The Dark Figure
Poppy looked at Willow, her brown eyes wide and curious, then she smiled and squeezed Willow’s hand and moved toward where Judah waited for her just past the center of the bridge. As she neared him, he extended a hand to her and she took it without hesitation. “Walk with me, my child,” Judah said to her, and the two headed down the other side of the bridge and into the shadows, leaving Willow standing on the bridge with the torch and her thoughts. What would Judah say to Poppy? What would he say to her? How much would he tell them about their journey? And what about the angels of darkness? That thought caused Willow to tremble despite the wool blanket she held around her. She wished her mother were with her so that she could inquire of her about the angels of darkness. It was one of the few things that she and her mother never discussed. In fact, it was a topic that almost no one discussed which is why its mystery seemed more frightening than most other stories of lore that the Elders wove during festival nights and in classes about the history of the villages.
“Oh, mum, please come along on this journey with me,” Willow whispered into the night.
From the corner of her eye, Willow noticed movement at the edge of the bridge where Judah and Poppy had disappeared and she smiled, guessing that they were returning. She turned to face them, and was shocked to see a single figure cloaked in black approaching her. Fear wrapped her in tendrils of sweat and prickles of needles along the surface of her skin. She took two faltering steps backward. Was it Judah? Had he hurt Poppy? Sent her back to the village? As the figure approached her, she noticed a fluttering sound and her mind raced back to her dream and she dropped the torch into the river below. She was surrounded by darkness and fear and, what was that? Feathers? She fought with as much force as she could find in her small frame, pushing and hitting and kicking until she broke free of its grip, one sharp razor-like nail slicing through her blanket, her layers of clothes and her shoulder. She cried out in pain and terror.
“Judah!” she cried, but there was only the movement of wings and feathers. “Poppy!”
Willow’s mind flashed with the faces of the Elders as the gathered around her on the night of her Ceremony of the Fates, proclaiming her a warrior and protector of the truth. She’d inwardly scoffed at their proclamation and refused their offer of weaponry and now wished she’d accepted even one weapon with which to defend herself now. Instead, she turned and fled in the direction from which she and Poppy had arrived at the bridge. As she ran, she saw a glint of metal beneath the moonlight along the rail that she didn’t recall seeing when she first passed the spot. It looked like a sword. Could it be, she wondered and ran faster to the spot. It was indeed a sword, its sheath hung on a nail from the hand rail. Behind the rail she spotted a shield and deftly she retrieved both he sword and the shield and turned to face whoever or whatever was chasing her. Her muscles tensed and her skin tingled with fear and anticipation as she prepared to defend herself. To her surprise, she stood face to face with Judah and Poppy.
“Willow?” Poppy’s face held a look of surprise Willow was sure matched hers.
“Oh, Poppy. Poppy,” Willow said, dropping her shield and the sword and throwing her arms around Poppy. Tears traced down her cheeks and fell onto Poppy’s neck and shoulder as her friend held her close.
“It’s okay, we’re here,” Poppy whispered. “You’re okay.”
“My children, we must move from the bridge into the forest,” Judah said. “Come, follow me.”
Poppy picked up Willow’s sword and shield, eyeing them curiously and took her friend’s hand. “Ready?” Poppy said.
“As can be,” Willow said with far less conviction than usual.
Willow trudged diligently and dutifully behind Poppy and Judah into the forest, slightly dazed and her muscles still aching with the tension of fear and some adrenaline. Was she really about to take on some unknown person or creature back there on the bridge? she wondered. It was so unlike her, but it had seemed a reflexive response – survival over the other option; she could barely bring herself to consider the idea let alone say the word. She focused on Poppy’s back, the way her brown hair cascaded almost like a waterfall down to the middle of her back and the way her rucksack padded against her side as she walked, trying to match Judah’s longer stride. Every other moment, she glanced over her shoulder back toward the bridge, wondering if the black-clad figure still lurked about in the shadows of the bridge or if it had made off elsewhere. Or if it even existed at all.
At last they came to a stop by a small stream and a wider space within the gathering of trees around them. A perfect place to set camp for the night, Judah said as he disappeared into the trees. Without hesitation, Poppy dropped her bag and began evening the ground around them as Willow stood and stared, not quite sure if she trusted Judah. She pulled Poppy toward her and leaned in close, so that her mouth was only inches from Poppy’s ear.
“Do you trust him?” she asked.
Poppy turned to look at her. “Judah? Absolutely.”
“What gives you such confidence in this trust you have?” Willow pressed.
“From our talk. He knows much and advises wisely,” Poppy replied. She rubbed Willow’s arm assuringly and noticed the gash by her shoulder. “Willow, what is this?”
Willow winced as her friend ran her fingertips over the spot where the creature had grabbed her and cut her blanket, clothes and shoulder. Before she could answer, Judah reappeared from the trees followed by a smaller figure who trailed several feet behind Judah’s flowing brown cloak.
“We should see to your wound,” Judah said, approaching her and Willow fell back a couple of steps, unsure, her eyes still on the smaller figure behind him. “This,” said Judah, “is Galeal, an assistant to me for many years now. He will help us in the setting up of camp, especially in the collecting of firewood. These woods can bring unseen danger if you are unfamiliar with them as you girls are.”
Beside her, Poppy sighed as if in relief. Willow remained guarded as she watched Galeal begin gathering wood along the edge of the small clearing. “Galeal, I can help at least right around here,” Poppy said. She moved off to help the small character who looked a bit strange to Willow.
Judah appeared beside her. “Yes, that’s right. He’s a dwarf. But I’ve known him for some years and I trust him with my life, so you can, too, young Willow.”
Willow faced him boldly. “How do I know I can trust even you?” she said.
“You are wise as well as a warrior,” he said and she flinched.
“As I’ve told you already, I am not a warrior. I do not wish to accept the declaration of the Fates that I am to be a warrior.”
“Ah, not only a warrior, but a protector of truth,” Judah said.
“Why is it that you chose to separate us on the bridge?” Willow asked.
“What I need to speak to each of you is for you alone, young Willow.”
“But Poppy and I tell each other everything,” Willow said.
“Do you?” His voice held now judgment but intimated that she was perhaps not being entirely truthful with him.
“Yes,” she said.
“And your dream? Poppy knows about your dream?” His gaze was fixed on her and his blue eyes pierced hers with the demand for truth.
She looked away. “No. Not in its entirety,” she admitted.
“As it should be,” Judah said. “Something things are for you alone.”
Willow looked at his face and saw the barest hint of a smile there. “I suppose you are correct.”
“Come,” he said, “let us take a look at that shoulder.” He led her to where Galeal and Poppy had dragged a log and invited her to sit. “What do you know about the creature that did this?” he asked.
“I could not see it for the darkness,” Willow told him. “What do you know about the creature that did this?”
“I fear not enough to be of help to you,” he replied and said no more. For the next several minutes he tended to the wound, dabbing a salve from his bag on it and wrapping it loosely with a bandage. “That should do for now.”
By that point Poppy returned, sitting beside her on the log as Galeal disappeared into the trees to fetch additional wood for the fire. “How do you feel?” Poppy asked her.
“Cold and tired and quite hungry,” Willow said.
“Me, too,” Poppy said.
“I will have Galeal get the fire started momentarily and we will warm some things to eat in the fire. Perhaps then, while we ar eating, we can talk a bit more before we rest for the evening.” With that, Judah rose and moved off in the direction that Galeal had gone, leaving the girls to themselves.
“I don’t suppose you’re supposed to tell me what you talked about,” Willow said.
Poppy shook her head and then smiled. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t,” she said and winked at her friend. “So, care to tell me about this wound and these?” Poppy held up the sheathed sword and the shield.
“I will, but can it maybe wait upon the light of the day?” Willow replied.
“At first light,” Poppy said, “as soon as my eye catches the dawning of the sun’s rays, you should know that I will rouse you from your dreams.”
Given the dream she’d had earlier that day and the encounter on the bridge, Willow smiled, believing that to be a much finer way to wake from her dreams. “It’s a deal indeed,” she said.
Galeal and Judah returned from the forest each with a load of wood and Galeal carrying what looked to be some small game. Without a word, he set to work getting a fire started and preparing the game on a rotating spit that he rigged from branches and vines and a couple of items he retrieved from the satchel he kept always on his person. Soon, the smell of roasting meat filled the clearing and Willow’s stomach growled with the anticipation of the savory game. She handed what little food she’d brought to Poppy, who was working alongside Galeal though the two did not appear to speak. As for Judah, he seemed content to sit a little ways from the group of them, staring into the fire as if watching a vision rather than the fire, his expression rapt, his eyes heavy-lidded but locked on the flames before him.
Willow sat on the ground leaning her back against the log where Judah had checked her shoulder. As the chill and the darkness grew thicker, her shoulder ached and she took care to wrap her blanket around the wounded area. With nothing to do but wait, she picked up the sword and the shield, letting her fingers trace the intricate designs etched into the shining silver. She marveled at the fine craftsmanship of both pieces, the beauty of them, actually, for she had never seen such weapons before, except for the makeshift ones the Elders had proffered her at the Ceremony of the Fates. There was writing along one edge of the sword, but she could not read its language. Instead, she traced the letters and the words, feeling the deep groove and feeling almost as if she drew strength from the mysterious words. She shook her head, allowing that it must be her weariness and her wound that influenced such sensations.
Finally, she turned her attention to the shield, turning it round in her hands, feeling its strength, its weight in her hand and considered how its weight and its shape seemed designed as if for her form. When she held it and handled it, it felt an extension of her being and her movement. On its front it had an intricate scene, as if an illustration for a story and Willow couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of familiarity with it though she could not say what was pictured. As with the sword, she traced the groves with her fingers, letting the design seep into her skin with each stroke and again, sensing a strength traveling from the shield into her. Her thoughts were interrupted by the low almost-lilting voice of Galeal, indicating that there was food enough for all to eat their fill. She caught his eye, just for a moment, and he smiled, or so she thought, for before she could determine whether it was a smile that she saw, he was back to tending to the fire and the meal. Carefully, she tucked the sword and the shield beside her rucksack and joined the others by the fire.
(Day 3 word count: 2149 for a total of 6061/50,000)