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Worth Every Effort

“I still don’t understand where you think we’ll go,” Poppy said, hurrying to keep up with Willow’s urgent pace.

“We shall call it a journey of exploration,” Willow said.

“We know nothing about this realm, Willow.” Poppy grabbed her friend’s arm and forced her stop. “Judah said there could be danger in this region.”

“That’s why it is a journey of exploring.”

“We should have awaited Judah and Galeal’s return” said Poppy.

“It seems that they set off sometime in the night without us,” Willow said, “and that we will learn nothing about our new destinies by waiting about.” She set off again, threading her way through the low-hanging limbs and low-lying shrubbery, hoping to find a clearer path soon.

Reluctantly Poppy followed her. “At least tell me about the sword while we are walking,” Poppy said. “And about the cut on your shoulder.”

“I don’t understand why Judah would leave before I had my opportunity to talk with him. I’ve learned nothing about my assigned destiny or how to change it,” Willow said.

“You promised me the story,” Poppy pressed.

“Alas, I suppose I did,” Willow replied. “I suppose it will be a way of passing the time and getting through these forest thickets.”

“Indeed it will,” said Poppy.

Willow sighed and thought back to that moment standing on the bridge, awaiting Judah and Poppy’s return, the approach of the dark feathery figure, and finally the confrontation.

“As I remained on the bridge last night, I was attacked by a dark figure, a creature whose face I could not see but whose razor-like claws dug through my skin as if it were but the thinnest of leaves.”

Poppy fell into step beside her friend, her face awash of fret and what Willow thought might be awe, but she did not speak and so Willow continued.

“He approached from the side of the bridge where you and Judah had ventured forth into the shadows. I presumed wrongly that he was you returning to my side. My eyes registered his extreme height, he seemed as tall as a five-year oak sapling, but still I did not retreat. Part of me was certain that he was but a vision, an apparition of some kind for he was like nothing I have ever seen before. When I finally moved away, he was close enough to take hold of me. We struggled and I believe it was upon my escape from his grasp that my shoulder was cut.” Willow paused in her telling and moved in front of Poppy to hop across a small stream. On the other side, she paused in her steps and pointed to where the trees came to an end just a little farther on from where they stood. “We are almost free of these woods,” she said and smiled.

“A relief indeed,” Poppy said. “But, tell me, what happened once you were free? Is the sword his?”

Willow shook her head. “He did not carry anything in his hands, no weapon nor shield that I could see.”

“And yet your shoulder,” Poppy said.

“Indeed. I am almost certain that the cause of my wound was his hands, or claws of some variety,” Willow told her. “As to the sword, I ran back in the direction from where you and I first crossed the bridge and a glint of steel caught my eye, and there, hung upon the rail the sword within its sheath.”

“And the shield?”

“Propped against the rail just beneath the sword.”

“There were no such things there upon our crossing of the bridge,” Poppy said.

“As I also concluded,” said Willow.

“And the figure?”

Willow shrugged. “As you well know, when I swung my sword around to attack, I faced you and Judah only.”

“And yet no one passed us on the bridge,” Poppy said, her face clouded with many thoughts.

“I do not doubt that, my friend,” said Willow.

Poppy made no response, staring expectantly at her friend.

“This creature is not purely man,” Willow explained. “He is adorned with feathers that are as black as the night.”

“You mean to say he flew?”

“It is the only explanation that I have conceived from the events.”

Poppy stumbled a step or two and sought a nearby log to rest upon. She looked up at Willow with wide uncertain eyes. “But, it cannot be, right?”

Willow shrugged and glanced behind them. “Did you hear that?”

Poppy shook her head. The two stayed still for several moments and at last Willow shrugged again. “We should continue,” Willow said.

“Yes, but continue to where?” Poppy asked.

“Onward, to the next stopping point.”

Poppy remained seated upon the log, a question etched clearly in her expression. “First, tell me, sweet Willow, what do you believe you encountered last night upon the bridge?” Despite the question, there seemed to be something in Poppy’s expression or voice that intimated she had her own idea.

“I cannot say,” Willow replied.

“Cannot or will not?” said Poppy.

“You speak like Judah,” Willow told her.

“And you speak not the truth, dear Willow.”

“I did not see the creature.”

“Yes, but you suspect its form, its origin.”

“I do.”

Neither girl spoke for several moments. Willow extended a hand to her friend and helped her to her feet and holding her hand as they made their way clear of the forest.

“I suspect that the creature was an angel of darkness.”

The two trekked in silence for the next while as they navigated what had become a fairly rocky hill that required great effort to climb even with the little they carried for there was no clear trail, although they followed a well-worn footpath when it appeared along their way. Willow considered her dream and considered the creature on the bridge and wondered again why Judah had left without speaking with her. It was he, after all, who had made mention that her journey would require her to defeat the angels of darkness. And how was she to defeat anyone if he had taken with him her sword and shield?

Behind her, Poppy trudged on silently and Willow guessed that she, too, was considering this information about the angel of darkness. They were both familiar with the tales of lore that the Elders shared during the Festival gatherings, tales of evil and destruction and the ruin of villages and the stealing of souls. Neither of them had ever taken such tales too seriously, although there were times when Willow had approached her mother on the subject and her mother had not outright dismissed it as Willow and Poppy did. Instead, her mother lowered her voice and said that there were dangers in discussing evil in the light of day while the sun shone so high in the sky. She intimated that there were those who listened to all conversations for such discussions. And now, here she was, walking in a strange region having been confronted with the very idea that the angels of darkness were not necessarily lore after all. A prickling of fear crawled across her skin and along the baseline of her hair, as if someone, or something, was very near to her.

“Shall we rest a moment?” Willow said.

“Indeed,” Poppy agreed. The two sat upon a couple of flat rocks and looked over the rocky crag below that they had just climbed. They were but a quarter of the way to the top and for a moment Willow wondered why they had left their villages for this for this is not what she had pictured in her mind when she and Poppy discussed breaking free of their assigned destinies and heading out into the world to claim new ones.

“Care to share your thoughts?” Willow asked.

“It is a long climb to the top, but I do believe it will be worth every effort,” Poppy said.

“Indeed?”

“Do you doubt the journey?”

“No, I do not the journey,” Willow replied.

“Perhaps you doubt yourself,” Judah said from just over the rocky ledge. He and Galeal came into view from above them and both girls rose immediately.

“Judah!” Poppy cried, a hint of relief and what sounded like joy in her voice.

“Why did you leave us behind?” Willow asked.

“We stand here together,” Judah replied. “You are not left behind.”

“You were long departed before our eyes greeted the day,” Willow said. She saw Galeal standing behind Judah holding the sword and shield and she narrowed her eyes at them both. “And you took my sword and shield.”

“Ah, so you lay claim to the gifts you discovered upon the bridge,” Judah said.

“Left so that I might defend myself from an angel of darkness.”

“But did I take them from you or did I reclaim them for their rightful owner?”

Willow looked at Galeal, who looked away, into the distance. She said nothing, but stood and watched the dwarf. Finally, she moved toward him and spoke his name, forcing him to look at her and when he did, she continued. “You left them for me.”

He nodded.

“Why did you not fight him in my stead? Why leave me to defend myself from such a creature? Me, who has not training with sword or shield?”

Again he looked away and Willow looked to Judah. “Do I not deserve a response?”

“It is not always about what one deserves, young Willow,” Judah said. “Sometimes, it is about what one needs.”

“I dare say that what I needed was someone at least to assist me if not to stand in for me. Do I even begin to wonder what could have been had you and Poppy not returned to the bridge when you did?” Willow said.

Poppy approached and stood close to Willow, putting her arm around Willow’s waist. “Perhaps you could be grateful for the gift that was left you to find.”

Willow turned to face her friend, taking in her graceful confidence as she stood beside her. She saw Judah smile at Poppy’s words and wondered what the two had discussed during their walk the night prior.

“Your words are wise,” Willow said and turned back to face Galeal. “Please accept my thanks for the weapons. Though I do believe I am far more thankful that I did not have to use them.” She smiled at the dwarf and then at Judah.

“Let us proceed further,” Judah said. “There is a cave a little farther on that will make a fine overnight dwelling.”

Willow began their trek eagerly, anticipating at last the opportunity to talk with Judah about her destiny.

Having at last reached almost to the hill’s summit, Judah gestured toward a cave hidden in the side of the face of the rocky terrain. Willow breathed out a long sigh, ready to be done with their trek for the day and perhaps to change at least her top layers. She wondered if there might be a spring or stream near by so that she could perhaps bathe a bit in spite of the cooling temperatures in the higher elevation. As they reached the mouth of the cave, Judah signaled to Galeal to gather what wood he could find for a fire and the dwarf made haste toward the higher ground above their cave. As Willow opened her bag to retrieve the other top that she had packed, Judah signaled to her to draw near.

“I think it time that we shared a walk, young Willow,” said Judah.

“Indeed,” she said. “Might I first take a moment to change my layers out before we begin?”

“As you wish. I’ll await your arrival just over that ledge. You will find a small stream just beyond those trees there,” he said, and left her.

Quickly, she took her change of clothes and a small hand-sewn washcloth that her mother had made for her when she was but a girl, and made her way to the trees. Within minutes she had washed off the day’s journey of yesterday and felt ready at last to meet with Judah.

(Day 5 word count: 2024 for a total of 9729/50,000)

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