I will never leave you nor forsake you…Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” -Joshua 1: 5, 9
Wooden ladders and rope bridges dot the landscape here and there where they connect the varying levels of the three deep, woody ravines, making traversing the mossy hills and boulders a much easier feat than it would be otherwise. The faint smell of moist dirt and rain in the air permeates the green glow from the sun shining through the leaves of the forest canopy.
A flowing creek, created by the recent rain, flows down the middle ravine. I could see down it for miles if it didn’t curve sharply about a mile down.
It is somewhat settling, regardless of my current predicament.
I feel almost complacent as I lean my head back and inhale deeply. A soft breeze blows through the trees and dances around me where I stand on an inset balcony of a two story wood and stone cottage overlooking the green ravines where they join together. I can see pretty much everything; which isn’t that much considering the fact that every structure is built into the walls of the branching ravines, but the view stretches on into a dark green eternity. The moss covered doors blend in with the surroundings, making me feel completely alone. Along with no visible doors, so too are the people absent, even though it is mid-morning.
A babbling brook flows under a wooden bridge right outside the door of my prison. It sings a relaxing melody into the atmosphere. The cottage sits right on the edge of a small cliff about two hundred feet over the ravines, and the brook flows over the side of the rock ledge, and out of sight into a small pool below where the creek ends as well. The water must be taken elsewhere, maybe an underground cavern, because the pool is not big enough to compensate two water sources feeding it. I only know it is there because I saw it on the way in; I can hear the water crashing below faintly from here, but it is the only thing I can’t see it from my perch on the balcony.
I shouldn’t be feeling complacent. I can feel the inner chastising waking me out of a stupor. I have my peace, thin as it is at the moment, but the familiar smells of home surrounding me make it a little too easy to keep it together. Something is off.
This isn’t my home. Not my home at all. I want to continue daydreaming, but I know I can’t keep standing here, basking in the familiar smells, and near identical sights that so remind me of an easier time. Getting complacent is dangerous. When you get complacent, you get careless and lazy. Mistakes are made.
Out of nowhere a fog starts to blow in with a strong gust of wind, and suddenly the familiarity is damning as the wind stirs up a flurry of earthy smells so strong that it overwhelms my senses. It disorients me and I lean against the stone wall to my left for support as my knees get weak. The stone is cold despite the muggy atmosphere, so I rest a hot cheek against it with a sigh as I try to clear my head, but it is easier said than done.
An ache I have been managing to keep under wraps pokes at the thin veil of inner calm and peace keeping me together as the atmosphere starts to press down on me, trying to suffocate me. I switch cheeks with another sigh of pleasure as the cooling sensation spreads across my cheeks like a nice breeze.
The ache becomes heavier as the minutes tick by, prodding at my sanity as I tell myself there isn’t anything to do but wait. I just have to hold it together.
“Anytime now.” I remind myself in a croaky voice. I haven’t spoken much in days, so I clear my throat quietly. It feels wrong to disturb the atmosphere with my hacking, like it might anger and tempt it to weigh down heavier on me.
An anxious anger start to rise up inside of me, taunting my flesh. “You can’t let it out. Not now.” I murmur to myself, my quiet throaty voice is lost to the wind that gently gusts around me, blowing the heavy fog all the closer to my prison.
A heaviness settles around my shoulders, just as an arrogant voice, smooth and dripping with honey, begins to taunt my mind.
If not now, then when? These people are going to kill you. Might as well cause a show out of it. Let them know how you really feel.
Shivers go down my spine and even though I know what I am dealing with, a small part of me wants to do exactly like he says. It makes sense. I AM angry. But I have to remind myself that it doesn’t mean I can lash out foolishly.
“That isn’t going to help.” I bite back defiantly. I know his games. The sound of my voice reverberates in the thick air before dissipating in the wind with a soft echo.
And how do you know that? You can’t deny that you are angry at this situation. You have already admitted it.
Snake. Using my own thoughts against me. I hate him.
“In anger do not sin, and do not let the devil get a foothold.” I retort, trying to keep the very anger and frustration I speak of inside, pawing at its cage, locked up tight and out of sight.
I know what the ‘good book’ says girly. Don’t quote it at me. I want to know what YOU feel. And don’t think I overlooked the fact you skipped over the part that says ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ You’ve been angry for days.
“Stop twisting everything! Why don’t you—” I cut myself off before I fall into his game of cat and mouse. I know it all too well. He will poke until I cave, and then he will have won. Then I won’t be able to contain the beast locked away inside.
What was that? I know you weren’t done with that thought. Afraid of something dearie?
I know I can’t win an argument here, which is undoubtedly what I will get myself into. Finally, I relent to what I should have done at the first sign of trouble.
“Father—” I barely get the first word out before I feel the dark presence of my enemy lift. The weight of the atmosphere is still heavy, but it doesn’t seem as bad with him gone.
I take a shuddering breath as a guard, Connor I think is his name, quietly opens my bedroom door with a polite knock and walks up slowly behind me. “Dakari.” His voice tickles my ears as I watch a crow swoop down into the wet ravine below me, plucking something from the ground near the stream flowing over jagged rocks. The bird takes off with a worm in its mouth just as the fog reaches the intersection of the three ravines and starts to flood the outer two with fog as well.
Both creatures are free from the heaviness that still settles around me, and even if it isn’t as heavy as it was a moment before, I still can’t help but wish I were the worm. The thing’s problems seem so much smaller in my mind, even though we will both have the same ending today.
If only someone would come pluck me out of this place as well, so that I might be completely free of it, the rest of it might seem more bearable. I know the weight of the fog will be nearly unbearable if it doesn’t break me completely if it actually reaches me.
A frown pulls at the corners of my mouth at the sound of Connor calling my name again, trying to politely get my attention, rather than forcing me into facing him, like so many of the others who I have had the displeasure to meet along this horrific journey have done; last night only being the most recent string of violence acts against me.
I may not have always completely followed orders the first time, but it didn’t warrant the ferocity I received from pretty much every person I have encountered over the past days. I breathe in a little too deeply and a sharp pain shoots through my side, reminding me of the bruised, maybe even cracked, rib on my right side. Only one of the many aches and pains I am barely managing to ignore.
I gently run my tongue over my busted bottom lip, courtesy of last night’s guard not liking my ‘lack of gratitude’ when I told him not to touch me after he brought me dinner. The plate still sits untouched on the dresser, shining on a silver platter fit for a Queen, where he left it before advancing on me for his ‘reward’. I am grateful that Connor made a timely appearance when he did. My dignity is already fragile. The small blood stain from my lip still makes a blemish on the white rug in the middle of the room, where he all but pounced me after knocking me to the ground, face down, but it could have been so much worse.
Reminiscing isn’t helping my mindset, I realize, and I change train of thought before I invite the previous voice back in.
I haven’t figured out why I am being held for slaughter in such a beautiful place other than maybe to make me long for life. Make dying worse somehow? I stopped trying to figure it out, and just enjoyed the view after the first night.
I take a deep breath and turn to acknowledge the olive skinned man with a cordial look on my face. He hasn’t taken advantage of the ‘prisoner on the hill’. It doesn’t matter what side he serves. He never did anything to hurt me, and after last night even deserves my gratitude.
Or does it matter? I ask myself mentally, doubt still trying to wedge a foot in the door of my heart.
No, it doesn’t. There is the voice I long to hear. It is like a drink of cold water on a scorching day in the desert.
“Ok then.” I say aloud, but not to Connor. He raises a brow in question, but doesn’t have time to say anything when I ask, “Yeah?” directly at him. I have to look up to make eye contact as he stands directly in front of me. He stands at around 6’4″; an entire 9″ taller than myself, and it makes me feel quite insignificant, as well as slightly unsettled to see him right behind me, standing so close.
He doesn’t mean any harm though, I can see it in his eyes. The golden-brown orbs hold a sad light as he quietly tells me, “It’s time.”
I look down at the shackles in his large hands, and I can’t stop the bolt of fear that shoots through my very core.
Don’t be afraid, child. I am with you.
My lips tremble as overdue tears threaten to steal my vision. Sucking in a shaky breath, I slowly hold my hands out to him. Thankfully they are only shaking a little. Almost enough to completely ignore. Connor does me a favor and doesn’t mention it if he does notice.
I suddenly have the urge to crack his head against the stone wall next to me, shedding innocent blood in this beautiful green haven I have been placed in and make a run for it. But I can’t. Running away is cowardly, and I am not a coward. Not to mention how wrong on my part it would be to hurt the only person who has treated me like a human-being.
Thou shalt not murder. The reminder shoves the vile thought from my mind.
Of course ‘murder’ is the very thing that has me here to begin with, even if I’m not the one who actually killed anyone. My accusers are adamant that it was me, but only because they are using me as a scapegoat to get away with their nefarious deeds. I only tried to uncover them.
I start getting worked up on how bad I have been wronged, and I have to make myself stop and focus on that soft voice that says, Be still, daughter. I’ve got this.
I have to put all of my faith in that voice.
My father’s voice.
His is the voice that breaks through even the dimmest moments to point me in the right direction with a loving touch of peace. It may not look good now, but I have to believe that something better is coming if I obey. He has never, and will never, lead me astray.
The cold, tarnished metal of the shackles sends shivers up my bare forearms, exposed by the rolled up sleeves of the dingy white oversized long-sleeved top I wear, but after the hot, sticky air, it is refreshing. I just have to keep finding the good in the bad, and then everything will be okay, right?
I stare over Connor’s head as he kneels down to fasten the ankle shackles, and stare into the mirror hanging on the wall in the bedroom, opposite the open double doors that lead out here to the balcony. My hazel-green eyes glisten with pooling tears as my gaze drifts to the trees reflected behind me.
The familiarity becomes a peace again as Connor locks the shackles in place where they settle around my ankles, the cold seeping through the thin foot wraps wrapped around my feet and over my worn pant legs, halfway up my calves. The sheer cloth fails to cover my toes, which peak through the layers wrapped around the balls of my feet.
A chain connects my feet and hand shackles, making walking difficult, even though I am not new to the experience. These are probably the very same shackles I was brought here in. I stumble on the first step I take as Connor stands and leads me forward, grabbing my upper left arm. His grasp keeps me upright, otherwise I would probably hit the ground as the chain tension snaps at my hands and feet with even the slightest overstep. The rough metal bites into my flesh through the material around my ankles with each awkward step.
Connor stops with a calm sigh and pulls out another piece of chain from his pocket and without a word, lengthens the chain connecting my hands and feet, making it easier for me to walk and go down the stairs. The thought of tackling the ladders in the ravine like this again is still slightly unnerving, but I am grateful for the small favor. I was mostly dragged up here the first time, so I didn’t have a chance to trip, but Connor would never do the same to me, so making it easier for me to walk is a blessing.
Arm aching from Connor’s firm grip, I grit my teeth, and try not to complain as he guides me from the balcony, through the quant, sparsely furnished bedroom I’ve been locked in for three days, and down a set of hardwood stairs that lead to a kitchen/den area decorated in a deep burgundy and cherry wood.
As I step off the last step, a richly dressed man, who I must have missed arriving somehow, stands from his seat by an open window, situated next to a fire pit set in stone that makes up the stone wall on the inset balcony above. A greenish blue flame burns without light and I am struck by how cold the stone was, when it should have been warm with a fire going.
Then I realize a cool breeze is wafting around the room, rather than heat, and I am perplexed, but I don’t have time to question it before the man is speaking to me.
“Ah, finally we get to meet.” the man says jovially. He has a dark brown head of hair that is slightly unkempt for the way he is richly dressed. A stirring in the pit of my stomach starts as soon as he speaks.
Wolf. My eyes narrow slightly as I hear just one word. That’s all I need.
“And you are?” I ask politely, despite the urge to retort back with a snide comment. Jewels shimmer around the collar of his overcoat in the sunlight managing to peak through the trees and in through the window he stands by. A glowing bejeweled man would be endearing if I wasn’t so displeased by the arrogance radiating off of him. And that gut feeling. I can’t forget about that. It has never been wrong before.
“Madam, my name is of no importance in this matter. What I am here for is to arrange your full pardon. Please sit.” He gives me what should be a winning smile, and motions for me to sit in the chair he just vacated; however, his chivalry doesn’t win him the acceptance I’m sure he hoped his smile might urge in.
“I think I will stand, sir.” I say carefully, not wanting to anger him, but unable to acquiesce to his request if I am to stay on top of this. And then there is the tingling in my feet that has me firmly planted in my spot. I don’t mention that part out loud, though.
His overly happy charm is unfaltering although he does seem to change track of how he was about to go about whatever he is getting to. “Alright then. Well what do you say?” he asks expectantly, as if we have been talking all day, and I should already know just what he is talking about.
My brow furrows as I take a deep breath, and release it with a quiet sigh as the words come to me. “What do I say to what, exactly? You speak of a pardon, but I have never seen you before in my life. I don’t tend to make company with individuals of your stature. It tires me.”
The man chuckles heartily. “I think I like you.” he says as he approaches me, stopping only inches from me. I can feel his breath on my face, and my skin crawls as I think of yet another man putting his hands on me; however, he doesn’t touch me, much to my relief.
“My dear, I am a very wealthy man, and we all know what money can do. Diamonds, gold, jewels of every color. It could buy you the entire world.” He pauses for a moment for what I can only guess is for emphasis. “Or it could buy your freedom. You are to be executed, yes?” His words are blunt and straight to the point, striking a nerve in me. I don’t move or say anything. I just watch him with a raised brow.
He doesn’t wait too long for a response. “I can buy you your freedom. All you have to do is say yes.” I have to restrain the hysterical laughter that bubbles in my throat.
I see clearly through his façade; he isn’t as charming as he thinks he is.
My heart is thumping erratically as my mouth moves, nearly completely against my own will, but my voice never waivers. “Sir, you can’t expect me to fall for that.” I say, unable to help myself, and his eyebrows raise in surprise. “If you buy my freedom, you own it. I am not a plaything for the lusts of your flesh that I can see in your eyes, even now. I’ve got something much better waiting for me than you. Thanks, but no thanks.”
Connor shifts uncomfortably beside me, hand still on my arm.
I watch the deep frown forming on the man’s face turn to anger, and I wait for the retaliation as his hand draws back as if he would very much like to slap me for my bluntness. And he very well could. I am only a prisoner. A death row prisoner for that matter. My rights don’t matter anymore. Of course Connor may have a different view. I do feel safer with him standing here.
Something restrains him, and after a moment, he drops his hand to his side before he speaks. “Oh yeah, and what is that?”
A small smirk appears on my face as I say with an air of authority, “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.” I have to look down at my feet to keep from falling into an all out fit of laughter as something wells up inside of me as he takes a step back, as if I pushed him. It takes me a minute before I realize it is Joy springing up inside of me.
Confusion crosses his features as he mulls over my words. After a moment he speaks. “You’re one of those religious people, are you not?” he asks, collecting himself with a squaring of his collar.
My face relaxes as I look at him seriously. My lips start to tingle with what feels like static electricity. “Religion has nothing to do with it sir. I’ve been through hell, but I know my God’s voice. It’s called relationship.” His eyes widen in shock as if I just slapped him. He stands speechless for what seems like ages, just looking at me. I can’t read the look on his face. It could be anything.
The seconds tick by until finally he comes to the conclusion he was working on. “Ok then. I’m done here. If you will excuse me.” Without another word, the man leaves the house with a flick of his unseasonable velvet-lined coat, leaving me and Connor alone in the house.
“How do you suppose he wears that velvet in this weather?” I ask Connor nonchalantly, using humor as a guise for my frantic emotions raging inside of me.
He looks at me dumbstruck. “Did you feel that?” he asks in return, completely missing my question. He is clearly shaken by something.
“Feel what?” I ask, even though I already know what he is talking about. Yes, I did feel the electricity-like pulses in the air as I spoke, but I want to hear him say it. That may be pride rearing its ugly head, but I am only human.
“It was like static. With every word you spoke, it seemed to crackle in the air.” He looks fearful. “Why would you turn him down?” I stare at him for a moment, actually unable to speak, and not meaning to look unfazed. I almost want to say “I don’t know”, but that isn’t really the truth.
“You didn’t feel it?” he asks again when I don’t answer him. He stops talking, mouth agape, as he tries to figure it out.
He is unnerved by what he doesn’t understand. I get it. I don’t even understand it half of the time. I decide to only answer one question after a moment’s hesitation. “I would rather be dead than indentured to a mere man of this world.” I think my response only raises more questions in him, but he doesn’t ask anything further as he guides me out of the house.
The guard outside the door whistles at me, but Connor curtly turns his head, and gives the man a look that shuts him down as I keep looking straight ahead. We walk across the bridge and suddenly I can hear children playing down by the water below as their voices echo through the ravine. I must not have noticed the voices earlier, but I really don’t think I missed the noise. I’m sure it was silent, save the rushing water.
As we near the edge of the first level going down, the pool comes into sight, and I see a child catch sight of us in the midst of playing, and points a small accusing finger my way, alerting the rest of the children to the ‘evil’ woman their parents have undoubtedly told them about. I force the anger down again, even as the unrelenting prodding in my chest feels as though it will consume me. It feels separate from me somehow though, even though it is inside of me.
My ears start to ring as we make our way down the ladders, and Connor’s guiding hand on my arm is no longer announced by a sensation, just a pressure. I feel nothing, not even the prodding in my chest, as everything starts to seem more surreal the closer we get to the bottom of the ravine. It feels as if the world is spinning, but everything is staying still, including the fog that has settled just out of reach.
The water hole disappears from sight again halfway down the last ladder, and I am glad of it. My toes squish in the thick layer of moss that literally coats everything down here as I step off the ladder, soaking the cloth around my feet with its moisture. Hopefully I won’t have to see it again. The accusing, beady little eyes of the children unsettle me, but before I can get too hopeful, Connor drags me straight for the corner I know leads to the children and their stares.
When we round the corner a sizeable crowd has gathered by the water. I don’t know how that many people got here so fast, or where they came from. Other than the guards and my one visitor, the children are the first people I have seen since my trial the first night I got here to be judged in front of the entire population.
The ringing in my ears drowns out the taunting and curses shouted at me from the mass of people though so that’s good. I do recognize the faces of a handful of my condemning jury with twisted faces of hatred shouting insults at me. The grimaces of hate makes them ugly as it warps their faces into crude contortions of their true selves.
Where did they all come from? I ask internally, confident in a response. I am not disappointed.
This is only to make your decision seem like the wrong one. Don’t turn back. Keep going.
Like I have a choice. I think childishly.
There is always a choice.
I sigh as I remember the first voice; the one who tried to coax me into pitching a fit and making a scene. I see now that it would only make me out to be the ‘Jezebel’ the people have claimed me to be if I vented my frustration with the whole situation now, especially in the manner that I know I would.
At least you can’t hear them.
I know, I know. Be grateful for the little things, I think, exasperated.
That’s it my child. I can hear the smirk in his voice.
To the right of the water hole, positioned in the center of the wall face holding up the house I have been locked in is a door, clearly distinguishable, because it is the only thing not covered in green moss. The stone is smooth and grey with overlapping square carvings stained with what looks like mud—or maybe dried blood? It’s morbid, but I can’t deny the carvings have a dark beauty to them in my ignorance.
Connor stops us at the door, pulling me close, and I gasp in surprise when he grabs my right wrist in his large hand, and centers my hand on a stone and marble pedestal that juts out from the wall to the right of the door. A small spike pierces straight through my palm before quickly disappearing back into the stone, eliciting a yelp of pain from my lips. I try to jerk away involuntarily, but Connor’s hand holds mine fast. He guides my now bleeding hand to the intricate carvings on the door, eye-level to himself. I have to stand on my tip-toes and stretch as far as the chain will let me. It is only just long enough.
A soft beam of light shoots from the point of contact with the blood, settling on Connor’s face for a moment before disappearing. I can only guess that it is scanning his eyes or something. A sigh emanates from around the edges of the door, and it opens slowly.
So it is blood, I think as a deep pain pulses outward from the puncture in my palm.
Blood magic. And they could have used both hands.
A shiver goes down my spine at the words, and I feel dirty even being near something so foul, much less being used by it. Connor has to force me through the door as I outwardly cringe away from the blood soaked door. I no longer find beauty in it.
I am too preoccupied with the blood magic, and pain coming from the hand I cradle to my chest to notice what is beyond the door before Connor pulls me through.
On the other side is not a cavern like what I expected. I was brought in a different way, and I expected this to be much the same, so to see an open town square, completely separate from the forest I was just in, scares and fascinates me all at the same time. I look back at the door to find a scarlet encrusted gate rather than a stone door. There is no pedestal or blood on this side. Only an obsidian wall that towers darkly over us.
“Where is the forest?” I ask aloud, and to myself.
Connor only answers with a short, “It’s an alternate reality.”, as he looks for the right way to go through the crowd, looking a little like he doesn’t really know where to go. I frown, confused. I’m not sure what he means.
Not forest. Prison.
Prison? I almost blurt out loud, but I manage to turn it into a cough. The cottage was my prison, but I found the rest of it very appealing, most of the time anyway. Or did I? Looking back now I realize I was miserable the entire time in all actuality, the parts I can even recall. I only thought I was content. I believed I had control of myself.
That is how it is designed.
The dragon has these peoples’ minds so twisted, they might as well be asleep, but you weakened his grip when you killed his mouthpiece. The position is open for someone who can free them.
That doesn’t really answer my question, and it confuses me. I didn’t kill anyone. But even though I don’t understand, I trust the voice, and I get a strong sense that I’m not walking to my death for nothing. Maybe someone else can come along and finish what I unwittingly started, whatever it may be.
I start to ponder what he means by ‘designed’, and I feel a creeping feeling come over me as I realize I was overtaken by daydreams of a better time when I should have been focused on the ‘now’ while I was in the green haze. The last few days are foggy in my head, and they don’t even seem real now that I am in a, what, different reality, like Connor said? Maybe that’s what he means by designed. It causes confusion and a fake sense of contentment allowing you to make do with horrible situations, like sleeping through a deadly storm, becoming detached, complacent, and stagnant rather than getting myself together, and then focusing on what is important. And what is important is not in the past.
They don’t know they are prisoners. The voice is so soft, I barely hear it over the crowd of people shuffling around me, whose faces I can’t even make out. They only know what they are taught, but they are taught only lies.
The thought hits me like a ton of bricks, and suddenly I feel sorry for them, completely forgetting my own problems. At least I am about to be free. Those people don’t even know where they are, or who they are for that matter. It’s sad.
You only thought your problems were bad. They don’t have me. Death or not.
Silent tears fall down my cheeks at His words. My heart aches as I realize I judged too quickly something I didn’t understand. In my heart I cursed those who cursed me, and tried to make myself feel better about it.
O’ Lord how I have been selfish. Forgive me.
There is always forgiveness for those who sincerely ask for it, daughter. Go forth, and keep your head up.
I wrote this a few years ago, and for those of you who were around when I first started trying to release Blood 4 Honor, you may remember it (although it has been ever so slightly edited). I originally thought it might make the cut for B4H, as either a prologue or an aha moment plot point, even though I did not write it with that intention (it was spawned from one of those spur of the moment needs to write something), but it never felt right. This morning the realization that I had written a short story hit me. Mind you, I have not read In The Valley in over a year, so it was quite sudden when I had this epiphany.
Dakari is a unisex name of African origin and means “Joy/Happiness”, and is not a name I have ever heard before I blurted it out this morning without a thought. Like every name I think to put in my writing, I looked up its meaning, and was astounded when it fit perfectly. Her namesake is the Joy she carries to the end.