Chapter 9: Archereus Introduced
“I’ve never seen a dongrel before,” Onar began as they sat down to roast pheasant in front of the fire. “What are they? Where do they come from?”
“Dongrels are dangerous creatures. They’re actually human, though I doubt you would’ve thought so.”
“Human?” Stranth queried.
“Or at least they used to be. They’re transformed by a drug that causes the depth of depravity innate in man to manifest itself in physical form.”
The boys stared at him blankly for a moment. They had never heard anyone talk the way this man talked; but they were even more astounded that they actually comprehended what he had said to them.
“I figured he was just some strange kind of wolf on two legs,” Stranth acknowledged.
“They can take many different forms,” Archer informed them. “I’ve seen them take the shape of rocks and trees, of people that are familiar to their intended victims, sometimes even their former selves. But you can always tell a dongrel by his eyes, even if he is trying to pass himself off as an ordinary man. His eyes are sunken black pits that extend into eternal darkness.”
The group ate in quiet for a while. Stranth and Onar both thought of their father’s quiet companion.
At some length Onar asked, “What do the tattoos signify that we see on so many evil men?”
“Tattoos are a token symbol of allegiance to Cam, the village master of Dem who will soon be king of Terra Dombren.”
Just hearing that name caused Ava to visibly shudder.
“They are bought with a price,” Archer continued, “or more accurately, a pledge— a pledge of blood. Tattoos are forged by the blood of a victim, almost always a family member.
“Cam understands that a man who will sacrifice his own flesh and blood and disgrace his own body by flaunting the murder as a badge of honor will serve his wicked purposes without hesitation or remorse. Tattoos have been a symbol of pagan rituals and dishonor since ancient times. A person who will corrupt his own body will surely degrade his fellow man as well.”
“Maybe that’s why people are so afraid of each other,” Onar observed.
“I still don’t understand what makes people do such vile things,” Stranth admitted.
“There’s a great breach in the soul of man. Many factors contribute to the wickedness of the time in which we live. Man has always been corrupt; thus through the ages he made himself laws, chose restraints that kept his darker inclinations in check. But over the course of time, he grew tired of laws and restrictions. He began to lash out at his neighbor more and more, and then his own flesh and blood— at first, only secretly, when he thought no one else would see or could know. Eventually, as he became less ashamed, he began to flaunt his vile exploits. Man’s collective thinking became so twisted that what was once universally accepted as good became odious in his eyes. His aspirations have become ghoulish nightmares; his every thought turns only to violence— and power. Good became evil, and evil good in his heart. It took a long time to get here, but this is what life looks like in the absence of truth, love— and loyalty. The world is in desperate need of men who will stand in the gap, and be a light in this darkness.”
A heavy silence filled the cave for some time.
Yet, not all hope was lost. Cam had not yet succeeded in his quest to become king precisely because of people like Ava and her sons who possessed an intrinsic knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil. The lines had not been blurred for their kind. Their voices may have been silenced, but the will to seek peace and pursue it had not been erased.
Stranth and Onar learned from Archer that there was still cause for hope. He told them of the Wall of Fire that stretches like a curtain between Terra Dombren and the Land of Light. There is a land of fair blue skies and fertile pastures on rolling hills with forests bursting forth in a thousand different shades of green. He told them about a land of peace and plenty, well-watered with sweet babbling brooks that wind their way to a tumbling sea crashing upon white crystal sands. The air is crisp and fresh, not stale and imposing. An honorable king who reigns over a peaceful, gentle people who have no lack abides in a city of ivory and cedar. He is their protector and guide. He is wise. His people enjoy freedom, fellowship, and commerce without fear. Listening to Archereus describe his city made their eyes glisten and their hearts yearn to step foot on that sacred ground.
Could there truly be such a place? Ava wondered. How disappointed she was with the world she lived in and its cruel inhabitants.
“You told me earlier that I was your commission,” Ava began. “What did you mean by that?”
“The king sent me to pursue you. He knows that in your heart you desire light, freedom, and peace.”
“And how does a king I’ve never heard of, from a land I’ve never heard of, know such things?”
“He simply does. It is his nature to know.”
“He knows people in far away lands? He knows what’s in their hearts?”
“He just does, Ava. When you look upon him with your own eyes, you will comprehend on a level that goes beyond words.”
“Forgive me, but this is beginning to sound more and more like a fairy tale.” After a moment’s hesitation, she sourly added, “I don’t believe in fairy tales.”
“Nevertheless, these things are so. If you truly did not have an instinct to know them, I would not be here. And if you’ll forgive me for being blunt, to believe these things without acting upon them is— cowardice.”
Ava sat in pensive silence. Her boys arose and each kissed her on her cheek before making their way to their bearskin bedrolls.
“What’s this king’s name?” yawned Onar after making himself comfortable in between skins.
“What’s the name of his kingdom?” Stranth inquired.
“And he sent you to help us?” Stranth yawned from in between his skins, as well.
“Yes,” Archer replied, “but not only you. Many people are shrouded in the darkness of Terra Dombren who long for light, freedom— and beauty. I have come to your aid today and will go some of the journey with you to set you on your way. But the journey is yours. It will not be easy. Indeed, it will be fraught with great peril. I will come to your aid, as you need me. You may wonder at times at my absence, when you come near to despair for the toil of the way; but discipline your minds to pursue the light, and you will find it, no matter how dark the path becomes along the way.”
Ava gathered up a gourd containing an elpece plant and moved through the mouth of the cave to sit upon the rock outside. Archer followed her there.
After a few moments silence, he observed, “I sense fear in your heart.”
Ava turned to look at him and briefly smirked. That was quite an understatement. Did he know just how much?
“I have been afraid my whole life,” she stated matter-of-factly.
“You’re a strong woman, Ava, stronger than you know.”
“Because I’ve had to be.”
“And you must continue.”
“I’m tired of being strong,” she whispered to herself.
“Then let faith be your strength,” he replied softly.
She drew the elpece close to her face to breathe in as much of its perfume as she could. She could not form the words to say what was in her heart. I don’t know what it means to be held, to feel strong arms clutch me and keep me from falling. My life has been one long tumble through the darkness of outer Hades, and I am so very tired of falling— thoughts she would not dare say out loud, but pondered them privately. For a brief moment, she found the courage to look in his eyes. She fancied not only that he comprehended her thoughts, but imagined she could almost hear him reply, I am here. You’re not
falling any more, Ava. I will guide you to safety. Trust me. Did she imagine that, or were they really communicating without their voices?
When she made no further reply, he added, “Sometimes we need to embrace victory before we feel victorious. It’s called walking by faith. Faith is the path that will lead you to the Great Wall. Faith will protect you through the Wall. Faith will guide you to a home on the other side from darkness. There you will exchange your fear for freedom.”
Freedom is the opposite of fear.
Archereus spoke of faith as if it were the very ground he walked upon. It was a much more elusive concept to Ava. And home? She felt at home with her sons. She felt no distance from them, no loneliness. They were connected. She had never associated a time or place with the word home. There had never been a time or place wherein she had felt safe and wanted. She had never known tranquility or a sense of belonging. How she yearned for it without even knowing what it was. How she yearned for safety and happiness for her boys. That’s what it means to love, she mused. Her husband had cast them aside. Les had never concerned himself with their safety or contentment; it had never occurred to him to give such notions consideration.
Impulsively, Ava reached out for Archer’s hand and looked him square in his eyes. “Promise me you are not a dream, that this Menetoy can be my home and a home for my sons.”
Gripping her hand firmly in return, he said, “I so swear.”
Ava found herself staring into those crystal blue eyes again. She welcomed the feeling of peace that swept over her, and she wanted to linger there. She wanted to live there. She realized that she was borrowing his strength and faith. Only with Archereus, it wasn’t really faith, but knowledge. He was not trusting in something he had not yet seen. Somehow Ava sensed this truth in him, and she was encouraged. She had never met a man that inspired so much trust. She forced herself to let go of his hand, but she found the courage to smile through her embarrassment.
“Thank you, for all you have done for us.”
“It is my honor to come along side your family in their time of need. Ava, you have done a fine job raising those two boys. In the blink of an eye, they will be men. I sense greatness in their souls and no fear in their hearts. Such men are worthy to stand in the courts of my king. They will be great assets to his service, I am certain.”
Archer followed her back into the cave. As Ava lay down between her two sons, she felt a sense of peace and quickly fell into a deep restful sleep.
CLINK, ching. CHING, CHING. Clink. The morning gloom was announced by the sound of swordplay. Stranth and Onar were outside practicing their maneuvers with Archer seated upon the rock advising and instructing. Ava lay listening for longer than she would usually dare. She loved the sound of their laughter. Her reverie was interrupted when she recalled that she needed to tell Stranth and Onar that their father was dead. How dreadful to tell them of all she had witnessed. She lay still a little longer as she pondered how much to disclose. Archer was right— they were no longer babies; indeed, they were nearly grown. But the urge to guard their innocence held a powerful grip on her heart.