Chapter 8: Safe Return
"Come inside, have some tea,” Furtov beckoned upon their return to the post.
“I think I’d rather saddle up Anani and be on my way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Ava, it’s past midnight, the most dangerous time to be out. Think of your boys who need their mother to return home to them safely. What chance would you have at this wicked hour? I insist that you stay the night.”
She suddenly felt foolish for her lack of thought; it’s not as if she had never received Furtov’s hospitality before. She was beyond tired. Despair hung all about her; she felt that if she could keep moving, she would not be tempted to give in to despondency. All she wanted was to be with her boys. She could count on her hands the number of times they had spent the night away from her. But they were not with Farmer Harris and his wife tonight. They were out there— alone. Thoughts, fears, and questions raced through her mind. Did she do the right thing by sending them to the cave? Had she given them all the knowledge they needed to survive if some evil befell her? What if they were attacked by a fowl or some other hideous creature this cursed world conjured up from the bowels of the earth?
She found herself seated at the little table in the back of the store. Tea was set before her. She did not even remember walking into the tent. Furtov also brought the elpece out of the cupboard and placed it before her. The first dim light of day would spill its dull fog across the land in just a few moments. Pulling the elpece to her and breathing in its beauty relaxed her anxious mind. She agreed to close her eyes just long enough to let the gray dawn arrive.
Ava awoke to the sound and smell of sizzling bacon and realized she was lying on a pile of cushions, wrapped up in a blanket. Leaping up, she thanked Furtov for his assistance and information.
“Sit. Sit!” he commanded. “I insist! I have made this breakfast for you. You will need strength for your journey,”
“All I want is to be on my way. I must get back to my children.”
“I understand you’re eager to get home. But it would not do for you to faint along the way. Eat!” he ordered, placing a larger meal than she had eaten in years before her.
Reluctantly, she brought the first bite to her mouth. However, once she chewed and swallowed the delectably crisp bacon and sampled Furtov’s eggs, she found her appetite ravenous and cleaned her plate in an instant.
“Thank you, Furtov,” she exclaimed, trying to drink down her tea as she rose from the table. “You have been very kind and generous. I don’t know how I can ever thank you for your service.”
“The horse is ready, Father,” said the same young man who had tended to Anani the day before.
“Good boy, Henry! Have your breakfast,” he said, putting another plate on the table.
Ava noted that he had served her a much larger portion than he served his own son. “I will never forget your kindness,” she said to Furtov, shaking both his hands.
“Perhaps one day I will see you on the other side of a different wall.”
Following her out to the horse tied to a post, Furtov placed yet another parcel in her satchel. “Fruit for the boys,” he explained. “It will make them grow tall.” Then he handed her a clipping from the elpece plant. “Safe journey.”
She deeply inhaled the fragrance of the tiny blossoms and gave a smiling nod before she turned the reins toward home. She started off at a slow trot, not being very familiar with riding a horse, neither did she wish to draw undue attention from unseen watchful eyes. Once safely beyond view of the sparsely populated crossroad, she patted the horse’s neck and leaned forward to whisper, “All right Anani, as fast as you can go, that’s how I want to get there.”
Instantly, the horse bolted forward. She found herself galloping down the lane at such a speed that she would have thought they were flying but for the sound of hoof beats over the dusty trail.
Because of Anani’s speed, Ava was able to return to the cottage just before dark. She would have time to write a message to Farmer and Mrs. Harris, who usually came by once a month or so to trade, fellowship, or just gossip. She wanted them to take the animals she was leaving behind. Her note did not indicate where they were going or why. Just in case Griff and his companion came back and found the note first, she did not want them to have any clues about their direction.
After cleaning the muck of Dem off of her and burning the clothes she had worn there, she took a last look around. Ava mused upon her dislike of the dank little hovel. She felt a sense of adventure about the journey before her. Yet, she also feared the unknown. Her boys were good hunters and brave. They were nearly orphans now without a father. How would she ever find the words to tell them their father was dead? She could not bring herself to tell them the details. What would that knowledge do to them? She desperately wanted a better life and a better world for them. She was far from certain that she would ever be able to provide them much of anything material. Ava was not a woman who cried easily or often, but at that moment she felt an overwhelming sadness creeping into her soul. The more she tried to stifle her tears, the greater difficulty she had putting the sorrow away. Finally, she sat down at the rough-hewn table for the last time as sobs began to pour out of her in great swelling heaves like an untamed flood.
She did not hear the sound of hoof beats arriving through her gate or a knock at the cottage door. Archer stood on the other side; he could hear her crying through the rickety thatch threshold. Pushing the door open, he entered. He hated to interrupt her, knowing that she had good reason to grieve; but he also knew that her husband had been marked, thus she was in imminent danger. He walked over to the table in the dimly lit corner and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. She immediately sat upright with a frightened gasp.
“I’m sorry, Ava. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he explained with intense awkwardness. “I knocked— but I don’t think you heard me.”
Ava turned her face to the wall and tried to wipe her eyes and regain her composure before facing him. Looking at him, she suddenly felt very confused. How did he know where to find her? She was not yet able to speak; she just looked down at his feet. She felt embarrassed to be found in such a state.
“I am very sorry for your loss. I know you need to grieve, but there’s no time, Ava. You are in great danger. You must leave at once and get as far as you can from here. They will come for you directly.”
“I don’t understand . . .” she began.
Nearly snatching her off her stool, he answered, “Then I will explain it to you along the way. Leave everything and come at once!”
Archer had arrived on a tall black stallion. They mounted their horses and trotted toward the gate.
“My children are in a cave we discovered . . .”
“I know where they are. But we don’t want to lead anyone tracking you to their position. You may need to spend a few nights there, perhaps a week, before you set off.”
Ava wondered who this man was and how he knew so much about her. She was very grateful that he had come to her aid on the way to Dem and saved her from the fowl; but how did he know where she lived? How did he know about her loss? What did he know about her children— and how? And if he knew where they were, did anyone else? She was growing anxious and impatient.
Archer led her on a southwest track until they came to a wide stream in a sparse wood. The trees grew denser as they rode up stream to the north. A tributary turned back to the east and became a much smaller creek tumbling down a gentle slope through the woodland. They dismounted when the ground became more rock-strewn to allow the horses a rest.
“Keep your feet to the rocks to avoid leaving tracks,” he advised, leaving the horses to stand in the creek bed.
Ava sat upon a large rock jutting into the creek and did not step upon the bank. Finally, she found the courage to speak.
“You seem to know a lot about me and my family.”
“How is that so?”
“I am a guardian of Seekers.”
“Those who wish to escape Terra Dombren.”
“How do you know if that is my wish?”
She was growing weary of his brevity and beginning to view his assistance as interference. She pondered him as he rubbed his horses’ legs and filled his canteen with water. When he drew near to offer her a drink, she pressed him further.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“What does your heart tell you?”
Ava was taken aback by his question. She was not accustomed to engaging strangers, especially men, in conversation. A discussion of her heart discomfited her and even felt a little invasive.
“Who are you?” she asked, somewhat exasperated.
“My name is Archereus of Menetoy. I come from beyond the Great Wall of Fire.”
Ava sat in stunned silence. Something about this man set him apart. He showed her kindness and bravery when other men would have hid themselves to watch the fowl devour her, then taken her possessions for spoil. His stride and manners exuded confidence without a symptom of arrogance. He possessed an air of nobility she had never before encountered. His countenance radiated a healthy glow unlike any she had ever seen in Terra Dombren, so unlike her own gray pallor and that of every other lost soul on this side of the Great Wall of Fire. His skin seemed to glow with a peculiar brightness from within.
“So… Menetoy is a real place?”
“And you had to pass through a wall of fire to get here?”
“Tell me about it— please.”
“Gladly; there are few topics I enjoy speaking of more than my beloved city. But will you answer me a question first?”
Ava awaited his question expectantly.
“What possessed you to finally move away from your home? What are you searching for?”
Looking off into the distance, she sighed deeply, then hesitantly replied, “Peace. Safety— I want the hurting to stop. I don’t want to feel empty anymore. I don’t want my babies to hurt their whole lives. Seems like we live to hurt” she whispered, more to herself than to him. “I just want it to stop. I want their lives to be about living, rather than merely— escaping death.”
“Ava, they’re not babies anymore. They are nearly grown men.”
Looking him square in the eye, she answered, “That’s easy for you to say. They were never a part of you. I haven’t come to the place where I see them as separate entities from myself. I think somehow they’ll always be a part of me.”
She had to look away, feeling self-conscious at revealing so much of her heart to a stranger. Changing the subject, she rallied, “Now, about Menetoy?”
“There is much to tell and little time for the hearing of it just now. Know this; it will take great courage for you to reach the Wall, but a simple faith will guide you through it. It is a refining fire. Citizenship of Menetoy is not easily attained. You are drawn to it by a desire for light and peace, and such you will find there. But you are the exception to Terra Dombren; most prefer the darkness and will attempt to stop you from getting to the Wall or passing through it. Cam will try to stop you with his legions. The King of Menetoy is his nemesis.”
“And the faith you speak of that is required— what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Faith is a belief in something you have not seen with your own eyes, but you know it to be true as if you had.”
A long silence followed while Ava tried to absorb all he was telling her. It sounded like a fairy tale. Yet there was truth in his countenance and demeanor— truth she had never seen in any man’s face before. It was foreign to her and curious.
He stood before her, offering his hand. Ava looked at his hand before placing her own in it, considering its character. It had a rough appearance, but a gallant and gentle manner. Her heart was telling her she could trust that hand. Yet, accepting help was difficult for her. Because she had never really had anyone she could lean on, she was accustomed to relying on her own strength. Consenting to his assistance was simultaneously disconcerting and refreshing.
“I wasn’t crying over him,” she said after viewing his hand at length. “I grieve for my children, for what they’ve never known in a father and for what they will never know.”
She did not need to hear another ’I know’ from him; he kept that to himself. It would take her some time to be at ease with his abilities.
“Why are you helping me?” she asked, letting him pull her to her feet.
“It is my commission.”
Neither immediately released their hold on the other’s hand. Ava looked into Archer’s eyes, surprised at what she saw. There was no darkness there. In fact, in the gathering darkness, they almost seemed to glow. She wanted to linger in that moment. She felt safe. She felt peace. She felt warmth.
“Thank you,” she whispered, pulling her hand from his, suddenly feeling a little embarrassed. He did not move away or look away. He handed her Anani’s rein.
“We will follow this creek bed,” he instructed.
They moved up the hill against the sparse stream trickling past them. It came to pass as they traversed over gravelly dips and mounds, they came at last to the steep rise housing the cave where her two sons awaited her return. In the hastening twilight, she recognized the second entrance where Onar was excavating a larger opening made visible by the glow of the elpece plants spilling down the crest. Seeing it, she suddenly felt at home, and dismounting, she ran the rest of the way to the main cave entrance.
“Boys!” she called out when she saw the grouping of the three trees and boulder. “Are you here? Are you all right?” she called.
“Ma!” Onar’s voice replied from up in the distance.
In the glow of strategically placed elpece, Ava could barely make out his shape swinging from a vine. She darted toward him but had not gotten more than a few paces beyond the cave entrance when an arrow whizzed past her across the ravine. Another was shot across the divide from somewhere above Onar. Ava heard the tortured moan of a wild beast, then saw Onar swing across the ravine with sword in hand. He sliced off the dongrel’s head before swinging back across the ravine and dismounting from the vine, tumbling to a spot not ten feet from his mother.
“What in the world was that?” Onar breathlessly asked.
Unable to stifle a nervous laugh, Ava fell upon her younger son, who seemed to view dangerous creatures as sport. Stranth darted forth with his bow over his shoulder. He helped his mother back to her feet and embraced her. Onar stood to enfold them both in his arms.
“Unhand me, vermin,” Stranth teased his brother, pushing him away.
Ava narrowly escaped the wrestling match that ensued. Turning back to the cave, she saw Archer securing his bow and quiver to his saddle bag where he stood with the horses on the slope of the ridge.
“He was a dongrel,” Archer answered Onar.
Ava’s animated smile faded when she realized she was returning his gaze. Embarrassed, she turned back to her boys who hadn’t seemed to notice the stranger before he spoke and pretended to try to break them up.
“Boys, we have a guest,” she finally informed them.
“You need to adopt some manners then, Onar,” Stranth teased.
“You started it,” he returned as they straightened themselves.
The three walked over to Archer, who now stood waiting on the rock of the cave entrance.
“Archereus, these are my sons, Stranth and Onar,” Ava beamed.
They exchanged handshakes and greetings as Ava filled them in on the circumstances surrounding their meeting.
“Archereus, thank you for aiding our mother,” Stranth said.
“Yes, thank you for your kindness,” Onar echoed.
Archer slowly nodded.
“You’re welcomed to camp with us tonight,” Stranth offered. “It’s too dark to be traveling; and— we have a nice catch of pheasant from our hunting today.”
“I never turn down roast pheasant; but please, call me Archer.”