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 and discuss her destiny. Returning to the cave with her things, she found Poppy sitting with her back against the outer rocks of the cave reading one of the book she had packed. She looked up as Willow approached.
“There is a stream just past the trees there if you wish to bathe or refresh,” said Willow.
“Perhaps I shall.”
“I’m to meet Judah,” Willow told her and as she spoke the words she felt a strong sense of anticipation and uncertainty.
“It will go well, I’m sure,” Poppy said.
And with that, Willow climbed the rocks to the ledge where Judah waited for her. She found him sitting on a rock and staring out over the land spread out as far as their eyes could see. Willow marveled at the way the land appeared from this perspective, the way the rivers sliced through the land, the way the forest seemed like an island in the middle of the grassy meadows on either side. The sight of it was breathtaking and she paused, amazed at the beauty of it and she realized how small her little village was in the big picture of the land. Why had they all stayed so close to the villages for so long, she wondered, when there was so much beauty to see? When there was so much wonder to behold. As if reading her mind, Judah spoke, his eyes still on the view before them.
“Leaving what is familiar can be a scary undertaking. For many, it is far easier to stay where you are and enjoy its comfort than to strike out and discover untold things.”
“The Elders led us to believe that the regions are filled with danger and evil,” Willow said. “There was never any mention of such beauty or wonder.”
Judah smiled. “The role of the Elders is to guide as best they are able. If a man’s heart is set on fear, they will guide from that fear.”
Willow sat down beside Judah, still looking outward at the seemingly endless lands below them, the trees, the bodies of water, the valley, all of it stretching out beyond the horizon. “But upon what is their fear based?”
“Perhaps the easiest answer is all that is unknown,” Judah said. “And the tales of lore that are spoken through the generations.”
“Is there any truth in the tales of lore?” Willow asked.
“Indeed. But there is also now exaggerated risks and dangers and allusion to evil throughout them.”
“So they are truths that are twisted by fear,” Willow said.
“It would appear so,” Judah said. “But now, dear Willow, let us discuss what is it that brings you on this journey.”
Willow sat quiet and still for several moments. Although she had now had another full day to consider her words, she was not quite sure how to express all that was in her heart with Judah without sounding like nothing but a silly young child. “Perhaps, she said, it is the very essence of what we just discussed,” she began. “The tales of lore that seem intended to frighten and control and the fear that guides the Elders makes the villages seem too small.” She paused, looking at the colors of the sky as the sun creeped across the vastness of the sky, as if the world were exploding because it could not contain the beauty it held. “Before today, I would not have known the essence of it, this fear,” she continued, “but now I see it clearly and as I sit here, I feel far more able to breathe here than in the village of my youth.”
Judah said nothing, but nodded as she spoke. This gave her the courage to continue. “And then there is the matter of my destiny and the role I was assigned at my Ceremony of the Fates.”
“Warrior,” Judah said the word for her.
“Yes.” She kept her eyes on the sky, as if she were a part of it all, the world and the shifting colors and the coming night. “My mother was incredibly kind and always gentle. She did not believe in the ways of war, of fighting, of physical expressions of anger or hurt or violence,” Willow said. She squinted her eyes at the arc of color that now hovered close to the lower valley, the higher sky beginning to darken and twinkle with stars.
“You see your destiny as being in contradiction to who your mother was and who you are as her daughter.”
“I do.” Willow looked over at Judah to gage his expression or his thoughts, but his face registered nothing that she could discern.
“But there is more,” Judah coaxed.
“There is,” said Willow. “I am not brave nor do I embody courage or the ability to fight or to defend myself or others. I do not possess the strength or skill necessary to be a warrior.”
“And so what is it that you wish to do instead, young Willow?”
Even though she knew the question would come, she still was not prepared to answer it. It was a question she had pondered from the night of the Ceremony of the Fates and one she had even sought to discuss with her mother though her mother provided little advice. Rather than advise, Willow’s mother listened and questioned and guided in a way that made more sense than the ways of the Elders. Even so, her mother would not answer Willow’s most pressing question. What was it that she was made to do? Whenever she posed the question to her dear mother, her mother asked more questions.
“I have no answer for you, Sir Judah,” Willow said at last.
“You think this is shameful, that you cannot express your heart’s desire,” Judah said.
“What do you suppose my destiny was when I had my Ceremony of the Fates?” he asked her.
In front of them the last of the colorful lights faded beyond the horizon and the darkness filled in all the crevices and nooks throughout the valley below them. In the place of the beautiful colors, the moon rose slowly from the hillside opposite their view and stars blanketed the sky so that it shimmered like a knight’s chain mail. Watching the movement of the stars, Willow contemplated Judah’s question with little success and finally admitted she could not possibly guess at his assigned destiny.
Judah smiled. “I was designated as an Elder to the governing board of the villages,” he said. Willow could not picture him as an Elder and told him so and he laughed. “Do you think I have always been this elderly man of wizened face and long gray hair who imparts wisdom to such as you,” he said.
Willow had to laugh because that is exactly the picture she had of him in her mind, as if he had always been this man and would always be the same. “I don’t suppose that’s possible,” she said. “And so you left?”
“Not immediately,” he said. “I served as Elder for almost three years before I made my decision to depart from the ways of the villages.”
“You’ll pardon me, but I do not see you serving with the Elders,” Willow told him.
“The very reason I left, young Willow,” he replied, “I could not see me serving with the Elders. It was during those years that I began to see the way that fear shaped men and their decisions.”
They sat for a while looking into the endlessness of the night surrounded by silence except for the crackling of the fire below that Galeal had started and by which he and Poppy were sitting. The sound of the fire suddenly made Willow chilly in the night air and she wrapped her arms around herself. She also caught the scent of cooking meat and she felt suddenly ravenous, and yet she was hungry for as much information as Judah could provide her sitting her on this rocky hill top. Finally she asked him the question that burned inside her. “Will I be as successful as you in my journey to rewrite my destiny?”
Judah stroked his beard and studied the sky for several moments. Finally, he told her, “Your success, like your destiny, will be determined solely by you, my dear Willow. It is in your power to determine the success of your journey.”
He rose and she remained seated. She wanted details, information, advice on the paths to take, the route they should travel, what to expect. But he offered her none of these things. Instead, he nodded slightly and reminded her that their conversation was not something intended to be shared, even with best friends. And with that, he made his way back down the path to the cave, the fire and the awaiting meal. Despite how hungry and cold she felt, Willow chose to sit a little longer with her thoughts and searched the sky for any hint that she was on the right path.
Willow woke with a start, shivering in the night air atop the rocky hill where she’d met with Judah hours before. Above her the sky still shimmered with stars and below her all was quiet except for the occasional pop of the fire. She wondered how long she’d been sleeping and why no one had come to find her, including Poppy. With her head still somewhat clouded with sleep and hazy dreams, she rose somewhat unsteadily and readied herself to head back down toward the cave. With careful steps she wound down the rocky path anticipating the warmth of the fire and the wool blankets in her rucksack and she wondered if there were any bits of the meal left for her protesting stomach.
Near the outermost mouth of the cave, she stepped carefully around Galeal and Judah and snuggled down underneath the blankets that had been carefully laid out for her. Despite her hunger, she fell almost immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep. Morning seemed to come quickly and rays of sunshine found Willow’s squinty eyes within a few moment of rising above the rim of the ledge just beyond their cave. Ever so slowly and reluctantly, Willow pushed herself up and took in the cave, the etchings on the walls and the coolness of the cave’s darkness. She crept out into the sunlight seeking its warm and realized she did not have to step around Galeal or Judah. The fire was still burning, so she guessed that perhaps they had gone to gather breakfast game or wood or to discuss their next steps. She made her way back up to the ledge where she had sat with Judah the night before and seated herself so that she could take in the rising of the sun from the horizon past the hills into the sky. The colors and the sensation were as incredible as the night before and she wished that Poppy were awake and had joined her. Once the day was awash in the warmth and glow of the sun, Willow made her way back to the cave.
There was still no sign of Galeal or Judah and the fire was beginning to die down. With the morning light warming the day, Willow decided to ignore the fire except for a few handfuls of dirt and to collect her things and rouse Poppy. She was quite surprised that Poppy had not yet roused and come to find her. Just inside the mouth of the cave, she collected her things and stuffed them back into her bag and readied herself for the day’s journey, taking care to dig out her mother’s journal and place it on the top of the rest of her things. The sight and feel of the journal caused her instinctively to reach for the necklace she wore, her fingers tracing the smooth metal circle and the etched design. Such things made her feel as if her mother were near and she could almost always feel her mother’s touch, smoothing her hair or rubbing her arm or taking Willow’s hand in her own. It brought her joy and sadness at the same time and she stood a moment simply being with her mother.
When at last she deemed herself ready, she peered into the darkness of the cave lit only with a strange, eerie glow of the sun from beyond the ledge for the place where Poppy lay, but she could not find her. She dropped to her knees and searched the area of the cave near where she’d slept for any sign of Poppy and could find none. A sense of apprehension flushed across the surface of her skin as she widened the circle of her search. When she discovered nothing of Poppy she backed out of the cave and stood, taking in the rocks, the gravel beneath her feet, the silence except for the soft hum of the burning embers that were fading beside her, the strong sense of warmth that the sun spread across her face. But she was alone. No Judah, no Galeal, no Poppy.
The very knowledge caused her to stumble backwards and she caught herself, lowering herself onto the ground. She was alone in a place unfamiliar to her. That Judah and Galeal had left without her was not nearly as shocking as the fact that Poppy was gone, that Poppy had chosen to leave with Judah and Galeal without her. Willow’s breaths came in short bursts that she could not seem to control and so she grasped the pendant of her mother’s necklace in her hands and closed her eyes, seeking strength, seeking comfort. Seeking, of course, the one thing she knew she would not find — her mother.
After a while, Willow forced herself to stand and to consider her circumstances. There was no option except to keep going, to keep moving forward and to wind her way through the land as carefully as she was able. She decided to visit the nearby stream before she embarked on this part of her journey. She would need water and she would need as fresh a sense of direction and circumstance as she could have or create in the moment. And that’s when it hit her — her mother’s journal. She had not read or written in it since leaving her village. There had been no opportunity and she felt an overwhelming urge to do so just then. She hiked back up the hill a ways, beyond the place where she and Judah had talked and where she had fallen asleep. She hiked until she found a place far beyond where they’d camped and where she could see far beyond the place where she stood. A place where the land stretched out in every direction around her, its hills, its valleys, its forests, its possibilities seemingly endless. There, she propped her self as close to the edge of the precipice as she dared and propped open the journal eager to take in every word her mother had ever written in its pages.
She held the book in shaky hands and read the words through eyes blurred with tears. And finally, she wept. She yearned for her mother and even more for Poppy. She felt alone and fearful and again she questioned her decision to leave the village and pursue a different destiny. Judah’s question floated about in her mind, What did she want to do if she did not accept the idea of being a warrior, which clearly, she did not. She looked out over the land, captured again by its wonder and awed by its beauty. She opened her mother’s journal and read the words scrawled across the page, words she had read and reread more times than her mind could recall:
How I wish that I had the courage to go, to leave, to explore the world and discover my path. But my family, my Willow, they need me. They need my guidance, a mother’s guidance that is wrapped in love not in fear. This idea that we must defend who we are, that we must defend our village or our way of life…that does not speak truth to me. From whom or what do we defend our choices and our life? My sweet Willow is only four, but already I can see in her that she is something special. Something so much more than what the Elders will see in her. If for no other reason, I must stay, I must remain if I am to help Willow to discover her gifts and realize who she is. She is not who the Elders will say she is, she is not who I will say she is. She is Willow, and, oh, she is like the tree — supple and beautiful and strong and able to withstand time and danger and threat; providing refuge, and creating beauty and proffering an invitation. Oh, my Willow. How will I guide you? How will I help you to see who you truly are?
Willow closed the pages and considered her mother’s words as tears pricked her eyes, some of them making their way down her cheek and onto the ground beneath her feet.
Who am I? She wondered. What did my mother see that I am not seeing still?
She knew that she needed at the very least to keep moving and that she could contemplate these questions even as she walked. She forced from her mind that her dearest friend had abandoned her and that she was alone in a realm that should ignite fear in her soul. Instead, she chose to hold her mother close and to consider the words Judah shared with her the night prior. Even if he chose to leave her, to abandon her, his words still held a truth and she could feel that deep within. So, with every ounce of who she wanted to be but could not quite define yet, she collected her things, grasped her mother’s journal as if holding her mother’s hand and began her trek into the next new part of this unfamiliar land.
(Day 6 word count: 3023 for a total of 12,752/50,000)