Chapter One: Fàolan
Fall 105, Cathonys
Poná was usually a quiet city.
Chapter One: Fàolan
Fall 105, Cathonys
Poná was usually a quiet city.
This surprised many visitors, however, because Poná was the capital of Cathonys. As the capital, it was a bustling city, full of life. However, it was small, often called a town, not much bigger than the village outside of it. The inhabitants all knew each other, and news spread very quickly. So when a stranger came to town, suddenly everyone knew about it.
Fàolan’s arrival was no different. He was of average height, somewhere around five feet seven inches, and slim. His hair fell to the middle of his neck, straight and brown – dark, dark, brown, to be precise. In the front, it came almost to his brown eyes. He had a thin beard, barely noticeable except for around his chin, up, and over his mouth. Yet although he looked perfectly normal at first glance, there was something uncommon and almost frightening about him. It may have been the uncouth way he kept silent and did not answer the citizens’ cheerful greetings. It could have been his cold demeanor toward the children playing in the streets. Or perhaps it was the way his hooded black cloak swirled about him as he strode through the streets of Poná. Whatever it was, he made everyone uncomfortable. And those who hadn’t been wary of him soon became so when he walked up to the castle drawbridge and promptly walked across it, completely ignoring the guards.
Yet once inside the castle walls, he turned around and approached one of the guards. “Pray tell, sir, where is the king’s throne room?” He asked.
Either he’s a fool, or completely evil, the villagers thought. No one just walks past the guards like that.
“Right inside, up the stairs and straight down the hall. But you’ll have to deal with the king’s right-hand man before ye can enter.”
“Thank you, sir,” Fàolan turned and followed the guard’s directions, knocking on the door when he reached the end of the hallway. It opened slightly, and a set of dark brown eyes looked out at him.
“What business have you with the king?” The man asked.
“I would like to speak with the king and offer him my services,” Fàolan replied.
“Leave your sword in the hallway.”
“Ah, now, sir, I don’t part with my sword, and when I do I don’t usually leave my sword lying around just anywhere.”
“I believe you that you don’t, but it is by order of the king that I require you to do this.”
“Then as it is a decree of the king I shall obey it.”
Fàolan set his sword against the wall then entered the room as the king’s man, Nigel, opened the door.
The king was young, in his early twenties. His pale, clean-shaven face was full of life, and his hazel eyes sparkled. As Nigel and Fàolan entered, the king turned to his advisor. “Who is this man, Nigel?”
“I know not, only that he wants to offer you his services.”
“Does he now? Come in, sir.”
Fàolan swept a low bow. “Thank you, sire. Fàolan; warrior and philosopher at your service.” As he stood, Fàolan flicked back his hood and stood at his full height – which next to Nigel, who was tall, did not seem like very much.
The king nodded. “And which of these professions do you offer me?”
“Philosopher in times of peace, warrior in times of war.”
“I already have the wisest philosopher I can possibly have,” Kyle said, in regard to Nigel, “But having another cannot hurt.”
“Thank you, my liege.” Fàolan bowed again, a graceful, sweeping bow.
What a charming man, King Kyle thought, smiling pleasantly. Meanwhile, Nigel fingered the hilt of his sword.
That night, Nigel and his wife Enid sat at the dinner table in their house within the castle walls.
“What news from the castle, Nigel?”
“The king has a new advisor.”
“What would he do with more wisdom than you have to offer?”
“Become a wiser king, perhaps. But I fear this new man.”
“Fàolan is his name, is it not?”
“Aye, I suppose you’ve already heard the news from the town. He offered the king his services. I fear he will be like Daron was to Nathan.”
“Nigel, please, let’s not speak of such things at the dinner table!”
“Enid, these are evil times. The King seems so taken with Fàolan already. In his foolishness, he does not see the eccentricities Fàolan has, things that are noticeable even after a few hours. It is hard not to prejudge him.” Nigel sighed and glanced up to the heavens. “We can only pray to the Creator that He will send His promise soon.”
“I am afraid Fàolan has already begun to corrupt the king’s mind. He has a very appealing manner, but rather enigmatic. He’s almost too amiable… I pray that the king shows good discernment.”
“It won’t be long before we find out.”
Before dark, Enid and Nigel went for a walk outside of the castle walls. As they left the castle, an older man approached them.
“Good evening, Nigel, madam.”
“Good evening, Bardan.”
“What news from inside the walls? The city is abuzz with the arrival of the new man.”
“Aye. I fear for the king. This man, Fàolan, has offered his services as the king’s advisor. I do not trust him.”
“Evil slips in like a snake in the grass – silent and fast. Be wary it does not strike in the night.”
“Bardan, ye, not me, should be the king’s advisor.”
“Nay, he thinks I’m crazy, like the rest of Poná. They cannot see through my riddles. Besides, it would be too high an honor for a beggar like me. I prefer to take the Creator’s honor rather than men’s and tell the world what He reveals to me. But someone does need to warn him. Alas, his young mind is tangible and will be easily swayed, and for the worse, I fear.”
Over the next few weeks, Nigel spent many hours in the King’s throne room with King Kyle and Fàolan. The three of them discussed many things relating to the kingdom. Fàolan wanted to reorganize the army. King Kyle immediately agreed, but Nigel hesitated.
“Sir, it seems that you want to spread out the strength of the army. How would that benefit Cathonys?”
“We must not think of just Poná, but all of Cathonys, Nigel,” Fàolan countered. “It would allow for uprisings and civil disturbances to be more easily crushed, and for justice to be faster and easier.”
“Aye, but if there were ever to be an attack on Poná, or a major attack on any city, we would be completely crushed.”
“Yes, but has that ever happened?”
“No, but under King Kyle, there have been no civil disturbances, and the law of the Creator is sufficient for justice. The fathers and men of Cathonys know how to wield weapons and can defend themselves just as well as a well-trained army. The capital is what we must protect most, for we must protect the king. That is our duty as his advisors.”
“Nigel,” King Kyle said. “Come here a moment.” Nigel quickly ran to the king’s side. Kyle leaned over to whisper in his ear. “I know it is hard for you to see a younger man come in like this and bring good counsel, but try to listen and understand what he’s saying.” Astonished, Nigel could only nod. “Well, then, that settles that.” Kyle said.
“How –what?” Nigel asked, confused.
“Fàolan, could you issue an order out to the troops and inform them of their new quarters?”
“It would be my pleasure, your majesty.” Fàolan turned to go. No one saw it, but as he opened the door, a malevolent smile slipped across his face.
“That will be all for today,” Kyle told Nigel.
Bowing, Nigel left quickly. Oh, Creator, have mercy.
The year 106 slipped quietly in. Each day, Nigel retuned from work earlier as Fàolan grew in the king’s favor. Many times, he would speak up to try to change the king’s mind or overrule Fàolan’s decisions. Fàolan’s proposed changes to the government or law always appeared strong, but with wisdom granted by the Creator, Nigel saw through them and saw the folly that they brought – and the building up of a kingdom that an insider could easily destroy. The only thing that ever seemed to concern him in their discussions was his “But sir…” followed by, “That’s enough, Nigel, I’ve made my decision.” From King Kyle.
Enid grew more and more worried as she watched Nigel come home weary and troubled each day. At least three nights a week, they would stay up late praying, often into the wee hours of the morning. They struggled to search for ways to raise their son to love excellence like the Creator. He was not even one, but they looked to the future to prepare, searching for ways to raise their son in the instruction of the Creator and shelter him from corruption.
Only a few realized the corruption Fàolan brought to Poná, but those who saw it wept and looked on in horror. Fàolan set up new laws and strictly enforced them, purposefully turning from the Creator’s order.
Very few people remained true to the Creator’s laws, and it was very difficult for them to worship Him. However, there were still those who called Him Lord and God. Without the peaceful rules of the Creator, Poná, Cathonys, and soon all of Edaled fell into the ways of Fàolan. Fàolan did his best to disguise the shift of power – he knew that if the people realized he had usurped the throne, they would rebel, and he could not deal with that, even with the way his – that is, the King’s – armies were organized now. He thought that the few that did know of the usurpation were too focused on the Creator’s love and His supposed power to rise up against him. Nigel and Enid continued to live within the castle walls, watched by Fàolan’s men. Nigel was still paid, but he felt that he was no longer needed in the castle –King Kyle refused to listen to Nigel’s counsel.
“I don’t know what to do,” he confided in Enid. “Everything I say, Fàolan makes look bad. He twists my words and since so far his plans have worked – though none have been truly tested – the King trusts him. It’s so frustrating!”
“I know it sounds like treason to call the King a fool, but a foolish heart is easily swayed, often to lies rather than truth.” Enid lovingly placed a hand on top of her husband’s. “Nigel, you are the wisest man I know. The Creator has blessed you with wisdom and discernment. I thank Him for it every day.”
“Thank you, my love. I only wish He would give the King the same discernment.”
Early one morning, Nigel was taking a walk around the castle walls, up high on the ramparts, when he encountered Fàolan doing the same.
“Good morning, Fàolan.”
“The same to you, Nigel.”
“What brings you out here at this time of the morning?”
“I enjoy watching the village wake up, and the sunrises in this part of Cathonys are exceptionally beautiful.”
“Indeed they are. Do you mind if I join you as you watch this morning?”
“No, no, not at all.”
The two men – both of the same profession, yet completely different – stood next to each other and gazed out across the land. Beyond the village, the deep canyon of Lamrae could just barely be seen, and the rocks rising up around it looked like odd shadows on the horizon as the sun rose.
“Forgive me if I’m prying, but what is your intent with regard to the King, Fàolan?”
“No, you’re not prying at all. As the king’s advisor I understand your wish for protecting our good king.” Fàolan shifted his position slightly. “I wish to make things in the kingdom more efficient so Cathonys can be more prosperous.”
“And what of the king himself?”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me be honest, Fàolan. It seems to me as if you are trying to corrupt the king, lead him in the ways of a fool rather than the ways of the wise.”
“Maybe it appears that way to you, seeing as our advice often differs.”
“Listen, Fàolan. The king is a follower of the Creator. But he is young, and easily led astray. My father was the armorer during the reign of Kyle’s father, King Darren. I was like Kyle’s older brother. On his deathbed, Darren appointed me as Kyle’s advisor, to protect him from evil. ‘He has a simple heart,’ Darren told me. ‘Don’t lead him to destruction.’ The same goes for you.”
Fàolan only stared at Nigel open mouthed.
“Watch yourself around the King. Check your motives for the advice you give him. An advisor to the king should care nothing of himself or if his advice is taken or not, his only motive should be for the good of the king and the kingdom. Be sure that what you do is not for Daron’s gain.”
“Those are strong words, Nigel,” Fàolan said, then turned on his heel and walked away.
Aye, they are strong. Strong, but true.
Enid wiped her floury hands across her forehead in the hot kitchen. She sighed and returned to kneading bread. Fagan slept peacefully in his cradle by the kitchen window, blissfully unaware of the summer heat. The front door opened, and Nigel walked in.
“Good morning, my love!” He said cheerfully.
“Why are you back already?”
Nigel set his hat down on the table. “I am no longer needed,” he replied.
Enid paused in her kneading. “What do you mean?”
“Anything I say, King Kyle brushes off. He will not even let me speak any more. I cannot stand sitting there and watching our country plummet into destruction.” Nigel shook his head. “But I know not what I can do about it. It is as King Darren feared. The simplicity of his son is leading our country into destruction.”
Silently, Enid watched her husband.
“The only thing I can think of is that we move out to the village, outside of these walls, and spread the word of what’s happening.”
“We must pray,” Enid reminded.
Leaving her bread, Enid sat down at the table, and Nigel sat beside her. Their heads bowed in fervent prayer, they searched for answers.
Chapter Two: A Gardener
“Enid, did you pack the blankets?” Nigel called from the back room.
“Aye, I did. They’re already in the cart.”
Nigel came out, carrying a crate of books. “Alright, then, I think we’re ready to leave.”
Enid nodded. She glanced around the empty house, and then picked Fagan up from his cradle. They were leaving the cradle behind – Fagan was getting too big for it. She walked down the front steps to the cart and climbed up into the front seat. Nigel climbed up beside her and took the reins. “Giddy-up,” he said to the horses, and the cart began to roll toward the gate.
“Where are you going?” The guard at the gate asked.
“Out to the village,” Nigel replied.
“F- King Kyle has forbidden it.”
“There is no need to ask why when King Kyle issues a decree. No one is to go out of the castle walls unless they have permission from the King himself.”
“But the king has no need of me.”
The guard shrugged. “That is of no matter.”
Nigel’s shoulders slumped, but he turned the cart around and they drove back to their home.
Enid paused outside the front door. “What do we do now, Nigel?” She asked.
“I will go speak to the King.”
Nodding, Enid took a chair inside, and then brought Fagan inside. There, they waited.
“Alone, if you please, Fàolan.” Nigel begged. He knelt by the king’s side. The king nodded. Grudgingly, Fàolan left the throne room.
“Your majesty, why have you issued such a decree, that no one may leave the castle walls without permission?”
The king shrugged.
“Your majesty, you have no more need of me within the castle. Why am I forbidden to leave?”
“It is for your protection.”
“But there is no reason for me to stay here, my king, if you will no longer accept my advice.”
“Fàolan has seen your garden. The castle gardens are full of weeds. Be my gardener, Nigel. I may have a new advisor, but your family is still welcome within my walls.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Nigel stood and bowed. “Oh – one thing more. May we have your permission to leave the walls on market day and on the meeting days to gather with the followers of the Creator?”
“Aye.” The king picked up paper and a pen and wrote out this permission.
“My Lord…” Nigel began after Kyle handed him the paper. “Be on your guard against Fàolan. Check that the advice he gives you is not that that will lead you into destruction.”
“Do you doubt his advice?”
“Aye, most often I do. I do not think he cares for you or the kingdom, only for his gain.”
“Well, then, you are misreading his intent. Good day, Nigel.”
Nigel bowed quickly and left the room. With heavy footsteps, he returned home. “We have permission to leave for our meetings and for the market, Enid.” He shook his head. “But nothing more. The King forbids us to leave.”
“You spoke to the king, alone, without Fàolan?”
“Aye. It was futile.”
“Then they only keep us within these walls so that no word gets out of what has happened.”
“Aye, word of this treason. Though even if we spoke up about it, there would be nothing won – it would not be considered treason that Fàolan is now ruling Cathonys, because the king gave up his power.”
Enid nodded sadly. “Should we still try?”
“No. Unless the Creator dictates otherwise in His word, we will follow the laws of our kings, to live peaceably as good citizens. But may the Creator have mercy on this land, and never allow any laws to be passed that contradict His Law.”
Enid closed her eyes in silent prayer.
The beggar Bardan continued to foretell the doom and destruction that would come. Yet his message began to change – first he sought to warn others of doom upon Poná. Then slowly, almost unnoticeably, the prophecy stretched to Cathonys and all of Edaled. People shunned him, ignoring his warnings, consumed by their selfishness.
You blind people! How long will it take you to see the treachery budding in your hearts? Oh, Creator save us! Your people are lost, so lost they do not even realize it. Turn away from your treacherous ways before you are struck down! My Lord, my God, Creator of all Edaled – you have power beyond our comprehending! Rescue us now from this dark doom!
Chapter Three: Bene and Batyah Yahweh
Summer 122, Poná
A curly black head peeked around the corner. “Mama, ‘Na and I are going to the market now.”
“Go carefully, Fagan, and watch out for Brianna,” Enid replied.
“I will, mama, I love you!”
Enid smiled as her tall, seventeen-year old boy and his sister Brianna left the house for the market. She shifted baby Ness in her arms, wondering when Nigel would be home. Every day, he took the children into the city or behind the castle walls for their lessons. Nigel was grateful that the king no longer needed him as much as before, because it freed him to train his children in the ways of the Creator.
Enid sighed. Most likely three-year-old Grady and two-year-old Keelin had gotten in trouble somehow and they were trying - as always - to find a way to get themselves out of a scrape.
Soon she heard voices outside, first Brenna’s sweet seven year old voice, then Nigel’s voice answering her questions, and finally Ahearn, ten, pushed open the door and heralded their arrival home.
“We’re hoooooooome, Mama!”
Grady and Keelin came running in, Keelin’s red hair splotched with what looked like blackberry juice and leaves caught in Grady’s black hair giving them away. Their little mouths and hands stained with blackberry juice, the boys looked anxiously up at Enid, wondering what her judgment would be.
“They ran off and we found them in the blackberry patch,” Nigel explained, stepping behind his youngest sons and placing his hands on their heads. Brenna took her apron off and set it on the table, blackberries spilling out everywhere.
“Da says you’ll make blackberry tarts,” she said, grinning. “And I’ll help you!” Brenna planted a kiss on Enid’s cheek, and then ran her finger lightly over Ness’s nose.
“But he also said that Grady and Keelin get a dunking in the swimming hole as soon as they change, and I get to dunk them,” Ahearn said joyfully.
The “swimming hole” as they called it, was the deepest part of the river that ran through the castle gardens. Although they were not allowed to leave the castle walls apart from on market and meeting days, Nigel had received special permission for the children to be able to play in the gardens and the outdoors around the castle.
Enid laughed as the boys ran off to change, and then looked up at Nigel as he bent down to kiss her. “How were their lessons?”
“The usual – more play than learning, but they’re still young. Ahearn is advancing quickly in arithmetic, and Brenna is progressing very well in her reading. Grady and Keelin, however,” he said, turning to stare sternly at his two youngest sons, who were impishly looking out from their bedroom and giggling. “Need to work on their memorization more.” Nigel glanced around the house. “Where are Brianna and Fagan?”
“Fagan took Brianna into town to get food. You know how I don’t like Brianna to go alone, and Fagan is always willing to go with her.’
“Another chance to get away from his studies, I suppose. But ach, I’m being too hard on him. He works so hard to keep up with everything he does. I’m very proud of him, though, for the way he takes care of his sisters.”
“Aye. Did you hear any news from the king in town?”
Nigel pulled a chair from the table over to sit next to his wife. “Nothing, though I’m surprised we’re still living in the castle walls – I would have thought the king would have wanted us to leave long ago, but I suppose Fàolan wanted to avoid suspicion in the town for those who are still unaware, few though they be. Seventeen years… it’s been seventeen years since Fàolan arrived, Enid. Such a long time for evil to prevail… while good men do nothing. The deceit of evil is so powerful!”
“Aye,” Enid agreed.
“Fàolan isn’t as discreet as he hopes to be, though - the villagers know it is no longer their good king Kyle who leads them, at least the wiser ones are aware of this. Many come to me for information, but I tell them I know not much more than they do, the rest is just rumor. What I do know I wish to remain hidden from the people so I do not stir up strife.”
“I do not know how long it will be before they become angry. I fear that before long Cathonys will no longer be a safe and peaceful haven. There is a rumbling of war and discontent among the people, and Fàolan’s ideas are spreading to other kingdoms.
Enid was silent, suddenly afraid.
“But we have no reason to fear, my love, for the Creator takes good care of His children.”
Grady came out of the boys’ bedroom, trailed by Keelin. Brenna and Alastair soon joined their siblings in their front room of the house. “Ready to go, da!” Brenna said, and soon Nigel and the four of them were on their way to the swimming hole.
Brianna saw a friend at the well and paused to talk with her briefly, Fagan standing nearby watching the villagers. Nigel had forbidden any of his children to go into the village alone – on the rare occasions that the guards let them out of the castle - because of the many dangers that lurked there. Fagan, Ahearn, or Nigel had to accompany any of the women of the family into the village to protect them. Yet Brianna and Fagan had a few friends in the village, from their secret meetings with other followers of the Creator. They were continually faced with the sad realities that furtively held Cathonys captive: the majority of the kingdom was not aware of their fallen state, for many forgot or rejected the Truth of the Creator and His words. Before Kyle abdicated his power to Fàolan, they were allowed to meet in public. Now, however, they hid in a clearing in the woods when they met. Their meetings were full of worship to the Creator, teaching, and fellowship with friends, such as the one Brianna to whom was now talking.
Fagan called to Brianna and walked on toward the market.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” Brianna said in farewell to her friend, running to catch up with Fagan. “Sorry Fagan.”
“I forgive you,” Fagan replied, “but try to stay focused; I have work to do when we get home. I haven’t quite finished my chores or my studying yet today.” They walked on in silence for a few minutes, finally arriving at the edge of the market. Fagan grabbed Brianna’s hand and they began winding their way through the crowded pathway between the booths. At the end of a row of booths, a young man stood smiling, selling the wares his family offered to interested buyers. Fagan was a good friend of this young man, Mikhil, and their families often met together. Mikhil’s family had a farm and provided food for most of the people who still followed the Creator. Nigel and Enid purchased their provisions from this family as well as others.
“Good day, Fagan, Brianna!” Mikhil greeted as Fagan and Brianna approached. Mikhil was their oldest son, after him, they had four more boys and a girl.
“Hello, Mikhil,” Fagan replied. “We missed you at the meeting last Sunday.”
“I had to take an urgent message to Dlani. I didn’t want to miss our meeting, but Da said it was urgent.”
“Is there any new news about the spread of Fàolan’s rule?” Brianna wondered as she inspected an apple.
“Not really – he’s present in all of Cathonys, even in the costal villages like Dlani. From what I hear, he’s starting to spread out more powerfully into the other kingdoms as well, however I haven’t heard of this first hand, only by word of mouth. I fear things are out of our hands now – he’s becoming too powerful for us to suppress on our own. It would just be wasted lives and wasted efforts. It seems he has an endless supply of men; they march out in legions daily to who knows where.”
“Ah, but you’re forgetting whose hands things are in, and that we have the Creator on our side,” Fagan whispered.
“Aye. ‘Tis hard to remember most of the time, though. Fàolan is so present and among us, whereas many times the Creator feels withdrawn and blind to our plight.”
“I think that is just one of Daron’s many traps, Mikhil.”
Brushing off Fagan’s comment, Mikhil turned to Brianna. “Well, how may I help you today?”
Brianna handed Mikhil the list Enid had written of what all they needed, and began examining some of the produce more carefully. Her mind drifted in and out of different thoughts as Mikhil gathered some of the things they needed, mostly thinking about Fàolan and the spread of his rule. Suddenly a loud voice snapped her out of her thoughts.
“Turn back before it is too late! Repent from your evil ways, search for the way home from this consuming darkness!” A thin, old man pushed through the crowd. He was dressed in a ragged tunic, and was barefoot. His scraggly beard looked like it had not been combed in a few days, and the top of his head was almost bald. One hazel eye showed, but an eye patch covered the other. “Batyah, Bene Yahweh! Oh, so few left today!”
At the mention of “Batyah,” the Byshani word for “daughters of God,” Brianna turned to look at the man, who she knew from her parents to be Bardan.
A quiet voice by her ear whispered to her, “Don’t pay attention to him. He’s a raving old man who claims to be prophesying, but doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, and no one can really make anything out from what he says. It’s like a riddle that has no answer.” Brianna turned slightly to reply to the voice, which she had recognized as Mikhil.
“No, I think he’s more than a raving old man. I think there’s more to him than meets the eye. My parents used to know him well, when Fàolan first came.”
Mikhil shrugged. “Well, you can think what you want. Though the more you know him, the stranger he becomes.”
“I know who he is, Mikhil. He’s around almost every time Fagan and I come into the market. Most often, he’s busy talking to others, though, and pays no mind to us. My father still talks to him from time to time.”
“Behold!” Bardan shouted, stretching out his hand to the gate of the city. “A Miracle is coming! Break the chains of bondage! Free us all from this dark oppression, Savior! How long? Save your people before utter destruction falls! Show us your love, oh God! Bring peace to this broken world!”
Bardan saw Brianna and approached her, stopping a few feet away from her. His one eye locked with Brianna’s, and he pointed at her.
“You, Batyah, and ye, Bene Yahweh! Fall not away from the way you know to be enduring and true! Trials will come; you will be tested and refined! Yet not all will come through unscathed. Stand firm!” He moved closer to Brianna. “Batyah, daughter of the Holy One… live not in fear! Find beauty in the tears – one will fall away, and another will try to protect you. Turn not away!”
Fagan grabbed Brianna’s hand again, thrusting a bag into her other arm. “Let’s go,” he said hurriedly. “Goodbye, Mikhil. See you at the meeting.”
Mikhil nodded at Brianna then replied to Fagan’s farewell.
“Brianna, I don’t think da would have liked you talking to that Bardan fellow.”
“I wasn’t talking to him, Fagan, he was talking to me. And besides, mother and da used to know him, and I’ve seen him at a few of our meetings,” retorted Brianna, looking behind her as they walked, watching Bardan.
“That doesn’t mean he’s to be trusted. Not all of the meeting attendees are true followers of the Creator… and then there are those who want to overthrow Fàolan and restore things to how the Creator wants things to be. They’re the reason so much fighting is going on outside of Poná. They’re dangerous people, they call themselves the Miron… you do know what that means, don’t you?”
Brianna shook her head.
“When will you get serious about your studies, little sister?” Fagan teased. “It means, ‘messenger,’ in Byshani. They believe that they’re the Creator’s messengers, the ones He will use to fulfill His promise. They think they’re brining a message from the Creator to Fàolan.”
“But they’re not right, are they?” Brianna asked.
“No. Followers of the Creator fight only to defend from love. The Miron fight because of hate.”
“Mikhil, he’s not…”
“No, not yet. But I fear he will give into hate, Brianna, sad as it sounds. Today was quite a calm encounter with him, as you noticed. I think he’s beginning to see the power of Fàolan as an earthly power and forget the power of the Creator. He’s going to get himself killed.”
“He’s only eighteen, though.”
“Eighteen is not ‘only,’ with the Miron. I began doing a man’s work at fourteen – when I came of age and was strong enough. It’s the same with the Miron – if you can do a man’s work and fight, you can join.”
Brianna pushed the door to their house open, and they walked in.
Fagan gently set the parcels down on the table. “Keelin and Grady found the blackberry patch, I see,” he commented.
“And made a right good mess of themselves,” Enid added. “They’re down at the swimming hole with your father now, getting cleaned up.”
Brianna opened one of the parcels, taking out a sack of flour and putting it on a shelf.
“How was the market?” Enid asked.
“It gets more and more restless every time we go,” Fagan answered, helping Brianna unpack their purchases. “I think they know Fàolan is no longer just an advisor to the king. There are more heated discussions, even arguments, going on, people fighting over the way to settle things, friendships being torn over that… I do not think it will be too long before things become violent.”
“Your father said a very similar thing earlier today, Fagan.” Enid sighed. “I wonder how much longer it will be.”
“Only the Creator knows,” Fagan said.” Though sometimes I wish He would tell us these things so we could prepare.”
“What would we do to prepare, though?” Brianna asked. “I don’t think there is much we could do. Most are just anxious to know about the inner workings of Cathonys, and once they find out what has happened, either they will become afraid and submit to Fàolan, or want the power he seems to be able to offer and follow him willingly.”
“And the followers of the Creator will become an even more persecuted minority.” Fagan said decidedly. “Though with His help we will have more power and strength than they will.”
“All because of love,” Enid added. “Love for each other, love for them, and love for the Creator. They do not realize how strong love can be. Was there any other news from the market?”
“You know Bardan, right mama?” Brianna asked.
“Aye, your father and I were friends of his when Fàolan came. Since then people have looked down on him even more, not trusting his words.”
“Mikhil referred to him as a ‘raving old man,’ who didn’t know what he was talking about, like riddles without an answer,” Brianna said sadly.
“If only they knew and would listen to him. He speaks the truth most of the time,” Enid replied.
“Today he was shouting about a coming miracle, one who would save us from a threat and from bondage of some sort. Then he was talking to me, warning me and telling me not to fear.”
“But at the same time he said that the Miracle would come in peace and love. I don’t understand how someone breaking chains of bondage can be peaceful, especially if I’m guessing right and the bondage he speaks of is submission to Fàolan and disobedience to the Creator’s laws.” Fagan mused.
“Love is very powerful, Fagan. Even more so than hate. Before too long we may find out just how strong love can be.”
Brianna drew close to her mother. “Mama, what if something… what if something happens to us?”
“Brianna, remember when you were just a little girl and were afraid of the dark?”
“Do you remember what you memorized to help you?”
“’Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee,” Brianna quoted.
“Trust the Creator, Brianna. He knows what is going on, and He’s in control of it all. When we call the Creator our Lord, we give Him every part of our lives – life, death, heart, soul, flesh… Never forget that.”
“I’ll try not to, Mama.”
Fagan toyed with a blackberry. “Mikhil said Fàolan is starting to spread to the other kingdoms. If followers of the Creator are going to make their move spreading Truth again, we will have to do it soon, otherwise things will get much too out of hand and we won’t be able to do anything.”
“The mind of man cannot comprehend what the Creator has in store, Fagan. Push those thoughts to the back of your mind. We need not worry when we trust in Him.”
The room was quiet for a moment, Fagan’s head bowed in thought, Brianna watching him quietly, and Enid looking down at Ness.
“I just wish there was something we could do,” Fagan said suddenly. “To speak out about what has happened, to make sure all of Cathonys knows of Fàolan’s treason, and to tell them about the Creator. So many have forgotten, and that’s why they’ve turned away and fallen into Daron’s traps through Fàolan, isn’t it?”
“Aye. If it is the Creator’s will for us to do so, He will provide a way, Fagan. We must start here, though, in our family, as the Creator commanded. And we must be sure that we do not forget what the Creator has done, either.”
“Oh, Fagan, be careful!” Brianna shouted across the river. Fagan and Mikhil were standing on the tree bridge across the stream with carved wooden swords in hand.
“Ye shall not take the lass,” Fagan bellowed.
“I have no plan to take the lass,” Mikhil answered. “I protect the ladies of this kingdom, and of any kingdom.” Mikhil turned toward Brianna and bowed. “I only wish to reach the other side of the stream, for I have business across the water.”
“Ah, but how can I trust your words and business?” Fagan challenged.
“By trusting my word, and if that is not enough, by tasting my steel!”
“Ye have not crossed blades with me before, I wager,” Fagan bragged. “Else ye would not so readily come into a fight.”
“Nay, I have not, but I have not been challenged so in years, good sir! Let us fight, unless ye shall let me pass.”
“Nay, ye shall not, for I fear what ye may do to my sister – the words of a gentleman may differ from his actions when in the presence of a lady and her protector. Let us begin!” Fagan raised his sword and it met Mikhil’s with a crack. The two of them stood steady on the fallen tree, crossing swords repeatedly. Brianna peeked out from behind another tree, watching the two of them duel. Many afternoons when neither boy had any duties, they would meet by the stream and playact for a time, sometimes sword fighting, other times practicing archery or other martial arts. Brianna always looked on, somewhat worriedly, cheering Fagan on to victory. When it came to swords, Fagan usually won, but in archery or wrestling Mikhil usually beat Fagan. Sometimes Brianna would join in, not fighting with them, but when Mikhil and Fagan joined forces, she would set up a camp and join them in their escapades.
A splash called Brianna from her thoughts. Mikhil was no longer standing with his two feet planted firmly on the bridge; instead, his feet were up in the air, and his back in the water. Brianna jumped to her feet and ran down into the water, ignoring the sticks poking her bare feet.
“Fagan, get down there and help him up,” Brianna said.
“Yes, m’lady,” Fagan replied, jumping into the water and helping Mikhil to his feet.
“Ah, so ye spoke true, sir, and have not only given me a sore defeat, but have soaked me to the bone as well. Ach, I am cold. I should dunk ye as well, while I have the chance.” So speaking, Mikhil grabbed Fagan’s shoulders and pulled him into the water.
“If you two want to swim so much,” Brianna said from the edge of the stream, “Maybe we should run down to the swimming hole for a proper, more civilized, swim.”
“If you were a young man, you would understand, Brianna dear,” Fagan called out, shaking his head to spray water all over Mikhil. “And I would invite you to join us, but instead maybe you would enjoy watching more from the bridge. After all, m’lady, we spar for you.” He tipped his head toward her, and then splashed Brianna.
Mikhil stood up and brushed water out of the folds of his clothes. “I think, sir, that I prefer the sword much more than, say, water, to fight with. I thank ye for your time, but I have business on the other side of the stream that I must attend to, and I think I hear my colleague calling to me from nearby.”
Fagan stood next to Mikhil. “Ah, methinks that maybe my opponent may have forgotten to complete all of his farm chores.”
Mikhil playfully pushed Fagan. “And methinks my opponent may be correct.” He waved to Brianna and Fagan as he picked up his sword and began running in the direction of their farm.
Chapter Four: A Rescue
Brenna shifted Ness in her arms, and then returned her attention back to the meeting. Today Mikhil’s father, Chris, was reading a passage from the Creator’s law and sharing his thoughts on it to those attending the meeting. With the Law, the Creator had given His people specific ways and helpful tools to live better in pursuit of excellence.
“Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
And a foolish people reviles your name
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts.
Do not forget the life of your poor forever,
Have regard for the covenant,
For the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence
Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame,
Let the poor and needy praise your name
Arise, Oh God, and defend your cause;
Remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!” Chris finished reading and closed the book of the Law, bowing his head briefly before continuing to speak. “Oh, how much these times are like this. Let this be our prayer – ‘Arise, O God, and defend your cause! Have regard for the covenant!’ So often, it feels like the Creator has forgotten his promises. However, let us not be dismayed. There are many who would choose to take things into our own hands and fight against Fàolan. Let us remember, though, that in the law the Creator states that He is faithful and will fulfill His purposes and remember His people. He hears our cries, and He will defend His cause and take vengeance. If we were to rise up against Fàolan, he would crush us instantly. Nay, ‘tis better to wait on the Creator. He promises that they that wait upon Him will run and not be weary, will walk and not faint. He has shown us much grace already; let us trust Him for more. He will raise us up on wings like Eagles. Let us wait upon Him!”
A chorus of “Aye!” followed as Chris finished speaking. He turned to one of the other leaders of the group, who announced that their meal was ready. Brianna, Enid, and the other women and girls had cooked the meal, and now they stood behind pots and pans, serving their hungry friends. When everyone had been served, Brianna dished up her own food and sat with Mikhil and Fagan.
“Oh, I wish the Creator would just hurry up,” Fagan was saying. “I hate growing up and watching my siblings grow up in this awful world. I pray that my children’s children would live to see the day when we shall be free from disobedience and Daron will disappear and his hold on the world will vanish forever.”
“You do not think redemption will come in your lifetime?” Mikhil asked.
“I wish it would, but I do not dare to hope for that. I do think the Creator will allow us to be free from Fàolan in my life, even if it happens when I am an old man. Oh that the Creator would have mercy on His people!”
“Ah, but if we did something to get rid of Fàolan, maybe it would not be quite such a long time we would have to wait.”
“Have you forgotten so quickly what your father encouraged us to do?”
“Nay, but if the Creator gives us strength so that we run and not grow weary and walk but not faint, then Fàolan’s army could not stand against our strength.”
“Aye, but I do not think that is what that passage means,” Brianna broke into the conversation, “For that would not be trusting and waiting on the Creator, which is the first part of the promise, ‘for they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.’ Taking things into our own hands is not waiting on the Lord, and then the rest of the promise is void.”
“Aye, but maybe the way the Creator will rid Cathonys of Fàolan is by warfare, and then we would be waiting for Him rather than on Him.”
“Maybe we can do both,” Fagan countered, “and if He wished us to fight, I believe He would make that clear to us.”
“Maybe some of us feel that He has already made it clear and that we are being slow to action.”
“Search your heart, Mikhil, make sure it is the Creator and not Daron you are hearing and acting upon.”
“Are you implying that I listen and succumb to Daron to such a great extent?” Mikhil asked defensively.
“Nay, only guarding my friend from the traps that Daron sets up. Judge for yourself whether or not these things are excellent.”
“Aye,” Mikhil said soberly.
“And may He grant clarity to us all.”
Fidgeting slightly when she sensed the tension between her brother and friend, Brianna changed the subject. “How are your studies going, Mikhil?”
Both boys shot Brianna a grateful glance, and then Mikhil answered her question. “Ach, what studies?” He asked. “I have no time for language and mathematics any more. I read what news I can get my hands on, and debate and listen to the goings on in the world often. But apart form that my education consists of chores, farm work, and helping my mother and father with my brothers, and protecting my sister. However, I don’t mind, I never cared much for mathematics or language in the first place, so a break from it is very welcome. And father purchased some horses from Byshan last week. They should be here any day now, and then I will be even busier training them. Ah, well, Jotham and Connor will be glad to help.” He glanced over to where his brothers and other younger boys were playing ball.
“What will you name them?” Brianna asked.
“I will have to wait and see. Maybe you can come over and I’ll let you and Eliana name them.”
Brianna smiled and then Eliana and Brianna’s friend Tabitha joined the group. For a while, they sat in silence, surveying the group gathered deep in the woods. Children ran around playing games with each other, girls sat in circles talking while the boys played games with a ball, mothers shared recipes, patterns, and stories, while the men discussed the Law and present issues in the Kingdom of Cathonys. Bardan stood at a distance, talking with an older woman, Elonya. Elonya was well known in Poná as a woman of wisdom and a healer. On her shoulder always perched her pet squirrel. Elonya had rescued the squirrel when he was a baby and healed him. Since then the squirrel had never left her side. She and Bardan were a strange pair together – both slightly eccentric old people who had lived alongside those who had seen the beginning of the world. Many of the children loved Elonya but feared Bardan and the young girls liked to listen to Elonya’s stories and words of wisdom.
Tabitha broke the silence. “Guess what?” She said.
“I don’t know,” Eliana answered, shaking her head, her dark brown curls bouncing.
“Mama is going to have another baby!”
“Congratulations!” Brianna said. “But you’re really going to have your hands full now!”
“Aye, I know!” Tabitha agreed. She was fifteen and the oldest of ten, soon to be eleven, children. “But just the same, I can hardly wait! James is already two, and I miss having a baby around the house.”
“Just come visit us and help out with Ness when you miss a baby,” Fagan suggested. “With Grady and Keelin around making trouble all of the time, Mama is always cleaning up a mess… but I guess it’s probably the same in your house.”
“In which of our houses is that not true?” Mikhil laughed. He playfully tugged Eliana’s curls. “Even with Eliana already eight, we still have our fair share of messes.”
“And every one of those is the boys’ fault,” Eliana reminded Mikhil.
“Because Eliana is our perfect little golden girl,” he teased.
“Ye overdo it, Mikhil.”
“Brianna, Fagan!” Enid called from the edge of the clearing.
“Ah, we have to go,” Fagan said, excusing him and Brianna from the circle. “We will see you all next week, if not before.”
Fagan and Ahearn waved to Mikhil as they left the market. A few seconds later, Fagan stopped in front of another booth. He picked up a dark green ribbon that was for sale. Winking at his brother, he pulled a coin out of his pocket and purchased the ribbon.
“For Brianna,” he whispered.
Ahearn smiled. “Wait until you have a sweetheart, Fagan, the poor girl will be so spoiled with gifts and favors that she won’t know what to do with them all.”
Fagan turned bright red. “Well, I still have a while until I’m old enough to marry, and until then, I have three sisters and a mother to care for and love.”
Ahearn’s smile widened to a grin. “You’re a good brother.”
“I am part of a great family with wonderful parents who have trained us well in the ways of the Creator.”
“Aye, we are truly blessed.”
Suddenly Fagan stopped walking, his head cocked as if he were straining to hear something.
“What is it?” Ahearn asked.
“Someone is screaming.” Fagan handed his bag of supplies to Ahearn and ran in the direction of the noise. It was hard to hear over the hubbub of the market, but Fagan heard the sound of trouble clearly enough to go after it. When he arrived on the scene, he saw a man holding a young woman, another man stealing the baskets she was selling at her booth.
“Stop it!” Fagan shouted. The men laughed and glanced at Fagan skeptically, then ignored him. Ahearn ran up behind Fagan.
“Be careful, Fagan,” he warned.
“I gotta stop them,” Fagan told his brother. He ran into the fight, dealing a punch to the one stealing the baskets. The other man let the woman go and ran to help his accomplice. Fagan struggled to guard his back and fight at the same time. He felt a fist slam into his cheek, but then he kicked the man’s leg, knocking him down onto the ground. The man scrambled up and ran, grabbing a woven basket on the way out. His accomplice followed, leaving Fagan alone. Fagan gathered up the other baskets and handed them back to the woman.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“You’re welcome, ma’am. My parents have always taught me to defend women from those who would do them harm. Usually I just protect my sisters, but it is an honor for me to have rescued a lady.”
“Well, I am very sorry to have disturbed your shopping. I was just starting to pack up and go home for dinner when the two men came and started stealing my baskets. I tried to stop them, but then the one held on to me and made it so I could not do anything.”
“It was my pleasure, madam. Just to be safe, may my brother and I escort you home?”
“I would appreciate that very much.”
Once all of the baskets were placed back in their places inside the booth, the woman closed the roll-down wooden door and locked it. Fagan took his bags back from Ahearn, and they set out to the woman’s home.
“Your parents seem to have taught you well,” she said. “I have a brother, but he could care less about protecting me and would rather I had not been born.”
“It is not so much my parents doing as that of the Creator. They wish to train us to follow His laws and pursue excellence as He has commanded us. Part of that is living as a family in a way that brings glory to the Creator.”
“You and your family follow the Creator?”
“There have been times in my life when I would like to learn more about the Creator’s laws.”
“We meet in the woods on Sundays. You would be welcome to join us, ma’am,” Ahearn offered.
“I think I may take you up on that sometime, for recently my interest in the Creator has grown even more. Again, thank you, gentlemen, but this is my home. I enjoyed speaking with you and hope to see you again.”
“Our pleasure, ma’am. Goodbye.”
The woman stopped outside of her house and went inside. Fagan and Ahearn kept walking homeward, in silence until Ahearn entered the house.
“Guess what Fagan did, Mama?” Ahearn asked, approaching Enid and Brianna, who were cooking their dinner.
“He carried the bags all the way home?” Enid guessed, knowing that usually Fagan did not like to carry everything home.
“No, he defended the basket maker from robbers!”
Brianna looked up from the kitchen table where she was chopping tomatoes and smiled at Fagan. “I want the whole story at dinner,” she said.
“You’ll get it, though I doubt Fagan will tell the whole thing.”
Fagan put the bags down and fished in his pocket for the ribbon. “Whether I tell the whole thing or not, I think Ahearn is a better storyteller than I and more suited to tell you what happened.” He stepped behind Brianna, slipping the ribbon behind her hair and tying it. “And I saw a beautiful dark green ribbon, and had to get it for you, ’Na.”
“Thank you, Fagan.” Brianna said, turning to give Fagan a quick hug. Then he picked Ness up from her cradle and disappeared into the boys’ room to finish his studies while watching Ness.
After dinner, Ahearn told the story of what had happened that afternoon at the market. Fagan smiled at Ahearn’s sound effects – both the screaming and the punches – and grimacing, felt the purple bruise on his cheek when Ahearn was describing the fight.
“It sounds like our little tangle-headed boy is turning into a man,” Nigel said, putting his hand on Fagan’s shoulder.
“Thank you, da,” Fagan replied, looking down at the table, embarrassed. “You and mama have raised me well.”
Nigel looked around the table at his family. “The Creator has truly blessed our family. And today is just one more example of how living for the Creator can show His glory to those who have not seen it yet.”
Nigel pushed his chair back, looking out the front window. “Time for bed, little ones.”
Brenna, Grady, and Keelin ran to their father and sat on his lap and around his feet, waiting for a story from their father.
“Once upon a time, in the faraway kingdom of Aquis, in a city called Kelendra, there was a young man who loved horses very much. He took good care of the horses in his father’s stable, and loved them almost as much as his sisters…”
Chapter Five: The Miron
Ahearn came running into the house, his face flushed red. He was breathing heavily. Behind him, Fagan stepped in, but his eyes were very serious and not sparkling as they usually did.
“Mama? Da? Brianna?” Ahearn shouted, his voice filled with a mix of urgency, sadness, and fear.
Nigel, Enid, and the rest of the household came running to the front room, leaving whatever they had been working on behind.
“We need to pray,” Ahearn said.
“Mikhil ran away to join the Miron,” Fagan explained grimly. Brianna glanced up at her brother, trying to read Fagan’s face. He shook his head subtly to tell her that he did not wish to talk about it now, maybe later, after he had had time on his own to think.
Quickly, almost routinely, the family made a circle in the middle of the room and joined hands. They had been praying and pleading with the Creator so often lately that spontaneous family prayers were almost as common as Nigel’s after dinner stories.
“Oh Creator, you know Mikhil’s heart. You know where he stands before you, and you know what he intends to do. But God, we also know that you still love Mikhil even though he has gone against your law. Show him your mercy and love, guard over his live and keep him safe in your arms to bring him home safely,” Nigel prayed.
“And God, comfort his family,” Enid added.
Fagan stiffened as they finished praying. “Da, may I go outside?”
Nigel nodded, and Fagan trudged out of the house, shoulders bent and burdened. Brianna was easily able to guess where he was going – the tree for the three of them – Fagan, Mikhil, and Brianna – had built not even a year ago. It was their hideaway, and whenever any of them had to think, they would go there. Brianna wondered how often Mikhil had been there in the last few days.
An hour later, Fagan was still away in the tree house.
“Mama, I’m going to go out to Fagan,” Brianna said, standing up from the kitchen table where she and Enid were altering dresses for Brenna. Enid nodded, and Brianna slipped out the back door. Her feet scudded along the past to the weeping willow tree behind their house, where the hideout was. She sighed when she reached it, for Fagan had pulled the rope ladder up with him.
“Fagan!” Brianna said.
“’Na, is it just you?” Fagan asked quietly.
“Yes, I’m alone, ‘tis just me.”
The ladder dropped down from the tree house, and Brianna carefully climbed up. She sat down next to Fagan, leaning her back against the wall. One look at him told her that he had been crying. “What have you been thinking about?” She asked.
“Everything, I guess.” Fagan shrugged. “Mostly I’ve just been praying for Mikhil, for Cathonys, for all of Edaled, really.”
Brianna tried to give him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry… about Mikhil… about everything. I wish we could have stopped him some how. I’m going to miss him.”
“Do you ever wonder, Brianna, what things would be like if everyone still followed the Creator’s laws?”
“Meaning if there was no sin?”
“All the time, Fagan.”
“Mikhil would still be here if Fàolan had not disobeyed the Creator.”
“I don’t think it was Fàolan as much as it was King Kyle.”
“Maybe it was both.”
They were both quiet for a few minutes.
“What… what do you think is going to happen to Mikhil?” Fagan’s voice trembled, and Brianna laid her head on Fagan’s shoulder and he rested his head on hers.
“I don’t know.” A few tears welled up in Brianna’s eyes, and although at first she tried to push them away, she then let them fall freely.
“I don’t want him to… I don’t want him to die.” Fagan whispered.
“Nobody said he’s going to die.”
“No, but I can feel it. It’s like that feeling you get when something big is about to happen… when your stomach feels all jumbled and your breathing gets heavy and you just… feel it. Oh, Brianna, it hurts, it hurts so much!”
Brianna lifted her head from his shoulder and scooted closer. Fagan wrapped her in a great bear hug and she grasped his arm comfortingly.
“I wish I knew what to say, Fagan. Mama and da would know. Do you want me to get them?”
Fagan shook his head. “No, no. I just need you to stay here right now.”
“I wish I knew what to say,” Brianna repeated. “You’ve been there for me so many times when I needed you most, and now you need me and I’m not doing anything.”
“We don’t always need words, ‘Na. Sometimes it’s the silence that helps, just to know in your heart that someone else is feeling the same things you feel and wants those feelings to go away and for things to change.”
The two siblings lapsed into silence, and both of them sat there, Brianna in her brother’s arms, Fagan holding her and his chin resting on top of her head. She felt warm, wet tears falling onto her head, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
Dear Creator… comfort Fagan…she hugged him more tightly. And bring Mikhil home, God. Please… bring him home.
Mikhil stopped outside of a wooden building. He opened and closed his sweaty hands. Is this really what I want to do? He asked himself. Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand balled in a fist and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a stern, monotone voice from inside said.
Mikhil pushed the door open slowly. Well, no turning back now. His heart pounded against his chest, and he swallowed back a lump in his throat. His stomach felt funny, and his legs suddenly felt like jellyfish. “I was told recruits for the Miron were to come here.” He said finally.
The man who had spoken nodded, his bushy eyebrows shading his dark eyes and giving him a somewhat sinister look. “Aye, you have been told correctly. What is your name?”
“And you wish to join the Miron because you want to throw off the iron fist of Fàolan and believe that force is the way to throw it off?”
“Yes, sir.” Mikhil wiped his hands on his tunic, and then clenched them at his sides.
“Outside there is a small storage shed. There is a trapdoor on the floor, and underneath it, there are stairs that will lead you down to the underground barracks. We march out in two day’s time. Be ready.”
“Yes, sir.” Mikhil turned and left, following the man’s instructions. As he descended the stairs, he heard people sharpening swords and a faint murmur of conversation. Coming off the stairs, he saw around two hundred men – albeit some would still have been considered boys by their mothers – cleaning swords, making arrows, and waxing bowstrings. At the sound of Mikhil’s footsteps, they looked up. Mikhil started when he felt them all looking at him. Awkwardly, he spoke. “I’m Mikhil.”
A few men nodded, but most snickered or murmured to their neighbors.
A tall man with black hair and a black beard approached Mikhil, offering him a bow and arrows or a sword. “You choose, weapon of choice.”
Mikhil reached out and took the sheathed sword, nodding his thanks.
“Find an empty bunk and it’s yours. If you can’t find one, find someone to double up with.”
“Thanks,” Mikhil walked through the room, searching for an empty bunk and looking at the strange and somewhat motley gathering of men and boys. He locked eyes with a few of the boys, some as young as twelve.
Fear. They’re afraid, Mikhil thought. They want to get out of here…but they think they have something to prove. Is that why I’m here? Am I here because I feel I have to prove something, am I? That I’m not a cowardly farmer who is knocked off of a tree bridge by one a year younger than him? Or is there something more than that I’m here for? Finding an empty bunk, he sat down on it, and then drew his blade. How long will we have to fight for freedom? What will it be like when we find it?
“Hullo.” Someone sat down next to him on the bed, and Mikhil glanced sideways. It was a boy, small and thin, with red hair and freckles. “Name’s Marek,” he said.
“You know my name already,” Mikhil replied, somewhat bluntly.
“That was my father’s sword,” Marek whispered.
Mikhil sheathed the sword quickly. “What happened?”
“I don’t know exactly what happened, they wouldn’t let me know. They brought him back one day after a skirmish. I had to stay here with a few others and guard the hideout, just in case. They didn’t tell me what happened, but I saw both sword cuts and arrow marks in him.” Marek stared at the floor. “My father was a very brave man.”
“I’m sure you’re very brave, too.”
“Not like that,” Marek shook his head and fiddled with the fletching on an arrow. “I’m scared to die.”
“We all are.”
“Not all of us. Some want to die.”
“Look at them, Marek. Do they look like they’re longing to go out into battle and get killed?”
“No, but they’ve told me. They want to escape from Fàolan’s rule, and they think this is the only way to do it.”
“Do you agree?”
“It’s the only way I can see right now, but there’s got to be a way to do it without people dying, don’t you think?”
“I’ve been told love can fight a hard battle. I’ve never seen it happen, though, and it confuses me somewhat. I don’t understand how a feeling inside of you can be strong.”
“Love is strong. But it shatters easily. It shattered in me when they brought my dad back. Now I can’t find it in me to love, only hate.”
The young boy's words surprised Mikhil, who was silent briefly, then spoke. “I’ll trade you swords, if you want your father’s.”
Marek shook his head. “I would, but I’m an archer. It’s safer that way and easier to some extent.”
Mikhil pushed the sword onto the bed. “I grew up fighting with sticks with my brothers and best friend, just for the thrill of it. I was always better with the bow, but I think I was thinking of my friend Fagan when I chose the sword. But now I don’t see any thrills in fighting, only danger.”
“I think that might be part of life.”
Mikhil locked eyes with Marek, looking as deep as he could into Marek. “How old are you?” He asked suddenly.
“How long have you been here?”
“Two years, same as my papa.”
“I don’t know they’d take you so young.”
Marek shrugged. “Just gotta be able to do a man’s work. That’s all they call for if you’re not a grown man.”
“You think very deeply for a young man,” Mikhil said.
Marek looked startled. “Thanks… I guess war makes us all think.”
Two weeks had passed since Mikhil left Poná. His family had been deeply hurt, Eliana especially. Her other brothers, especially Connor and Jotham, tried to help her by attempting to fill Mikhil’s places around the house and in the town, but for days Eliana sat in silence. The horses from Byshan came only a few days after Mikhil left, and Brianna had gone over to name them, trying to coax Eliana into speaking. Elonya visited Mikhil’s family almost every day, sitting with Eliana and holding her, letting her squirrel climb all over the little girl. But nothing seemed to help. The pain of her brother being gone to a cause Eliana knew was not right and knew could potentially kill him was too much for her, the grief of it went too deep for her to work out of just yet. All that she really understood was that her brother Mikhil, her hero, her protector, her best friend, was gone, and that he might never come back again. She would stay up late into the night, staring out her window. Sometimes out in one of their fields she would stand up suddenly, and her lips would form Mikhil’s name, as if she saw him. Then she would fall down and begin to cry, and Connor would carry her back into the house.
Fagan became quieter, as well. He spent a lot of time talking to Nigel about Mikhil, the Miron, and Fàolan, and threw himself into his studies as an escape from the world around him. He stood alone and aloof at the meetings, listening attentively and taking to heart the things that were being said, but he could not find much joy in living any more, not now with his comrade gone. Often in their house, Brianna would sit next to Fagan and the two of them would talk and rest. They spent less time out in the woods and more time in the house, reading the law, thinking, and praying. Brianna spent more time with Brenna and Ness, and Fagan with his brothers. They became a more closely-knit family, the grief of Mikhil running away hitting them all quite hard and painfully.
One day that all seemed to change, though.