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Monday, October 8, 2012

The Six

The waterfall gave life to the entire valley. Its blue-green cascades ran without pause through the heat of summer, the coolness of fall, the cold silence of winter, and the brightness of spring. The river below the falls painted a broad stroke across the fields. Every year the crops would take the moisture it freely provided and use power from the generous sun to create the gift of food offered to the people. These people lived simply, giving to the land by planting and tending the fields, but accepting much more than they gave, without ever thinking too much about the providence that made their living so free from burdens. They loved and married, feasted and laughed, dug ditches, and occasionally raised a barn. There were little problems, but the people quickly found their contentment again when these passed. If the wind blowing through the valley could carry the feelings of the people, there would be no region of the country that did not have secure happiness.

One day, early in autumn, some of the farmers looked up to see dark smoke rising up from one of the adjacent valleys. They wondered together briefly about the sight, but quickly forgot about it as the wind picked up and thinned the cloud as the day passed on. The next day, though, the thin tower of smoke had grown into a thick slate-colored cloud that dimmed the sunlight every few minutes. Now fear began to creep up into the people. They did not say with words that they were scared, but as they went about their daily tasks, they would stop and spend a few moments considering what evil might be below the pillar of soot that rose over the hills. The evening meal was shared in mostly silence. The younger children did not know enough to ask what was wrong; the older children could see the uncertainty in their parent's faces, and so did not ask.

The next day, the cloud was less thick, and the sun was only dimmed occasionally. The people hoped that perhaps whatever had caused the smoke would pass without explanation or consequence. In the village at the opening of the valley, the farmers were preparing for the day's work. They were quiet with the sleepiness that lingers into the first part of the day. A few were eating, some were getting the horses and tools ready. A few eyes wandered to the southeast and could see something moving, though they could not tell what it was. They began pointing and speaking, and more of the villagers stopped what they were doing to look. There seemed to be small puffs of thin smoke drifting up from the horizon. This time, however, the smoke was not coming from the next valley. Instead, it was close enough to be coming from the very fields they meant to tend that day. There were also smaller black shapes moving in the distance. The true form of the shapes could not be discerned, but the villagers with sharper eyes could see the cadence of their movement they were bobbing up and down at the frequency of a horse's gallop.

By now, all of the morning tasks had stopped, and worried questions began to fly through the air. The minds of the village leaders worked furiously trying to decide what to do, but the time to decide was vanishing. The riders were approaching, and could now be seen clearly. There were about 40 of them charging forward, armored with blackened leather and carrying torches. There was no more time to puzzle about what to do. The words between the villagers died down until the murmur was suddenly pierced by a panicked cry of run! Those that could run took off across the fields, cutting straight lines through the crops. The impulse to flee muscled all other thoughts aside, and no things were carried, save some of the smaller children rescued by instinct of their parent. They stumbled often, but terror-charged adrenaline kept them going. However, there were some that did not escape the cluster of buildings. They hesitated at the edge of the village, feeling that they could not outrace the riders and that their settlement could somehow provide safety. Moments later, the window for action had closed. The strangers were upon them.

As the dark riders swept into and around the village, six of those that remained fled into a shed out of the way, hoping to be overlooked. But as the last of them hurried in and shut the door, it was evident that one of the men had seen them. The villagers cowered against one of the walls as the sound of hooves and boots drew near. Their breathing was replaced by gasps and shaking as they looked to the door, expecting it to swing open with the crack of a shattered latch. After a moment there was a noise, wood on wood, but the door merely shook and did not open. Something heavy, like a wagon, had been pushed up against it. Rough voices spoke outside in a strange and unsettling language. The six inside could not understand the words, but the profanity was not diminished by this barrier of syntax. A minute passed, extended by fear. Then the voices faded and there was silence, save for an almost inaudible crackling. In the darkness, the six at could not understand what was happening initially, but it soon became terribly clear. At first a thin stream, but moments later a thick flow, smoke invaded the windowless shed from under the blocked door. Soon, flames began to intermittently illuminate the group of six coughing and choking through their last moments of consciousness.


The people of the valley had now all fled to the surrounding hills. They slept in caves and tents in fear.  When they looked down on what had been fruitful fields two months ago, they saw only black, charred, desolate plains. It was winter now. Little snow had come, but the cold was present, and it was impossible to escape. The people huddled near fires and ate thin stew made from whatever was available. All of the towns and villages had been destroyed. The survivors spoke little, for they had little left to speak about. Before now, the happy security had been enjoyed without any conception that it could end.

After the first village was attacked, horsemen had been sent to find out what had happened. They found piles of smoking, charred wood instead of houses, mangled, twisted iron instead of wagons and plows. A dying horse strained to breath, collapsed near where its stable had once stood. Nothing of worth was left. The dark raiders had taken everything that could be eaten or hoarded, and destroyed the rest. The surrounding fields were void of life, burnt for no reason that the surveyors could discern. All of the houses were checked for survivors, but only a few lifeless bodies were discovered. When it seemed that there was nothing more to be seen, however, one of the horsemen saw some movement in one of the piles that had been a small building. An arm and hand was feebly reaching over one of the beams. The riders quickly converged without words on the mound of broken wood.

Six survivors were found there. Terribly burned, barely breathing, some blinded, they had broken bones from falling beams and tools. They were not dead, but they would be soon. The people of this country had never felt pain, and now they feared it. The despair among the horsemen at this sight was not bounded; their hearts fell without slowing. What was coming next? they asked themselves without consulting each other, and they found nothing solid to place any hope on. The barely living bodies were taken back to the safest place in the valley the waterfall, where the water that gave the valley life flowed from. It was clear, though, that they would only live a little longer, and that existence would be in agony. They would be dead and buried soon, but the others living in the valley now had to face an unknown enemy that they knew not how to resist.

The party of raiders that had burnt the first village was merely a scouting detachment. A few days later the main force arrived. The people of the valley had weapons, but they did not know how to fight well, and were defeated at every engagement. The only ones who survived were those that fled. Soon the leaders determined that the only response was to retreat and hope that the enemy moved on. Not many had yet been killed, and the leaders hoped to save the bulk of the population. Each family took what they could from their homes and went to the safety of the mountains. But the army of dark raiders did not leave. It became clear that they meant to stay for the winter, and that the people would have to find a way to survive with essentially nothing. The main group set up a camp and prepared a defense, hoping to outlast this calamity.

Hunger was perhaps the most sinister enemy. Men have a deep desire to be brave, but the weakness caused by a stomach that has not been adequately filled for weeks diminishes even the strongest convictions of the soul. A slow fade into helplessness is the worst end that courage can have. The men only hoped that the enemy would not attack and that some could survive into the next season. Then warmth and new growth would allow them to rebuild their former existence. As the winter supplanted the milder temperatures of fall, some began to expect that they would make it through the ordeal simply by waiting with patience. In reality, they would not be so fortunate to have the opportunity to overcome with only passive endurance.

One afternoon, when the sun had mercifully taken away the worst of the bitterness of the cold, one of the lookouts was sitting at his post on a rock near the edge of the fields. He was thinking of the life that he would have back when spring came again. Thoughts of which crops he would plant and how he would find his children playing near the stream when he returned at the end of the day filled his mind. It was respite from the stress of living in the present situation. He did not know why this disaster had happened, but he was beginning to become content with the thought that it might end. Why would they not leave us to survive?, he thought. They cannot take any more from us. He looked out over the valley. The fear that had been his companion for months was beginning to leave him. But then suddenly it returned with new strength. He saw the column of the enemy force on foot coming from their camp, armed for a fight. The people of the valley would have to defend themselves.

With haste, the men found their swords. Many of them had never used their weapon, and justified fear infected their whole bodies. They could feel it like pain. Some even fled, and with their flight weakened those that remained. They faced a most dreadful paradox. If they fought, they would be destroyed, but if they turned an ran, they would have no more reason to be. Those that had enough courage left gathered on a hillside to await their doom. The wait was longer than they wished. While they stood idle in anticipation, they did not think of the battle, but instead how their lives could have been if this evil had not come. In the approach of the evil army, they saw the final door that offered hope for the future slowly swinging shut. Finally the enemy began their final charge, and sharp fear once again filled the defenders. Their huddle began to back away from the charge. As the horde closed the last few meters, the defenders ran; no man stood his ground.

There were more invaders than defenders, and each good man found himself beaten, fighting only to survive for a few more moments. The lookout who had first sighted the enemy was desperately trying to absorb the blows of his two assailants. He and a few others had fled laterally onto one of the fields that had been burned. This had been one of the last fields to fall to the flames, and small fires still smoldered at the feet of the combatants. Clouds had dimmed the sun, and the slowly rising smoke gave an otherworldly aura to the scene. It was almost as if the defenders had already passed on to the next destination after death. Reeling backwards, the lookout tripped over a hole in the black dirt. He stumbled two more steps and fell on his back. Time dilated with the realization that this would be the end. The two attackers approached slowly, preparing to put the helpless victim's struggle to an end. But before they could, the situation changed.

It began with a warm light shining on the attacker's armor. The lookout did not know what the light was as he could not see its source, but he could tell that it was coming from several sources at ground level behind him. The evil men looked up in confusion. The lookout stared at them and they stared towards the light. The lookout felt an irrational confidence growing somehow. The light on the raiders shifted as if one of the sources had made a sudden movement, and their demeanor immediately changed. Instead of their normal arrogance, they showed confusion. In another moment the ruthless pursuers were themselves fleeing. The lookout did not know how to react to this change, so he laid still. A light source began to approach, and he looked back up towards it.

What he saw was a sight that moved him more deeply than any of the times that he had looked out over the valley before it had been ravaged. A woman stood over him. Apparently the light was emanating from her, but she did not appear to be super-human otherwise. Terrible burn scars grasped around her arms and neck, but by some unknown grace, her face and all its fairness had been spared. Her eyes looked into him, and a subtle smile crept up on the corners of her mouth. This was not a smile of amusement or folly, but the smile that comes from knowing that all tension in the world has been resolved. A blinding, piercing sense of good accompanied her approach.

The lookout had forgotten about the enemy. In this moment time no longer seemed compelled to move, so it slowed to a near stop, and hope cascaded into his heart. The woman spoke to him in a voice that was plain, but overflowing with kindness and confidence. Dear friend, fear not this enemy any longer. Take courage, for they can do us no real harm. You have resisted with valor. Now rise and use your strength to drive them from our home. She reached out to help him up. She had only her normal strength, but with his newfound hope, his rise from the ground was effortless. He looked around and saw five more of these bright beings on the field and the hills around it. Some of them were fighting and others helping the fallen. Other defenders like him were getting up and finding their new hope. One by one, they realized that these bright beings were of their own kind. Indeed they were the six that had been caught in that first savage burning. If there was something that could save these, the most helpless victims, did they need to worry at all about their own safety? It was not long before they were running across the fields pursuing the routed enemy.


That winter was harder than any other in memory, but it was also more joyful. Everything had been taken from the people, but when it was all given back as a gift, its sweetness was multiplied. The freedom of the valley was procured by the six who had suffered the most. By their suffering and regeneration, they gained an upper hand against evil. They were the instrument by which the people had been saved, but they in themselves were not the source of the salvation on which the valley's new hope had been established. There was some great but subtle power protecting that place. It was universally present in all that happened there, but in this case it had particularly manifested itself in the waterfall to heal the six. Some realized that this acute healing magic was really no more remarkable than the natural way that the power behind the waterfall and the sun and the earth provided for all of the people year after year, so they were thankful for all.

The six went on to live normally. Along with the rest of the valley's inhabitants, they married, raised crops and kids, and eventually passed away.  Seasons visited and departed, and the joyful life that the people were accustomed to returned. They remembered the invasion and were no longer so naive as to take their good lives for granted, but all who looked upon the six found hope that their happiness was secure, for they now knew the answer to this question:

What power does evil have over those who have felt its most painful sting and yet are able to do good?

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