Sometimes in leadership, one is called to go forth alone and meet the wolf. Others witnessing this might not understand what the lead is doing. They will most certainly question it and ascribe motives for it, and even accuse them of cowardice. One cannot reveal every private plan because not everything is subject to committee review. When one is called to a mission, and he hears and seeks guidance from the One who calls him, sometimes that communication is held in the strictest confidence. The charge I felt, moving down the road with the company of companions who were becoming more of a family to me is the sense that I must seek to follow what even may seem foolish to others if the One bids me do it. The Ancient Texts reads:
“11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” [John 10:11-13 NIV]
My actions may appear to even those back on the road like that of the hireling, but it was towards the wolf, The Pan, I was moving to interdict his approach. To stand and confront him, before he could get to my family.
The Xarmnian wolves had already taken part of my company and separated us. The Pan, the ancient ruler of the Half-men, would find that his forward progression into the forest of Kilrane would be stopped here and now. The satyrs would be close to him. The dryads would not be far, and whatever else passes for his retinue would soon be gathered together in one place to vastly outnumber me if I moved against him. But the truth is I did not stand alone. As I moved through the gloom within the hearing of The Pan and his collected audience, I felt the quickening come upon me and flare brightly in my soul and spirit. This was the right path. My spirit within me confirmed it. Foolish though it may seem, I was being led here. It was time to take back what had been stolen and I might never have such an opportunity to do so again.
The Pan was ancient and dangerous. His command and kingdom were governed by very valid fears of his might. His roar rumbled the ground. And Greek legend of him records that his angry shouts inspired terror, from whence we derive the word Panic.
As I moved through the smoke, my face covered and shielded by my cloak, my eyes stinging and watering as ash particles filled the air, it was with some surprise that I found myself saddened grabbed from behind and lifted aloft into the trees.
Great gray talons, with black hooked daggers, wove around my upper arms clasping me and pulling me towards the leafy sky. A milky substance dribbled down upon my head and body, and I debated whether I should try to twist free or wait until I at least have the change to reach a limb of some kind to make my effort. Craning my head to the side, I looked upward and saw the lower chin and bottom feathered breasts of what appeared to be an old woman.
A harpy. Terrible creatures who carried a degree of angst for all mankind and their semblances. Harpies were known to carry their victims to great heights and then drop them over rocks below so that they could come back down and more easily tear and chew the soft pieces of flesh that were tenderized by falling upon stone.
If this harpy took me much farther up or beyond the canopy, I was a dead man.
But I soon learned that was not her intention.
When she placed me in the treetops, over forty feet from the forest floor, and then left me there, I knew she had something else in mind. Some particular form of nastiness she was reserving me for.
Jeremiah moved quickly and quietly through the woods along the rutted shoulder of the road. Smoke poured through the forest undergrowth, being sifting by the trees coating everything with flakes of grey and white ash. The fires were moving swiftly towards the slough and there were enough dried wood and decaying gasses from the rot to give the fire fuel for a flare-up. Peat moss, a pre-cursor to coal formulation, once ignited, however, might smolder for years.
There was no way to track O’Brian through such conditions. Visibility was poor and the memories of what had happened between them and what had led to Caleb’s death still plagued his mind, unbidden.
Caleb, he sighed. The pain of the terrible and pointless way he had died, due to following a plan hatched without the guidance of the One, by O’Brian, the erstwhile Brian David, so many years ago. His failure to seek guidance had cost Caleb his life. Forgiving him was a hard thing that had taken him many years to come to terms with. Especially since “O’Brian” had basically dropped off the face of the map and had not been heard from nor seen in many, many years.
The loss and the pain had been particularly hard since Caleb was his only brother.
O’Brian, then Brian David, had come to him after seeking forgiveness and contrite, but Jeremiah was too grieved to offer him either. The exchange between them had come to blows. Upon reflection, however, Jeremiah recalled that Brian had not fought back. Rather he had received his strikes as a kind of penance. Bloodied and battered, he’d stood up from the ground, taken one last look at Jeremiah and then walked away, never to show himself again. Until today. If Jeremiah could find him in time. The fool had gone to face The Pan on his own. A stupid, stupid surrender of tactical maneuvering. A suicide mission that would only get himself killed and would serve nothing. But perhaps that is what the man wanted all along. To die at the hands of the very one who had killed Caleb and then fed his body to Manticores.
The harpy, called Dellitch, had been scalded and scarred in the top canopy fight with the dryads, but she was feeling savagely victorious. Over forty of the dryads had either fallen under wet claws or been consumed by the spreading fires. Recompense for the sisters she had lost over the years when they were starved out or ostracized by the other races of Half-men creatures. The dryads had been given this new forest, while the harpies had been left to subsist under the blighted remains of the prior home they’d once shared together.
She’d been only too happy to enlist her sisters in service to The Pan when she learned he had the need to clear a forest of dryads. What he did not know, however, was the extent to which they would go to clear that wood, or how deeply their collective rage had rooted itself within them over the years. The dryads had renewal and rebirth, the satyrs had their debaucheries and reveling pleasures, the others had many other things to distract them from the inexorable curse that would one day claim them, but the harpies had only vengeance to cling to.
And Dellitch, knowing she would be returning to face The Pan’s rage once he had discovered what they had done, along the way to her accounting had a fortuitous finding. A male Surface Worlder, whom she had swooped in from the fog and smoke and had captured and deposited upon a high bough for safekeeping while she announced her fortune to her sisters. They had flown ahead to proclaim their find to The Pan, just ahead of another flock of sisters who also bore a prize of their own.
It had been too late for Dellitch to call her sisters back and delay the announcement, but these others might mitigate any leniency she had hoped to have from The Pan bearing such a prize, by offering one of their own.
How many other Surface Worlder’s might there be traveling under the smoke and haze of Kilrane? Having one prize among another of equal value might reduce the appeal, but finding the others and delivering a group of them to The Pan might raise her offering’s value. Meat for one surely was less impressive than a banquet of meat for all.
Maeven gathered and beckoned the company to come together and stand under the strange ceremonial canopy growing beneath the trees.
“This is the Faerie Fade. We will all be safe under here. Gather around.”
Begglar grinned and took his wife’s hand, “Remember this place, Nellus?”
Nell smiled and brushed her fingers lightly over the woven vines and ornate carvings and touched the rough and smooth bark of the tree posts that held the living ceiling above them with its large circular carve-out with wooden spokes that radiated outward.
“I do,” she smiled and turned softening, moistened eyes to Maeven, “Begglar and I were married here. This is the place. We have been looking for it for many years but could never find it.”
“You were married here?” Dominic asked.
“Aye, son,” Begglar patted his arm, “And your mom was a sight to behold. I nearly cried like a baby when I saw her coming through the woods there. A few maids bearing her gown. Petals of white scattered upon the path up through the woods to this small him. Our cleric ready and waiting to join us in the covenant.”
“Nearly? You did,” Nell rejoined, “I never thought I’d see such a big bear of a man cry, but he was blubbering like a fish.”
Begglar chuckled, “Funny how tenderness had a way of touching you like nothing else does.”
“He cried when you were born to, Dom,” Nell grinned, “The old softie.”
“Excuse me guys, but I don’t see how any of this helps us,” Christopher spoke up, “This canopy doesn’t have any walls, except the back one, and that does seem strong enough to withstand a gentle breeze. What we need is some sort of fortification. Something that we can lock and bolt down. Anyone with an ax can take this down in a minute. Excuse me for saying it, but you are wasting our time having us get here. I doubt that Jeremiah cares much about the danger we are in or O’Brian or anyone but himself, for that matter.”
Begglar spoke up, “Now hold it just a wee bit, there. There is protection in a place like this. Powerful protection. Look around you, lad. This place is a place of covenant. You are standing in a sacred place. The Pan and all his might and menageries can do nothing to harm us here. Maeven was right to bring us here. This is the safest place in the wood.”
Lindsey took it all in fingering the ornately woven latticed bridgework, admiring it earthy construction and the deft folding and weaving of branches making symbolic patterns in the back wall and overhead ceiling of moss, branch and grafted timber growing in and out of the patterns.
“Well I like it here,” she interrupted, “There is something peaceful and sad about it, but it feels lovely. Such intricate designs. I see the casements of four windows there in the back. I can almost imagine colored, stained-glass panes. Like this is a holy place.”
“It is,” Nell stepped up emphatically, pointing to the four posts holding the outer structure, “Don’t think that protection always comes in the form you expect it to. This holy place is guarded by forces you cannot imagine.”
Matthew leaned back to Mason, “I don’t see anything. Do you see anything?”
Tiernan joined in, “You said this place was a covenant place. Begglar and Nell say they were married here? What did you mean by that, Maeven?”
Maeven, teared up slightly, “I…,” she swallowed hard, “The places here in this land are unlike anything I’ve been to in my waking life on the Surface. Right now, back in my waking life, I have lost…” She covered her mouth with her hand choking back emotion she wasn’t ready to share with the group.
Laura and Christie both came to her side, their comforting arms gathering her in protectively.
Nell turned to the others, “In our world, as I was told once was in your world, marriage is a protective covenant. Here is has visible power. The One ordained it as an original ordinance for all humankind. It is an everlasting symbol of His redemption and relationship with His redeemed.”
“I don’t see how it connects,” Christopher said, “Marriage doesn’t mean much in our world.”
“That is because it has been stripped away from its intention. It is not treated as a covenant anymore,” James, who had been quiet up to this point, offered.
“Sometimes divorce is a good thing,” Laura muttered.
Nell moved to the front post of the enclosure, “Can I show you something of what it means here?”
[Author’s Note: Illustrated graphic follows this section, depicting the images and symbolism to help the reader visualize what they are being shown.]
“Yes!” Lindsey spoke up, “Please do.”
“Maeven, are you okay with this?” Nell asked, “What do you say of marriage? I know you are suffering from the loss of your spouse, but if you had it to do over again, knowing such pain, would you have wanted to make the decision to marry?”
Maeven though tearful-eyed, nodded emphatically, “No. I cherished every precious moment, good and bad. Tell them. They need to hear it.”
Begglar turned to the young men, “Gentlemen, are you okay with hearing what needs to be said? This place is full of visual symbols that represent concepts that make up the picture of the Holy One’s intention. In this world, marriage is a position of honor, the basic unit from which society is built and it is sacred. The Xarmnians view it only as an institution, but unnecessary. That is why their societal structures fail. Theirs’ is a kingdom of fear. The wife is merely a convenience and property. A servant that may be beaten at their master’s will, but must serve the master’s flesh primarily. They have no standing other than their utilitarian value. They are considered less equal than men. If any of you view women in such a way, you should know that you have more in common with the brutal dictators that oppress these lands than the One who calls you to this quest. Do you understand this?”
Nell turned to her husband, “So you remember all this?”
“I do,” Begglar grinned and winked at Nellus, drawing her into his arms and kissed her on the forehead, “And I do.”
“For instance, the two front posts of this canopy: they are pillars supporting a structure. The front and side walls of this covering are missing because this covenant is meant to be made public so that those outside may witness the miracle of covenant union. Everything beyond the pillars is full in public view as a testimony of this divine arrangement. The sides of the structure are also open on both the brides’ side and the groom’s side so that the family and friends of each, standing on either side of the structure may witness the covenant through their relationship with the bride or groom. These are each’s intimate public. This is why the sides and front remain open.”
Begglar moved to the front tree trunk on the left and then place his hand upon it. “This pillar represents society. It can be those of the community in which this couple will live.”
He walked the expanse to the right side and placed his hand upon the other tree trunk post support the awning roof of the enclosure. “This pillar represents societal laws and the protection of the covenant relationship as an institution valued to remain intact. These laws protect the mutual rights of the spouse, under the institution, and ascribe certain duties of provision and responsibility within the relationship. The laws also protect the children that arise as part of that relationship and duties held to the parents.”
From there, Begglar moved to the back wall, which was bordered and supported by four living trees, two serving as interior columns, and two serving as exterior columns supporting both the roof and the back wall.
“These outer columns framing the back wall represent the family structure that the two people are joining into. You can see that they are joined together by the only shared wall of this structure. They are bonded together and related. One post to the left is the column of the family of the bride, the other to the right is the column of the family of the groom. All four outer posts are rooted in the ground and grow out of it. Root systems are deep and extend below the visible ground representing traditions that were in place long before the witnesses were ever born or the union proposed.”
Both Christie pointed, “What do…?” and James began, “How about…?” accidentally interrupting one another.
“I’m sorry,” James said, “You first.”
“That’s alright you go ahead.”
“No, please. I insist. Ladies first,” James demurred.
“Why does it have to be ladies first? Go ahead. Ask your question,” Christie returned.
“And that is how it begins…,” Nell grinned.
Christie whipped her head around, “What?”
“Christie, please ask your question,” Nell smiled broadly.
She glanced at James searching to see if she missed something, and then turned again to Begglar.
“I just wanted to know what these two interior columns represented supporting the inner wall.”
“On the left side of the door in the center, the post represents the bride. Her person, her experiences, her past and her future. The part you see visible is only the moment in time that she comes to this moment. You will notice, that both her roots and her top are beyond view. Her past is covered by the soil of this carved-out floor. Her top, her future, extends above the ceiling. We witnesses of the ceremony held under this covering do not know all that led her to this moment, nor will we know all that will arise from this moment, for we are not given to see everything. The same is true for the other column, the tree that represents the groom, adding his own support to the back wall within the frame of family. The bride and groom post share support of the single back wall connected to the outer posts, which represent the extended family. The joining of heritages and ancestry for forge a new line and branch of the family tree.”
Here Begglar paused and turned to his wife, “My darling, please continue.”
Nell nodded and applauded her husband’s recitation of the history and symbolism, “Very well done, my Dearest Love.”
She approached him, as if she was walking on air, and tiptoed, to which he bowed so she might kiss him lightly on the cheek. In so doing, she took his face in her hands, gazed into his eyes and said, “Pirate McGregor or Begglar, my Love, there is no escaping it. You will always be a wanted man,” and with that, she lightly kissed him on the nose, and then seemed to dance away, as if twenty years of hard life had been erased, and she was a young girl again.
“See the back wall? On either side of the doorway, on both the bride’s side and the groom’s side there are two window casement frames. See them?” she pointed to each set, like a woman display a showcase of fabulous prizes on a game show.
“These window sets represent the parents of the bride and the groom. The father casement is on the exterior closest to the public outer courts. This placement is deliberate because fathers represent the barrier of protection for this family and this covenant union before the outside world. When a man and women walk side by side, the man is responsible to take the place of protection which means if they are walking along-side a roadway, he stands between the road and the woman to protect her with his body should a horse or wagon run astray and strike her down. It is his place to take the hit that will spare her life if need be. He is her human guardian protecting her physically. He is the one given the potential for the greater physical strength of form. This is his rightful and respectful place within the relationship.”
“But what if the woman is stronger than he is?” Laura asked.
“As I said, it is his place. Not hers. The position is not about capacity or ability. It is about the role that gives him the respect he needs within the relationship. If the woman takes his role, she also takes his respectful place away. If she loves him, she won’t do this to him. He needs her honor, every bit as much as she needs him to love and cherish her.”
“I never thought about it like that,” Laura said seeming to think this over.
“There is a lot, that is not taught anymore in your world, dear. Don’t fault yourself for not knowing it.”
Christopher spoke up, “I still don’t get how all this symbolism helps us.”
Tiernan had listened to all of this and interjected, “Hush up, dude. I want to hear this. If they say this place makes us safe, they know better than we do. They live here and there are things about this land that we are still learning.”
“But why is this called ‘The Faerie Fade’?” he shrugged, “I don’t understand what the name means any more than how understanding marriage will make us safe. It sure didn’t help my folks. They fought all the time. I was glad when they busted up. They threw things, and almost set the house on fire when they left the stove on. My brother and I hid in the attic and they almost didn’t find us in time.”
“Dude, that’s harsh, man,” Mason said, “I’m sorry, Bro.”
“Don’t be. I was so glad when the court gave me and Benjamin to Granna and Grampa. My parents were nuts. It all worked out. Marriage is misery, man.”
Begglar put a hand on Chris’s shoulder, “And that, lad, is why this is important for you to hear. Your parents got it wrong. They did not model marriage the way it was intended. Don’t judge the ordinance too harshly, without learning its good. Be glad that your Grands were there to show you the love that you needed. I assume they had some affection between them?”
Christopher considered this a moment. “Yeah, I guess so. But they were old people. Young people don’t follow the old ways anymore.”
Begglar laughed in spite of the implication that he too was an “old” person.
“And it is because they do not follow the old way, that they fail in their new ways. Would you give a mind to that?”
Chris considered and then nodded, “Okay. So, what does all this on the ceiling represent?”
“Well, now, I am very glad you asked that because these are very important. See the big circle there in the center, surrounded by four semi-circles or half-circles?”
“The groom and the bride stand directly under the biggest circle in the center there, and that is where they say their covenant vows in front of each other. Not to each other. This is where the Surface World gets it wrong. The circle there represents completeness and it represents God Almighty and the witness of Heaven. This is to Whom the covenant vows are made. Not to each other. A covenant made to a fallible human being is doomed to fail and is conditional upon the feelings and attitudes towards each other. Most Surface World marriages are based upon this which is why they fail. They set conditions. There are certain conditions given by Heaven that allow for the dissolution of marriage and those are infidelity, abuse, and harm. One of the spouses who causes such is breaking faith with the One who oversees all covenants. By focusing on their resentments towards the other spouse, they justify harm, but they are dishonoring the One who established the covenant protection and will eventually stand before Him and give account for what they did. God witnesses covenants. He is present and presides over them in the same way He did of old. The Ancient Texts says:
“6 Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover–the place of atonement–that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” [Exodus 30:6 NLT]
…The man or woman who uses their body to break faith will stand under the judgment of Heaven, even as this betrothed couple stands under this symbolic circle under this canopy, making their vows.”
“So, if my dad cheated on my mom…”
“Yes, son. He will account for it. Remember his duty to physically protect the union from the outside world? He brings dishonor to his role. If he raises his fists and dishonors his wife in so doing, he brings violence and dishonor to his role. The man is more severely judged for this, because to him is given that role of physical protection.”
“What if he doesn’t pay child support? What then?”
“Same thing. Is a child physically harmed if they are not fed and clothed?”
“Yes. I guess so.”
“Then his physical protection falls short and he is not honoring the role he is called to. Under marriage, the family is an extension of the bond between the husband and wife. He must bring honor to his role.”
Tiernan spoke up, “What if his wife cheats on him? What then?”
Nell spoke up, “The she is subverting his role as physical protector. If she brings dishonor to a role that is not her own, she then owns the consequences of violating that role. Understand?”
Christie joined in, “So is one role more important than the other?”
“No,” Nell answered, “Importance does not play into it. Both roles are essential. Both are pivotal.”
“So, what is the woman’s role,” Christie asked, “Have babies, cook, clean and be submissive?”
Begglar sighed, “That is Xarmnian mentality that does not value the individual or lift or cherish the relationship. No person is merely utilitarian in the relationship.”
Nell came and stood by her husband, “No one likes to be taken for granted or just used. There is no joy or love in that, dear. Have you not read the Ancient Text words?”
“4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT]
“This is a covenant of love. It is protected by it but be sure and understand what love is as defined by the One who oversees its coverage under a covenant vow made to Him.”
“So, when this couple makes their vows, what happens next?” James asked.
Begglar smiled and put his arm around Nell’s waist, “They stand together, while the cleric draws a ring around them in the ground with a cross-stick hung on the doorway there. This is called the ring of the covenant and it is drawn directly below the circle above, but not wider than Heaven’s circle above. This is done to show that the covenant is sealed under Heaven’s covering.”
“Wow,” Lindsey remarked, “That is a beautiful thought. So what do the four half-circles represent?”
Begglar spoke up, “They represent the boundaries of our existence. The two closest to the back wall represent Time and Height. Time is on the female side, Height is on the male side. The two semi-circles toward the front of the Faerie Fade ceiling are Length and Breadth or Depth. Length is longevity, and females, if properly cared for and cherished tend to live longer than males. Depth is the plumb line of Wisdom and it is given on the male’s side to discern for the safety of his cherished bride. These are the boundaries but are not the limits of love. For the Ancient text says:
“38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39 NIV]”
“So what is left?” Matt asked, “The door? Where does it lead? I see only a wall but it doesn’t appear to have a room beyond it. There is just more forest back there.”
“We will get to the door in a moment,” Nell said. “Do you see the benches here?”
Several nodded, but Mason said, “I just figured those were there for when the people get tired of long discussions.”
Both Matt and Christopher laughed, and the others chuckled as did Nell herself.
“That is a good reason,” she acknowledged, “But there is only room enough for two couples. These are places of honor on earth for two sets of very important witnesses to the union of the betrothed couple. Unfortunately, these seats cannot always be filled, as in our case. My parents died in Azragoth before they could witness Begglar and I getting married. Some couples have absent parents, missing parents or unknown parents. The point is the intention that the seats are there, whether they get filled or not. God prepares a banquet, a wedding feast, more than adequate to feed every guest invited to His table, but not everyone invited chooses to come, though ample accommodation is still made had they chosen otherwise. Blessings await, but few of these are ever experienced if those invited do not decide to come by choice. These places of honor and witness still remain. The most tragic loss, however, is of empty seats, where the invited guests to the ceremony refused to come.”
Begglar stood behind Nell placing comforting hands upon her shoulders, knowing it was hard for her speaking of this, and remembering the sadness of seeing empty benches on both sides.
“The half circles in the ceiling above are not only the dimensions of existence but windows from every aspect of it. Windows so that witnesses from all of heaven and all those who have gone before can view the love covenant of this union. Nellus’ parents, my parents were present at our ceremony viewing us symbolically through these windows, even if they were not physically present to occupy the honor chairs.”
There was a long pause while they all reflected upon this too frequent reality with a sobering solemnity.
Maeven spoke up, “Tell them about the door.”
“Ah, the door,” Begglar said, “That is where the walking begins, where the covenant moves from promise to action. There is a symbol here on the door, and the tool used to draw the circle is hung here. The tool is in the form of a cross. It is central to the door. There are two lines on either side of it carved out. These represent the two separate lifelines of both the bride and the groom. In the center here, where the cross lines meet are a set of diamond-shaped engravings one within the other. The diamonds are formed by two triangles joined together at the baseline, set with points facing away top to bottom left to right so that together they form the diamond shape. Three points have triangles, which represent the triune aspects of a person: body, soul, and spirit. The husband and the wife, each their own person, yet joined in togetherness along a shared baseline where two aspects of their personhood are in direct fellowship. Body and soul. The spirit points away showing a vigilant watch and guard of each other. There are two of these diamond shapes, one within the other, at the section that crosses it. This is the intention of the relationship of oneness. That they are joined together in harmony, physicality, and soul, each watching out for the other. And that this union is contained and empowered by an ever greater union of joining with the Oneness of God as His Bride through the Power of the Cross. The ovoid symbol below here represents Fellowship. It was a symbol of the Early Church. Called an ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ), it is a fish symbol, representing the call to be fishers of men. At the close of the covenant ceremony, the couple leaves together through this doorway, as will we. This is how we will together, once Jeremiah and O’Brian return, will get safely out of Kilrane.”
“So, we go out of the backdoor?” Laura asked.
“No, dear,” Nell answered patient and lovingly, “This is the front door. A very special doorway. It doesn’t appear like much on the outside. A simple narrow wooden doorway, one must enter one at a time. The husband takes his wife by the hand and leads her through it. This is the time when it is not, as you said James, ‘Ladies first’. It is the man’s place to lead lovingly and gently. To face whatever danger exists on the other side first to protect her with his body as a shield. Like a man-at-arms goes before his queen, he is to lead her to a safe and cherished place.”
“What are these symbols on either side of the doorway?” Lindsey asked, touching their carvings softly. “They look like a flower in a circle.”
“Ah,” Begglar said, “And at last we come to it. This is the reason why this place is called The Faerie Fade.”
Maeven, who had been quiet again up to this point, spoke up, “They’re here. In the forest. I saw them. They’ve come back to Kilrane.”
“What have?” Lindsey asked, wrinkling her nose in a puzzled grin, “The flowers?”
Maeven turned towards her, very serious and very quietly said, “Those are not flowers. What looks like the top and bottom petals of a flower to you, are not fronds or leaves. They are a body, a humanlike form, with four wings in a circle of light. The locals call them Faeries here. But they are very powerful and very, very dangerous. They are the guardians of this portal. Anyone who enters it who is not covered under a covenant of faith will not survive it.”
“What do you mean, ‘will not survive it’?” Chris asked.
“Just what she said,” Nell added, “There are those in our traveling companions who were taken prisoner, that would not make it out of Kilrane if the Xarmnians had not already taken them. They would not survive this portal, because it is a hallowed place that no darkness or darkened soul can enter. Only covenant provides safe passage through.”
Tiernan cleared his throat, “So, why would the Half-men permit the Xarmnian Protectorate or whoever, to take those through without killing them all?”
Begglar addressed his question, “Because the Xarmnians are in league with the Half-men and have brokered a truce with The Pan to allow them passage through the wilds. The Pan has given his kinds strict warning that they are not to molest the Xarmnians or meddle in their affairs and The Pan severely enforces his warnings even among his own subjects.”
The group each looked from one to the other, worriedly, taking deep breaths trying to process what was being told to them.
“What does ‘Fade’ mean?” Chris asked, ever the inquisitive one.
Begglar answered, “When we go through the doorway together, you’ll see for yourself.”
Lindsey said, “But how do you know we will all be safe through there? How do you know? Do we all have to get married? Or be married?”
Nell smiled and stroked her face gently, gazing directly into her eyes. “Because, child,” she reassured her, “I can see that you all shine, and you are all already under a yielded covenant with the One. Marriage is a mirror of the relationship of faith in the One. You are a bride under your faith already, even if not a betrothed one here with a spouse. Remember there are two diamonds on the doorway. Two forms of covenant that protects. Ideally, both are within the faith covenant, when spouses vow together. That is the One’s intention for the greatest good and protection of the sanctity of marriage. Each is accountable to Him for their treatment of the other. Each acknowledges their covenant to the One as the primary relationship, and to their spouse as secondary, contained within the primary covenant. Understand?”
“I think I do,” Lindsey whispered, more to herself than to Nell.
“Can we open the door and sort of check it out first?” Matthew asked.
Begglar stood in front of the door as if by symbolic answer. “There is no halfway, once the door is opened. No hesitation on the threshold. Once this door is opened, there is no turning back. The called one must lead through it. That is why it is important to have O’Brian here. Otherwise, we will become separated and they may not find us, once we’re through. The portal here is mysterious and unlike any other. All others who stand under the ceiling will be drawn into it once it is opened, so even the parents and the officiating cleric must step out from under the covering before the groom opens the doorway. Where it takes those who enter, is determined by the One, but it is always the next step on the journey. Every choice made apart from the intention of the One leads to personal and collateral pain for others. This is why it is important to know the intentions of the One. Why His words revealed in the Ancient text mean so much here. It reveals the way to the abundance of life and His greatest good for each of you. It gives meaning to your every breath and your unique design and purpose. It invests you with the knowledge of your own value to Him. It tells you why you were born. And how to ignite the torchlight of your soul.”
“So, marriage is actually a good thing,” Chris said.
“Yes, lad,” Begglar said, “A very good thing, once you understand its intention. This is why this place means so much to Nell and I. It reminds us of how good love is. Just like the Ancient Text reminds us all.”
“Then why is it that so many people get it wrong and screw up so many lives in the process?” Laura asked thinking of her family.
Begglar said, “There is a verse that speaks to that. The Ancient Text says:
“14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ.” [2 Corinthians 3:14 NLT]
…The outside world simply cannot understand this kind of covenant. Only a heart that is opened by the One, has a chance.”
Laura nodded, taking this all in thoughtfully, but then she turned and addressed one of the young men in the group.
“Dominic, are you betrothed to someone?”
The group burst out laughing and Dominic blushed bright red.
Syloam marked well where the harpy called Mawgla finally landed with her Will in tow. And it was with some stealth and skill that she finally made her way down the back of the tree where Will was held at its base.
The harpies Mawgla, Awlen, Grawla, and Dawlen huddled together around their captive discussing how best to present their prize when they were suddenly startled to overhear the other harpies flying above announcing to The Pan that they had taken a Surface Worlder prisoner, for they had not yet announced their victim and had been savoring the chance to do so. They felt upstaged by this announcement and resentful.
“How is it that they get to announce and take credit for our capture, Grawla?!” Awlen asked, indignant.
“Perhaps they saw us coming with him, sister,” Dawlen grumped, her wrinkled face looking even more pinched than it had before.
“I knew Dellitch and her sisters would eventually betray us,” Mawgla growled, “It is a foul day indeed, when we can no longer trust our own kind.”
Grawla fluffed her breast ruffle, drying it from the oil froth that still left a residue or foam on her black and gray feathers.
“Perhaps they have recovered another captive,” she combed the fluff with the hooked claw extending from her wing.
“Then what is to become of ours? Shall we eat him ourselves?” Mawgla asked.
“I could just tender him up a bit,” Dawlen drooled, licking her pinched lips with a pinkish-gray tongue.
“Better partial glory that no glory, I’d say,” Awlen regarded Will with gimlet eyes, “Though a bite or two might not be noticed.”
Grawla regarded the young man who now lay exhausted and sore from dangled carry through the forest, his eyes dulled and surrendered to whatever fate might await. She considered and then turned.
“Better to deliver this scrap meat to The Pan. But go in and scout the prize these others have brought if they have any. Let them be diminished before The Pan when they offer. If they have claimed our trophy, let us hide him away for ourselves and see how they fare making promises they cannot deliver upon. Let The Pan change who leads our kind, by eliminating our competition for flock rulership.”
And with that, Mawgla, Awlen, and Dawlen took wing again to watch the spectacle happing ahead with The Pan and his retinue, leaving Grawla to watch after their prisoner.
When they had gone, tiny green tendrils began to creep along the lower ground and up quietly within the leaves of a bush, near where Grawla scraped the ground with her large claws, looking for grubs and other crawling insects along the ground. The tendrils thickened, and green eyes and a cream-colored clear complexion looked upon the unwary harpy with hatred.
It only took a second for Syloam to lunge forward and seize the harpy, her thick vines, and branches clutching fiercely to her throat as the harpy lurched from the impact.
“Death for death!” Syloam hissed, through clenched teeth and suddenly felt herself being ripped from the bush and drawn upward. The harpy, despite the stranglehold, was strong and powerful, and she was flying upward at an incredible speed.
The two bursts through the tree canopy, Syloam twisting and writhing tightening her vines ever stronger around Grawla’s throat. There had been no time to find an anchor shoot to prevent the harpy from carrying her upward, for she was so intent on killing the harpy. Higher and higher they flew, pirouetting into the blazing sun, a terrible pain burning upon Syloam’s legs as she realized the harpy was draining milk down upon her dangling legs.
If she was going to die, she resolved, she would not die alone.
From a distance, the aerial struggle between the land and the sky played out in slips and lateral spins and twists, but eventually, the harpy stopped climbing, and the trembling vines and branches stopped flailing in the high wind. And together they fell downward, locked upon each other in a death grip until they plummeted through the forest and disappeared, never to rise again.
Jeremiah heard the shrieks and screeches as the shadowy figures ahead fought and then flew upward. He saw the prone figure lying at the base of the tree but could not tell if it was the one he’d once known as Brian David or not.
The man looked too young, and he did not recognize him. He bent down and tried to wake him. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the young man’s upper torso was covered in fine golden dust.
“Dryads! Ah, this is not good,” he shook the man again, slapping him lightly across the cheek, and the man finally opened his eyes and held his gaze for a moment.
“I see you can hear me,” and then his eyes shifted from the man’s glistening and sweat-smeared cheeks.
Golden dust transferred from the man’s yellowed face to Jeremiah’s hand and he wiped the substance from his fingers with a handful of scattered leaves.
“How do I always get myself into other people’s troubles?” he said to no one in particular.
“Why can’t I just be left well-enough alone?” he sighed, seeming to have an internal dialogue with himself and someone other than himself.
“Alright,” he sighed, “You win. You always do.”
Jeremiah knew he could not risk freeing the young man from his bonds. Not yet anyway, so he reached into his pack and pulled out some short lengths of rope to further restrain the man.
“What is your name?” The young man only stared dully at him and did not answer, but it was clear to Jeremiah that the boy had heard his question.
“Alright then. Be obstinate.”
“I should leave you here,” Jeremiah continued, beginning to quickly wrap and tie the man’s hands and feet, but he did mark that this man was a Surface Worlder, and in dire need of rescue, “but I won’t. He won’t let me. I can’t avoid becoming like them if I don’t treat my own any better, so you’re coming with me. Like it or not.”
With that, he reached down and grabbed him lifting in a fireman’s carry and proceeded onward, searching where O’Brian might have gone. The young man did not protest or struggle. Clearly, for whatever moment the young man had been with him, he was out again, but perhaps, Jeremiah thought, that was for the best.
Moving gingerly forward, with his new burden, he carefully scanned the forest floor, trying to see through the growing smoke, but it was growing thicker by the moment. He chanced a gaze upward and blinked. He rubbed his watering eyes with his hand, to be sure, but thought he saw a figure of a man, high up on a tree limb about forty feet off the ground. The tree bole was too thick for the man to have climbed up himself, and he was puzzled. A slight corona of light outlined the figure’s body against the dark leaves. The man’s build was larger than the boy he’d carried. No one had mentioned this boy to him on the road, so he wondered if O’Brian might have had a better reason to go out into the woods alone. Perhaps, he’d misjudged him. Ahead was a murky watered stream that eventually spread out and stilled. The slough. The black mud was thick and foul-smelling. Hazes of bugs and flying gnats swarmed the dead pooling slimy water. Frogs and snakes tried to survive in it and each other. Boglins were sometimes seen about. Half-men creatures comprised of both man and frog. Weird creatures that lived on decay, rodents and various and sundry swamp animals.
He couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man above just might be Brian, or O’Brian as he was called now. A lot had changed. When the man in the treetops suddenly spoke loudly to some group gathered in the clearing below, he was certain of who it was.
‘No’, he thought to himself, ‘The man is still foolish and impulsive’.
When he heard the rumbling voice of The Pan respond, Jeremiah shook his head, “Not foolish. Downright insane.”
I had very little hope of making it out of the tree except by a nasty fall. I had no way to know what I was supposed to do next and was growing desperate and having trouble with doubts and fears that I had misinterpreted the Spirit’s urging to go and confront The Pan. This was a terrible development putting me in a more desperate situation.
“What am I doing? Why am I here? How am I even helping the situation? Oh Lord, why did You call me to lead? I am failing at every turn. Help me find Your Way.”
Then like soft rain upon my heated brow the following words of the Ancient Texts came into my mind.
“7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You [are] there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You [are there]. 9 [If] I take the wings of the morning, [And] dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.” [Psalm 139:7-10 NKJV]
There was a purpose, even in this predicament, though it eluded me at the moment. It had felt right that I scout out the way ahead and determine the situation with The Pan and what manner of creatures attended it, but I had hoped to do so under the low-lying brush and not trapped in the tops of a tree.
I scanned the tree limbs above me. This limb that I had been flung upon, was the lowest and thickest limb that could safely bear the weight of a man. The limbs above slowly diminished in thickness and size, but they did extend outward enough that I could possibly reach across to a branch from one of the other surrounding trees, and work my way back down from there. I could not get down as it was, for the bole of the tree was too big for me to safely wrap my legs and arms around its girth. The harpy had chosen this high redoubt judiciously, safely imprisoning me while she attended other nefarious errands.
It would be risky, but I believed I could ascend somewhat and see if I could get a bearing on where we were within Kilrane. Perhaps, I could sight The Pan and his devilish brood and find a way to bypass them. To do so, I would need to gain a better understanding of the lay of the land, above the treetops.
So carefully I climbed upward, being certain of the strength of each radiating branch, as I placed my arms and feet carefully. I am not afraid of heights, but I understood that I would need to be very careful to avoid getting vertigo. I climbed another fifteen feet before the canopy began to thin enough for me to see through and over the surrounding forest. To the north, the fires smoked and blazed, crawling steadily and wickedly across the tops of the tree canopy. Strange figures, seemed to ascend out of the heat shimmer all around, some black and feathered, with some sort of firelight brands gilding their wings with smoke and flame. These I recognized as more of the fiendish kind that put me in my present predicament. Among these swooping and cackling fiends were odd angular shapes that morphed and elongated strangely, flaring out whip-like flagella at the flying creatures, having little success. The glowing canopy engulfed these angular creatures in flame and smoke, such that fewer and fewer rose upward above the treetops. It was clear to me then that the harpies were using the excuse of the forest inferno to rid themselves of their arch-enemies which had taken up illegal residence in the lands of men. The conflict had not yet reached my proximity, but it soon would, and I knew that I could not risk being spotted by either of these dangerous groups of combatants.
I then turned towards the west and spotted movement on an exposed curve of the winding roads passing through the forest of Kilrane. I could not be sure, but it appeared to be the back of our wagon, entrusted to us, by the Azragothians for our journey. I could not see more than two riders, and I wondered at what had befallen the rest of our party, but then focusing outward a little further to the south, I saw a clearing and an open field, and a site that almost made my heart stop. A flag standard was raised in the midst of the field, and the field seemed to move and undulate with an encampment of armored Xarmnian soldiers. Had we but followed the forest road a little further we would have run right smack into their camp but would have been spotted and captured long before that, for the Xarmnians were not imbeciles and would have established a forest-watch. I looked closer trying to measure their troop-strength, and the size of their party, but was surprised to see, flying in and out from among them, the hideous old harpies, circulating from some edge of the encampment and flying sorties back into the forest. Clearly, the Xarmnians had formed some sort of alliance with these harpies, and the shock of it, almost made me forget where I was and lose my grip, clutching my arms around the tree.
I searched the remaining direction within the forest but was unable to locate where The Pan might have moved to. If The Pan and the Xarmnians were in league together, then Azragoth was in more grave danger than I had thought. Something had been informing these enemies of their renewed presence within the old abandoned and fire gutted city, and I strongly suspected that the harpies had something to do with that.
Was it only a faction of harpies working in concert with the Xarmnians? Had The Pan offered the armies of Xarmni aid? There was no way to tell, but I knew this information could not be entrusted to just anyone. There may be a traitor within Azragoth getting ready to help these erstwhile adversaries to work in tandem to put down the heart of the secret resistance. Suddenly, I knew why I had been led towards this path, though it had not been my intention, I served at the design of the One who still called me forth. This was why I had been directed into the wolf’s lair. Not to find the disposition of The Pan or to see if he still bore the lost Cordis stone, effected by mine and Caleb’s past foolishness. It was to be brought here to see and to remember, that even though I might not be aware of it, I was still being moved, despite my own foolishness by His unseen hand to accomplish His purpose rather than my own.
The wagon had disappeared from view, but I could also see some sort of wheeled cage being guarded within the Xarmnian camp. It was too far away for me to tell clearly, but I was certain, I saw the faintest glimpse of long blonde hair lean in under the sunlight that I recognized. A woman, I knew to be tall and slender. Fierce-eyed and intelligent, but tender and caring as well. The Mid-World citizens were very rarely ever blonde-headed, so I surmised that this one must be one of my company. Cheryl, I believe was her name, though she had not given me her moniker, I had heard Miray mention her as one who had resisted when the Xarmnians had accosted and captured them. I was relieved to see that she was still alive and perhaps had formulated some plan in her mind as to how to effect their release.
Dornsdale was the next large town beyond “Sorrow’s Gate” located to the west at the foot of the high plains pass, where we had sent down the wreck of Begglar’s original buckboard wagon. It was firmly under Xarmnian control and had been since before I left twenty-one years ago. The occupied town was the seat of a fist, which the Xarmnians used to keep the other townships in abeyance. If the Xarmnians were to take their prisoners anywhere, that was the most logical destination to take them to first, unless…
No, I could not even think it.
Suddenly from behind me, I heard noises coming across the canopy. The movement sounded as if it was coming from some distance. The fires were surging over the treetops and rapidly coming my way, yet there was something moving at a high rate of speed just below the leafy canopy making a hissing sound that frightened me. Had I been spotted? Was the harpy returning? I desperately needed to get down from this tree and quickly, but the intervening branches were clearly not thick enough to hold me to span the gaps between my present perch and the trees surrounding it.
I had to move down again. Back to the lower branch where the harpy had left me. The fires would be over me soon and would take a while to get to me on the lower bough. Climbing nimbly and as quick as I could, my heart racing, my ears thundering with the tympani rumble of my pulse, I twisted in my decent, ducking once again below the canopy, and saw something flashing in the distance.
My mind leaped to the obvious conclusion. The fires of Azragoth were blazing towards me. They had ignited in the dry leaves of the canopy and were rapidly spreading across the treetops, flash burning as they came roaring forward. I was going to die here. Roasted alive like a featherless bird in a nest.
Surely this was not the plan of The One, but I could not claim to anticipate Him. His ways are above my ways. He had made that clear. If He wanted to take me out, I was His to dispense with at any given moment. I served at His pleasure.
A verse rose into my mind as if spoken by a calm, reassuring voice.
“2 Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD rises and appears over you.” [Isaiah 60:2 NLT]
I turned my head upward, careful to balance myself upon a forking limb as I leaned back, and suddenly I saw, above the dappled leaves, what looked like brilliant stars descending towards me with other shining lights waiting above the canopy.