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The quest for hope, p.13
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       The Quest for Hope, p.13

           A. S. King
 
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  After some hugs and general inquiries into the well-being of the others who had come with Rosemary, Levi finally got around to asking where she and the rest of the group were staying.

  “Didn’t Atira tell you?” asked Rosemary in surprise, gesturing towards the young woman they’d just met. “We’re staying with her. Well, with her and her neighbors.”

  “But can they be trusted?” asked Elior doubtfully. “After all, she didn’t know the sign.”

  “There are things these people do not know,” acknowledged Rosemary, “but there is much they do know as well, and you can rest assured that they hear Him and act according to his ways, even if they do not yet know his name.”

  Elior nodded, then turned back to his wife. Grace had been staring hard at Rosemary. Suddenly, she came forward with a gasp. At the same time, Rosemary also recognized her old friend and the two women met in an embrace. It took Elior longer to recall the acquaintance of nearly ten years ago, but when he did, he too stepped forward with a hug.

  And these hugs were only the beginning of the reunion hugs. The small group, both Adamas, and Pronghorns, followed Atira, Rosemary, and Marnie to the small community where everyone was staying. Wintertide was an interesting town in that the placement of the homes, shops, trees, rocks, and roads had all been designed in such a way as to create an intricate labyrinth within the protective shrubbery surrounding it. Atira moved through the maze without a thought. Rosemary and Marnie didn’t seem bothered by the layout either. For the newcomers, however, it was more than a little disconcerting to realize that they wouldn’t be able to find their way out if they wanted to.

  After many twists and turns, they finally arrived at the center—a clearing which consisted of five long wooden houses placed end-to-end in the shape of a pentagon. At the announcement of their presence, people excitedly emerged from each of the houses and the reunion hugs resumed. Introductions were made, though it was a tricky business trying to introduce and be introduced without stating a name. They soon discovered that the people of Wintertide were rather proficient at getting along without knowing the names of their guest. You see, they came up with their own descriptive names for each person such as Serious-eyes (Raz), Esteemed-One (Raziela), and Caterpillar (Aliatta). There was a great feast following these greetings, after which everyone happily retired to their own or designated homes.

  Elior had been able to arrange things such that he, Grace, Raziela, Raz, and Aliatta were all together in one residence. It was the first time in his life that he had ever been able to be with his mother and children all at the same time.

  Taking the first opportunity he had, Elior warned Raz of his name being known and informed him of the charges which had been laid out against him.

  Although Raz had suspected as much, it was still hard to hear the verbal confirmation of his suspicions. After all, for a man, the loss of respect in a job he has worked long and hard at is never an easy thing to bear. So the displaced knight looked at the floor with a heavy sigh and, with a wry smile, murmured his regret. “A decade of loyal service to the King and Queen and this is how it ends—”

  “But which King were you actually serving,” Elior pointed out. As much as he wanted to support his son, there was no time to wallow in self-pity.

  Raz nodded, and he thought deeply about the honest question. His spirit revived somewhat at the opportunity to be put his analytical mind to use. “It was easy to forget, to lose sight of why I was really there,” he said. He turned his contemplative eyes to his sister. “Aliatta, though you weren’t aware of it, you helped me, more than anything else, to remember what my true purpose was. Well, I guess this warrant for my arrest would explain some things.”

  “Like what?” asked Aliatta.

  Raz shook his head. “It’s late,” he said, “and you are a tired little caterpillar. I’m sure you will hear many stories in the days to come.”

  Raz, as was often the case, turned out to be right. The next few days were ones of rest and recuperation, and Aliatta did indeed learn the “like what” events which had prompted Raz’s comment.

  “Raz taught me how to fight!” exclaimed Giron one day to Aliatta as they sparred together with small, sleek rapiers. “I’ve even been in a real battle!”

  “Really?” asked Aliatta with some surprise and more than a little skepticism.

  “Well, it wasn’t a real big battle,” acknowledged the boy, “but it was a real fight! We hadn’t traveled very far from where you left us when we stumbled right into a camp of Zobeks! You should have seen me! Quick as lightening, all of us, well, almost all of us—Raziela and Marnie hid in a tree—grabbed our swords and sent those pesky ape-monsters running for the hills!”

  Another day went by. Seventeen-year-old Maya joined Aliatta for some time away from the general populace. They had found an irresistibly great climbing tree close to the village clearing and were now expertly perched in its high branches.

  “There was one time when we barely avoided running into a trap that had been set for us,” Maya softly recounted. “We were on the high ground, surrounded by large boulders, but were about to approach a clearing. Raziela suddenly stopped us from moving forward and suggested we go back down the hill and around through the ravine before coming back up. None of us wanted to climb any more hills than we had to. We were tired of the constant ups and downs and wading our way through the higher brush in the ravine, but we listened anyway and went around. After we had emerged on the other side, I looked back to where we would have gone and seen a group of Adama bounty hunters waiting to catch us. It’s a wonder they didn’t hear us and snatch us up anyway!”

  26

  Trust

  One evening, Raz shared some more details about their journey. “We would make our way from home to home—homes of those whom Ian and Rosemary knew to be trustworthy,” he explained. “We were hidden in all sorts of ways, in all kinds of places—beneath floorboards, under hay, in the rafters of homes and barns, in half-full barrels of wine, secret compartments of wagons— Each time I thought we were sure to be discovered, the soldiers turned away. Something would divert their attention. I don’t even know what it was that drew them away.”

  “Sure you do,” responded Raziela with a knowing smile.

  Raz smiled in return. “You’re probably right,” he agreed. “Something inside me did, I think, have a sense of what was going on, but I never saw the help that was given. My training has taught me to be highly alert and aware of the physical. I don’t think I’ve learned yet how to be aware of the spiritual. I always suspected, though, that you, grandma, always knew exactly what was happening. This trip has been strange in another respect as well. As a knight, I’ve been accustomed to always knowing who is in charge, but on our journey, it was never clear which one of us was doing the leading. We led together, it seemed—Raziela, Ian and Rosemary, and I. And, there was one more thing I found strange. Some days into our journey, the attention of the Hellions seemed to have been diverted for good. They had constantly been tracking, but suddenly they stopped. I can only assume now, based on your own story, that it must have been when they turned their attention to Darnstall Hold.”

  They had not been long with the people of Wintertide when Aliatta discovered some blank parchment in one of the homes. After gently fingering it and staring at it longingly, its owner, Maor—Atira’s father and the leader of Wintertide, offered to give her some.

  “Do you mean it?” she eagerly asked, her eyes bright with hope.

  Maor nodded with a smile. “I always have as much as I need,” was his simple reply. Then he handed the girl a pen and a small jar of ink to go along with the parchment.

  Aliatta gratefully accepted the offered gifts and shot out the door. Then she seated herself at one of the tables in the center of the clearing and began to write. As she wrote, her mind left the village of Wintertime and went back—back to her bedroom at Earlington where her adventure was about to begin. Pen touched paper, and the journey began again.
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  She had not been writing long before she had a silent audience. First, it was only Sitsi, coming over to see what her friend was doing. Then Giron, Henry, and Marnie showed up, and then Sean and Zavier sauntered by and loitered there, trying not to look as interested as they really were. Before long, there was a whole group gathered around the young Lady Aliatta, who was so absorbed in her writing that she wasn’t even aware of their existence. Raziela looked on from the outskirts of the group with a smile. This was indeed her granddaughter.

  A bell finally chimed, announcing the noon meal, and Aliatta looked up, her mind slowly returning to the present. She was more than a little surprised to see so many faces staring back at her in awe.

  “What are those marks you were making?” asked Sitsi in wonder.

  Aliatta did her best to explain sounds, letters, and words and finally, exasperated by having to explain something which was so easy for her now, blurted out, “Maybe I should just start at the beginning and show you!”

  “Yes!” the group exclaimed.

  They were called for lunch before Aliatta had any further chance to respond.

  Over lunch, Aliatta explained to Levi the horror of the situation. “I don’t know why I offered to teach them how to read and write. I didn’t mean to! Levi, why don’t you teach them? You’re the tutor, not me.”

  Levi smiled as he gently, but firmly responded. “Believe it or not Aliatta, they look up to you, even the older ones. They know who you are and have great respect for you. There comes a time when the student is called upon to step forward and teach, and for you, that time has come.”

  “But I know so little.” Aliatta sighed. Managing a prison was one thing. Teaching others what she knew was something else entirely.

  “There is much you don’t know about the High King,” Levi agreed, “but there is much you have been taught about the world He created—things that these people have not yet had the privilege and opportunity to learn. No, you don’t know everything, but what you do know, you are able to share with others—to teach them.”

  “Will you help me?” she implored.

  Levi nodded. “I will be there with you and will lend you what strength I can, but I will not do the teaching for you. Remember, too, the High King will give you the energy and words for the task. You already have the knowledge, so proceed with confidence. You are not alone.”

  Thus began the daily lessons. Every morning, the Heir to the throne of Novus would come out to the clearing and teach, not only the children but also many of the adults, how to read and write. Through Lady Aliatta’s offering of the knowledge she possessed and the students’ grateful acceptance of her gift, a bond was formed, and mutual respect was exchanged. Aliatta’s eyes were opened to the beautiful and wonderful qualities of those whom she had previously viewed as being beneath her, while the community discovered, in this young aristocratic girl, generosity, and friendliness they had not expected to find in someone who had been raised among the nobility.

  The days at Wintertide passed pleasantly, but alas, this was only a temporary stopping point, and their rest here could not last forever. After a few weeks had gone by, Raziela, Levi, Raz, Ian and Rosemary, and Elior and Grace met to discuss the next phase of their journey.

  “I would highly advise against traveling through the White Country,” Ian said fervently.

  Raziela looked confused. “I don’t understand why,” she said pleasantly. “It is such beautiful country. I passed through there often in my younger days.”

  “I’m afraid much has changed since then.” His tone softened in response to Raziela’s good memories of the place. “They say a heartless Ice Witch now rules the country. While she doesn’t appear to support the Dark One directly, she does not tolerate people entering into her domain. Skerps are tolerated, but only because they do her dirty work for her by gobbling up anything that dares to pass through. It is said she can look into the souls of those who trespass onto her lands and freeze their hearts to solid ice. It is said she flies upon the wings of a Chashak and moves as silently through the forest as a Pronghorn. Her own heart, it is said, is made of ice. Even the Hellions dare not go there, for she seems to have an especially strong hatred of them and will turn them immediately into the worst thing she can think of.”

  “Which is—” prompted Raziela skeptically. She had never cared for gossip, and this description sounded rather far-fetched.

  “A harmless white daisy which instantly freezes and dies in the cold air,” said Ian, completely serious.

  Raziela laughed outright, but the rest of the group gave a sigh of frustration. To go around the White Country would add significant time and danger to their journey, for they would be much more vulnerable out on the plains which lay along the borders of Alsta and Ebrodon.

  They left the meeting still uncertain as to what their next course of action should be. As it was, before the night was over, their route would be decided for them.

  ***

  DONG, DONG, DONG DONG

  The alarm sounded soon after everyone had retired for the night.

  “Wake up everyone! Rise to your feet! The enemy is at our doorstep!” shouted a man who barged into the room where they were sleeping. In a matter of seconds, the door slammed shut as the man moved on to the next house. Raz sprang to his feet, threw on his leather armor, sheathed his sword, and helped get the others prepared.

  “What’s going on?” Aliatta whispered to Atira.

  “A hoard of Hellions has arrived and surrounded the village. We don’t have much time. Quick, follow me.”

  Atira and the rest of the hospitable people of Wintertide led their Adama guests to hidden doors beneath their floorboards and ushered them through. The Pronghorns could not fit inside these flaps. Instead, they found places to hide within the labyrinth itself. Then the leaders of the community went out to meet the enemy.

  Levi tried to warn the Wintertide residents that the Hellions would not negotiate with them.

  Please don’t go! He spirit spoke to Maor as he walked out the door. You cannot reason with those monsters.

  Meor looked back with calm, understanding eyes. Do not fear for us, he said, spirit-speaking in kind, for the Hellions will not harm us. The people of Wintertide are under the special protection of King Lev and Queen Malka. You see, the King and Queen entrusted us with something vital, very beautiful, and very dangerous. They have entrusted us with the Gem of all Knowledge. And now you must go, before one of them sees you.

  While the leaders of Wintertide spoke with the Hellions and told them all the things they did not know (We don’t know whom you are talking about. We don’t have any idea where they came from. We don’t know where they might be going), the very people for whom the Hellions were searching were making their way through hidden tunnels beneath the feet of those who hunted them.

  The Adamas walked and walked and after a while the tunnel began to slope, leading up and up and up. Finally, they could go no further, for the simple reason that there was a door in the way. They pushed and pushed, but could not force it open.

  “Why don’t we knock?” suggested little Marnie.

  Most of the group was split between thinking she was cute for suggesting such a simple idea, and thinking she was just an ignorant child not to be taken seriously. Marnie only shrugged. That’s the polite thing to do when you come upon a closed door, she thought. While the others lingered in indecision, Marnie marched right up to the door and knocked as firmly as her six-year-old fist could knock.

  “Oh my, Ranaan, we have visitors,” came a cheerful voice from the other side of the door.

  “Do you think it’s safe, Grandpa?” a young voice asked.

  “Of course. Nothing of darkness would come through that door, and if it did, it certainly wouldn’t have the courtesy to knock. But I will check, just so you can rest at ease. May the King live forever,” the first voice called to them.

  Raziela gave a broad smile as she stepped forward to answer, “And may His li
ght never be extinguished, Orel.”

  The rusty door opened, and Raziela embraced her old friend, Orel—the scribe to whom she had entrusted her original manuscripts.

  After introductions had been made, this time with real names, they set about the task of learning where exactly they were.

  “You don’t know?” he asked in surprise. “Ah, yes, I do remember that passage to be rather confusing. Well, my friends, you are in the Icy Mountains of the White Country.”

  And so their route had been decided. Orel described the path they must take and even drew a map for them. Then he and his grandson took them to the outer door of their hidden cave and said good-bye.

  The travelers soon missed that modest, cozy cave. Outside, a cold wind was blowing with such energy that it would pick up the snow on the ground and send it whirling about them.

  With words of encouragement and cheer to one another, they began their journey through the White Country, one step at a time.

  27

  The Ice Witch

  “There is something about a trek through the mountains, isn’t there, Aliatta. Nobody in search of a life of ease would willing choose such a painstaking way.” Raziela’s words came haltingly in labored breathing. She was certainly not as young as she used to be and the many uphill climbs were proving to be more taxing than she wanted to admit. “It is a constant journey of ups and downs, usually with more uphill climbs than downward ones. Sometimes you get so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that you lose sight of all the beauty surrounding you. You forget why you are on the journey in the first place. And then you come to a break in the trees—a place on the edge of the mountain that gives you a wide view of everything beyond. The beauty, the wonder, the majesty suddenly hits you, and you realize that this upward journey is making you stronger—bringing you higher, taking you to a place you have never been. The journey is worth it.”

 
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