rose up on his hind legs and pawed at the mist, creating a swirl of confused shadows. It bolted up into the night sky with a howl and was gone. Ava patted the brave steed and kissed his jowls. Stranth walked over to the dead body to retrieve his sword.
“Come, we must hurry,” Nell advised.
They made their way to the pasture and then to the shed. Nell whistled once or twice for Buck, and he came galloping toward her. He was a handsome haflinger, tall for his breed, both strong and elegant. He was always excited to see Nell, but his giddiness quickly abated as she went about saddling him up. He seemed to sense her anxiety and sorrow.
“Buck and me knows a trail through the woods that heads east,” she announced.
They followed with Stranth and Onar on their horses and Archer and Ava on Anani in the rear. Archer occasionally glanced back over his shoulder to see if they were being followed, frequently urging those ahead to make haste.
When they came to a tiny creek bed, Archer suggested they follow it south a way before turning back to the east. It was nearly dawn before they moved away from the brook toward the east. As the rolling hills became more sparsely populated by trees and the first hints of light softened the silhouette of the forest, Archer determined they should take a short rest before getting out into the open. He reasoned that they likely had at least a few hours head start on anyone that might track them. And though he would feel better about their situation once they reached the rocky crags on the opposite side of the barren plain they were about to cross, he recognized their need to take some rest before that hard push. Once they entered the open, they would not be able to slacken their pace for a moment.
They settled beneath one of the larger trees with a good supply of primordial fallen leaves and a bit of moss to soften their respite.
Onar reclined against his saddle and closed his eyes. He asked Nell, who was resting next to his brother, how she had come to be one of their company.
“Somethin’ bout ya’ll made me think that you’s seeking a way out. I jes want out too.”
“Out of where?” he asked without opening his eyes.
“Out of Terra Dombren— away from the shadows.”
Nell hesitated for a moment before responding; then she shrugged and said, “Cause I feel so dead here. . . don’t you?”
They all silently nodded in agreement, though they had never quite stated their feelings in such a way. They may have been tempted to stew in despair, if Archer had not spoken up.
“If you feel dead, it’s because you are dead to a certain degree.”
All eyes turned to him with quizzical expressions.
“Terra Dombrians are the walking dead. Their physical bodies go through the motions of living, but they have no purpose beyond satisfying their appetites. To be truly alive is a gift and a calling to grow and to learn without ceasing. It requires an act of your will to answer that call. Most Terra Dombrians ignore it, ridicule it. Numans even resent it. But the few who hear and seek true life will find it, if they have the courage to pursue it. That is what this journey is all about.”
He then rose up on one knee and stretched out his hand. He bid them to place their hands on top of his, and he sealed them with his right hand on top. As they faced each other in a little circle, he looked up through the haze and began to speak in a strange language.
“Cala vous il ada.”
Immediately, they each were transported to a world alive with light and vibrant colors, the like of which they had never seen or even imagined! Fields of grain waved in a gentle breeze, well watered by sparkling rivers, guarded by majestic, snow-capped mountains. The magnificent sky stretched out in endless, brilliant blue. Lush green trees dotted the land from which feathery plumed birds of every color of the rainbow flew about, singing and chirping like a choir of angels. They saw sights, sounds, and were swept over with feelings of rapturous joy which took their very breath away! And almost as soon as they could feel the warmth of the light and comprehend the melodious songs of the beautiful creatures, they were transported back to the dull gray world of mist and gloom. The restoration of their present reality hit them like a sudden thud. Thus they squeezed their eyes shut, trying desperately to cling to those visions in their imaginations.
“Rest now,” Archereus commanded. “Let your dreams of what’s in store encourage and strengthen you for the remainder of your journey.”
So they slept, each with vibrant visions of a world yet unknown to them; nevertheless, their hope felt as real as the harsh coldness of their present reality.