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Chapter Eight

Along the Milver-Lion River

The next morning, though it was still a bit dark, I awoke to Father’s voice. I couldn’t make the words, but I knew he was going in and out of the front door as he spoke. When I came out of my room I saw that he was carrying packs out the door and setting them on the porch. Behind him, just above the line of trees (which was accentuated by the silhouette of the Vasior rising distinctly above them) I could see that a storm was brewing in the sky that threatened rain.

“Good morning to you, master,” Father said from the doorway. “How did you sleep?” He was dressed in his overcoat and I could see that he was wearing his ministering attire.

“Very well,” I said as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I wasn’t telling the truth. It had been for me a difficult evening filled with unpleasant dreams, and the darkness of the new morning and the hurried nature of Father gave me the same uneasiness. It was as though we were fleeing from something, whether it be that we made this urgent escape in the early hours of the morning to flee from the carefree and easy life we had formerly known or from a mass of evil that was driving our migration to the Borough. Either way, I was uncomfortable and in distress. Mother could see it and busied my mind with chores to help prepare our departure.

“Wake your sister,” she said, “and see to it that she gathers her trinkets. She will want them for the journey and it is better to recall them now then to be without them in a few hours when she needs amusing.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said softly and went in to wake Madeline. As we gathered a few of her toys, I heard Father outside strapping the team and loading our packs into the wagon. Mother was speaking to him from the porch.

“It is a day’s journey to the Borough,” she said, “We shall be in need of protection if we cannot cross the river at Ghihland. The rains will come and the waters will surely rise, forcing us to journey further down to cross at the Painoct fields. Mustn’t we wait until after the rains for fear of safety?”

“We cannot hesitate any longer,” Father said, “for with each moment that passes, precious time is lost and I’m convinced that the Assembly expected me to arrive during yesterday’s eve. Even if the rains are brief, the river will swell from the mountain falls. This will delay our departure much longer than a day. I have considered the details and have planned accordingly for the Painoct fields. Take heart, dear woman for we are much safer with Joshua and Madeline in our company than you may know.”

Though the Painoct fields are of great renown for the bravery of its soldiers sent forth in battles of old, its bosom now held an encampment of forgotten men and women, outcasts and thieves, unwanted troll servants and mischievous treelings chastised and driven out by their communities. The Painoct fields had become as an obscurity, most notably for the desire of Ganchimans to avoid visiting. Other roads were conveniently formed which never seemed to lead in the direction of Painoct. One could only find it by traveling the edge of the swollen river in search of a point for crossing (or perhaps by discovering an ancient map). There are few places in Ganchimi that will allow for the likes of these creatures, and yet they gather together in one place where they can live outside of the world’s routines and bustle.

Father, in his duties, would often journey to the Painoct fields to minister to their Caretakers. They too have a Vasior tree, and to hear Father speak of it was to envision one just as grand (if not more so) than our own. You would think that it would have less care and concern coming from such a revelrous bunch, but so it is that this community takes from its branches and harvests its fruit more regularly than all of the other Vasiors in the provinces. And as much as they concern themselves for it and see to its nurture, they guard their fields with a fervent desire for its safe keeping; extremely unwilling to allow intruders to infect its good soil. It seemed that Father had great respect for their ardor.

But as easily as the Painocts can impress, they can revert to their tendencies and see you dead on the road, stripped of your belongings and trodden. For this very reason, it has been since before our birth that Father made his last ride to the Painoct fields. At Mother’s behest, he has remained busy in other places, and yet I have seen from Father’s expression when recalling his visits that he was quite fond of serving the creatures that settled there.

With the supplies packed and the team prepared, we gathered ourselves and set out for the Borough. The sun had begun to rise, but it was grayed and dull from rain clouds. As we rolled away from our home and passed the Vasior, it seemed as though the lower branches leaned toward us and over the path as if to usher us on our way. I missed my beloved tree and it was yet to disappear from my sight. Passing by and below its magnificent branches, I reached up and grabbed a leaf and placed it in my pocket.

I sat in front with Father. It was always his desire that I learn to steer the team, he surmised that this was an acceptable time. Mother and Madeline rode in the back beneath the canopy. It is customary that women ride in such a fashion as not to be seen while traveling the back roads. Father and Mother were children of tradition and saw to it that such customs were perpetuated.

The wagon appeared loaded with much more than was necessary for the four of us. In the back, Father had packed several bags full of his concoctions used for nourishing the roots of the Vasior. On top of the weighty baggage rested our packs and boxes of food of which Mother had carefully finalized before leaving. Swathed within a woolen blanket (as Father had commanded the previous evening) and seated between us in the front was the sword and shield. As the wagon rolled along the uneven road, I could hear the occasional clang from within the loose wrapping. Father had donated his sheath, but portions of the steel grip of the sword were uncovered and found themselves meeting the edge of the shield.

“You’ll have to quiet that racket before we proceed much further,” Father said, “There are certain citizens that will recognize the sound of weapons and hasten to make trouble for us, especially where we are going.” Just as he spoke, the rain began to fall. Father reached behind to extend a portion of the canopy over our heads. It was a light and steady rain that soon became quite torrential, often causing difficulties for the horses. It was not long before our path was joined to that of the road which led along northern bank of the Milver-LionRiver.

“I have many questions, Father,” I said as I carefully held the reigns and tucked the blanket between the sword and shield. “They have me sorely vexed.”

“I’m sure you do,” Father said with a bit of a laugh, “and I’m sure they have.”

“But I don’t know where to begin,” I continued.

“Perhaps I can help you to discover the questions you seek to ask as well as provide the answers that satisfy.” Father leaned back in his seat and rested his head against the canopy support. “Tell me, dear boy, what drove you to discover the door in the woodshed? It has been there since well before your birth and yet you’ve never seen it.”

“I saw it yesterday when you asked for my help in carrying the wood.”

“I know this, dear Joshua, for so it was clear by your expression that day.”

“When you left for the Borough, I considered it an opportunity to find out what was below the woodpile.”

“But what drove you to open the door and to proceed below?”

“I don’t know, Father. I cannot explain my intentions. I was eager to explore and yet I desired not to disobey. But if you don’t mind, Father, it did appear that you purposefully left it for me to find and then provided for me the opportunity by going against Mother’s rule regarding the woodshed.”

“You are a keen young man, Joshua, but I did not uncover the door to your sight. The door has never been seen because I have not allowed it to be seen. It is my duty as Bishop to keep it hidden until it is discovered accordingly. I go down into the chamber below the Vasior at least once a year to prepare a liput torch and place it on the altar and I am always careful to cover the door with dirt and logs when I return to the surface. How is it then that you found it?”

“You must not have covered it completely for I saw the morning sun glaring from its surface.”

“But its surface is not polished,” Father corrected. “It is etched and rough; incapable of reflecting light. Tell me, when you removed the logs, what did you see?”

“I recall that I needed to remove the dirt and dust in order to see its form.”

“How is it then that you were able to see clearly through a pile of logs, dust and dirt the shining glow of a dull surfaced door?”

“I don’t know.”

“It is because the beast is alive in Center-Wood and the time has come for you to see the door.” Father moved in his seat to get comfortable and continued, “I did not make it so that you would find the door. You would have seen it even if it were covered in coal dust or buried in granite. You found it of your own accord. Without speaking directly, I did encourage you to consider the opportunity to search. As I’ve already said, one of my duties is to prepare a torch for the Chamber. A torch must be available if the one that is chosen is to light the fires and retrieve the sword and shield. This has been a duty within my bloodline for a great many years. One day, once you had passed the age of youth, I would have begun to instruct you in the same tasks and prepared you for the role of Caretaker. Until then, you were to be considered among the children.”  Scratching his head, father added, “And it has me perplexed that Madeline was able to bear the shield.”

“She did, Father, and with great strength.”

“Ah, yes, the Pickers. Those ghastly beasts, and yet they serve their purpose. Do you realize what you’ve accomplished in defeating five Pickers? The story is told of a Caretaker many years ago that would tend to his duties in the cavern below our great Vasior, but for fear of the Pickers, he would not do so without a sword of his own. But this fear was his undoing. One day while tending to the altar torch, he dropped his sword to the stone floor and awoke the Pickers. Of course the Pickers are not as savage as you might think, for they could very easily have attacked him in great numbers. However, it is recorded that only one came lumbering from its darkness and easily disposed of the man. This Caretaker, who was by no means weak, battled for his life and yet was overcome by only one. You braved five and were victorious, and you are merely a child! Even I was fearful for my life when I rushed to your aid. I was able to defeat the beast because I took it by surprise. They must have come in such a great number because they discerned you to be a formidable foe.”

“Where do the Pickers come from, Father?”

“Where they come from is not known and probably less important than asking the question ‘Why are they here?’ These creatures guard the Chamber from ruthless men that would seek to gain the sword and shield as a prize. Some have tried and in their vain attempts to carry what cannot be carried, they have lost their lives to the Pickers. Man is a deviant creature and therefore his evil heart must be governed by creatures even more sinister. You cannot change the will of what has been set in motion from of old and to try is to prepare oneself for death.”

“I was fearful for my life and I thought I would never see you again.”

“Fear in the face of such devilry is needed, but can become a hindrance. Fear will keep you attentive but you should not allow for it to be the loss of hope. As long as you are breathing, there is hope.” Father shifted closer and put his arm around my shoulder, “There is a fire within you, Joshua. It is a kindled flame of hope; and this hope is fed by courage. You eagerly lit the flames in the chamber without knowing why. Those flames cannot be lit by any poor sod that comes along. Not even the torch would burn if I were to have placed it into the fiery pool in the center of the Chamber. And the stone walls lined with peculiar shapes and colored luster, they would sense this hope within the one that is chosen and become alive with light themselves. Did not this happen to you?”

“It did. I saw the stones rich with color, and they seemed to glow from within as I drew near!”

“And as we ventured out, do you recall what happened at the door?”

“Yes, the fires were extinguished when I passed the limestone doorframe.”

“‘Tis true, dear boy! You are aware! And to think that you were so scared as you left the Chamber that you could barely recall your own name. So it was that the life of the fire was lost when its source was removed from the room. And now this source is within your keeping. It is your charge.”

The rain became lesser and Father took the reigns. Turning the horses toward the river bank, he paused for a brief moment to point to its dangerous ferocity.

“Do you see this water as it flows with such angry pace?” he asked attempting to speak above the deafening sound of the river.

“I do.”

“It is a treacherous thing, this river, when it is swollen beyond its banks. My only choice in getting across would be to go down into the water. If I were to attempt such a task, I would be swept away to my death.” I could see that river was much wider now as the intense rain had begun to raise its level. “But you could cross it,” he continued, “and you could do so safely and with great ease.”

“How is this possible? I am of lesser stature than yourself. Certainly you would survive and I would drown!”

“It is quite simple really. You would gather your weapons and jump.” I shook my head, but before I could say what I was thinking (which was that what Father had just proposed sounded rather insane) I recalled my lunge through the flaming pool in the Chamber. Father had retrieved Madeline and then jumped through the flames and yet I leapt a great distance beyond him while holding the sword and shield.

“You will be able to do great things, Joshua. You shall be able to sail across valleys with little effort and to lift mountainous boulders in the palm of your hands. As long as you retain your charge, the sword and the shield, you shall be able to do that which is impossible!” Now to hear such words, it would seem that any boy would puff up with courage, however, the fear of facing the terrible Otem still held me within its grasp.

Mother had been listening all along while Madeline slept in her arms. Again, seeing my dismay, she reached forward and placed her hand gently on my arm. I turned and gave her a bit of a nervous smile. She returned with a smile that radiated a comforting peace, soaking my soul and leaving me warm. For a moment, I was lost in her beaming face.

“I do not expect for you to receive these words with eager amusement and haughtiness,” Father went on, “because if you were to show a careless manner as such, I would question your worthiness. To see your concerned face and perplexity is a relief. It proves you to be of solemn mind. However, the time will come when you will find great hope in these abilities and will actually be able to use them.”

The rain stopped for a short while as we continued along the road. But relief was fast fleeting as the downpour soon began again. The waters of the river rushed feverishly by, flooding the banks and coming dreadfully near to our road. Father steered the horses back to the road. Eventually he found it necessary to steer them to the edge of the road furthest from the water.

We traveled in silence for a great distance. Now that Father held the reigns, I turned and pretended to sleep. I eventually rose in my seat because it was too difficult to find comfort amidst the bumpy travels.

“Would you care to take the team again?” Father nudged.

“What shall be required of me at the Borough?” I asked as I took them from his hands.

“Of that, I’m not certain. First I must gather the Bishops into the Assembly and we will determine the course of action. We will look to the Annals for guidance and will bring you before us to question you. There are many brilliant minds within the Assembly; however, brilliance is nothing without hearkening to the will of old and keeping to a faithful spirit. If you are deemed worthy, you will be ushered before the King’s Council in Rodmilf, for so it has been ordained since before you were born.”

“How shall I prepare for this?”

“Do not try to prepare, dear boy. You merely need to respond as necessary. Do not speak until questioned and do not brandish the weapons until required. Pray for sound judgment and you will know what to do.”

“I will, Father. And what of Madeline’s role?”

“That is a question to be measured within the ranks of the Assembly. Now rest your questions and attend to the horses. Lead them along steadily. You must finish the task at hand.”

“Yes, Father,” I said and tightened my grip on the reigns. The rain was beating heavily against our canopy. We came to the bridge at Ghihland and recognized that we would be unable to cross now that the stone bridge was under water. We continued off the road and onto an overgrown trail leading further along the river. Suddenly a horseman rode past, throwing mud from the hooves of his massive steed. A mask covered his face and a sword was stationed in his pack. Once he was a distance away, he stopped and turned to examine us.

“He is a rider from Painoct. We will be nearing the fields within the hour and we must be prepared as he is certain to ride ahead and report us. Joshua, take the sword and shield and retreat to the back with Mother and Madeline.” Father opened the collar of his coat so that his ministering clothing was more visible. I gathered the wool blanket and climbed into the cart.

“Wake Madeline and instruct her to remain quiet. Close the curtain and do not speak. Silence is of the essence.”