The Reawakening Part 2 by J. A. Zollicoffer

Part Fourteen: Lions And Tigers And Bears…Oh, My. ~The Wizard of Oz~

By the time Troi and Keller reached the front of the line, chimpanzees were surrounding the caravan, their demeanor projecting malicious intent. The chimps were the guards in the Low Lands, it was their duty to patrol the perimeter, and dispensed with any and all intruders at their discretion, and their choice this day would be to get in a little exercise. It had been too long since they’d had a real workout.

They were eyeing the strangers from head-to-toe, thinking of biting off fingers, mauling faces, and ripping off arms. They knew they were three times stronger than any of the men, so the armed humans didn’t frighten them in the least. The chimps began moving forward, their Jekyll and Hyde personalities making their brown eyes glow.

But, before a full step could be taken, Barrett intervened.

“Gentlemen, calm yourselves,” Barrett urged. “They mean you no harm.”

“Well, looky here,” one of the chimps said. “if it ain’t one of those human lovin’, Low Land deserting, howler boys.”

“I beg your pardon. Insults are not necessary,” Barrett said with indignation.

“Hey, he’s a fancy boy too. Look at him wearing those human clothes,” another chimp added.

“Yeah,” the first chimp stated. “I always hated those fancy boys. They have a way of making my chin hairs bristle.”

The grunts became a little louder and a lot more aggressive as the group of primates moved a little closer.

Realizing that trying to reason with this band of chimps may be an impossibility, Barrett changed gears. “You gentlemen need not get too over zealous. We didn’t mean to overstep any boundaries. If you will allow us to turn around, we will gladly leave the lands.”

Ignoring Barrett’s entreaty, the chimps were about to pounce when a loud roar was heard. The sound caused the primates to hesitated, but only for a moment. Nothing, not even the nearness of the king was going to deter them from taking this opportunity to sink their teeth into some human flesh.

Their advance continued, and when their prey was within reach the smell of their fear propelled the pack forward as one. But, in their excitement they didn’t sense how close the lions had come, until three females were standing between them and their recreation.

As one, the lioness’ raised their heads up high, and in unison roared to the sky, filling the area with waves of sound so powerful, that the Arcadians held on to the sides of wagons, horse manes, and each other, to keep from falling over…a call had gone out.

They didn’t have to wait long for the answer. An ear shattering roar was heard nearby, then a large, glorious looking, golden-maned, male lion sauntered onto the road. His presence seemed to make the chimps cringe a little, but they didn’t run.

The lion was huge. His head was level with the horse’s sides, and when he walked his large paws left deep indentations in the ground, leaving the humans to wonder just how much power this animal possessed.

“Romolo, hold your band of assassins, lest you be ground into the dust.”

Romolo was tempted, so very tempted to continue with the advance, after all, it would take more than Succor, and his triad of females to grind the twenty chimps into the dust. But just as he was about to give the signal to attack…they heard it. The sound was unmistakable. The ground began to rumble, and the air was filled with the trumpeting sounds of the elephants.

They were an adversary of a different kind, one with which nothing could be done. This caused the chimps to become agitated and angry. Them being forced to stand down filled the air with menace.

*******

The Arcadians had no clue as to what to do. The scene that was being played out in front of them was surreal. They all knew that the Low Lands was where the animals ruled, but most of these animals were like nothing they could have ever imagined.

Reading a description of something was entirely different from seeing the real thing in front of you, and what was in front of them was magnificent, and it filled them with awe.

The elephant’s arrival signaled the chimpanzee’s departure, but Troi made sure she watched them leave, never taking her eyes off of the apes until they were out of sight, and even then her eyes lingered for a moments longer.

When all was quiet again, they stood in silence, neither group knowing what to say to the other. For the animals, standing in the company of humans was nothing new. The exile’s yearly caravan runs had gotten them used to people, but for the Arcadians this experience was indefinable.

Roger Meeks stepped forward, feeling like, because he was the historian, and was very familiar with the concept of lions and elephants, maybe it should him to start the conversation.

“Greetings…um…sir…um…mister…ah…”

Understanding the human’s confusion, the lion tried to clear things up for the man. “We have no titles. Here, I am simply, Succor.”

Relived that he hadn’t insulted the animal, Roger continued. “But, I read that lions were considered the kings. Don’t you require some kind of honorific? Or am I mistaken in my assumption?”

“That is true, I am the leader here, but we don’t find it necessary to announce that fact every time I am addressed.”

“Oh…um…well, let me introduce myself. “I am Roger Meeks, head historian of the village of Arcadia, and these…” he motioned behind him. “are our citizens.”

“Welcome, Arcadians,” he said in a voice loud enough to carry to the back of the wagon train. “I have been expecting you.”

Roger raised his brows in surprise. “How?”

“It was told to me, by the Lady of the Marsh, that a pride of humans would travel this way. She told me that you meant us no harm, and that I should offer you shelter, and a brief respite before bringing you to her.”

“How did your Lady know about us, and why does she want to see us?” Roger Meeks asks.

The large cat shrugged a shoulder in a way that conveyed it was not his concern. The odd human-like gesture made Keller want to giggle.

“The Lady has her own reasons, now follow me.”

Realizing that was all the answers he was going to get, Roger changed the subject. “You think. You speak. Why is it that you and your kind have never sought out the help of mankind?”

His archival mind craved the information. He had always been curious as to why Barrett and his group of small monkeys were the only animals that had ever come to them.

A smirk-like expression pulled at the edges of Succor’s muzzle before he answered. “We have no need, or desire to seek the help or companionship of men. Man has proven that he is only capable of destruction, even to his own end.”

He stopped talking, but Roger could tell more was coming, so the historian remained silent.

“Man deems his wisdom greater than that of nature. Ignoring her set order of things, in favor of his own conceit. Look around you. How long would your kind have let us be before trying to rule our territory? So I ask you, why would we search out such an unnatural beast that would bring about his own demise?”

The long explanation was more than the visitor had expected, but the logic, and the disdain, was not lost on the listener, but Roger was compelled to get all of the information that he could from this fascinating creature.

“How did this place come to be, Succor?”

Reconciling himself to the fact that this most annoying human would not be satisfied until all of his curiosities had been addressed, Succor answered.

“After the catastrophe, when the most important thing to humans was survival, they forgot all else, so, the little things, like the animals that had been caged in zoos, for man’s viewing pleasure were, neglected. Soon, neglect led to desperation, and the animals knew that if they were going to survive, they had to find a way to escape. When they did, they eventually found their way to the wild.

At first, it was an extremely difficult existence. Hundreds of years of having no knowledge, or instinct about how to survive without man’s help had to be unlearned, but after several generations we were able to once again become what nature had intended us to be from the beginning.”

“How could beings as intelligent as you obviously are ever be caged? Couldn’t your ancestors have created a place like this, where human’s have to be invited?”

The lion marveled at the human’s lack of historical knowledge. “The animals now, are not the animals of then. Our ancestors were not capable of speech.”

Succor saw the next question, and answered it before it was asked. “Without man’s manipulation of the earth’s forces, mystical energies were able to resurface, and language returned our realm, allowing us to became what we once were.”

The explanation ended with an exasperated exhale. “When I take you to Sulcata, she will have the answers to the rest of your questions. The Lady is the antediluvian, the wisest of us all. I’m certain she will enlighten you.”

“Taking the hint, Roger remained silent for the rest of the trip.

*******

When they reached the valley that had been chosen to accommodate the humans, the traveler’s were surprised. The place was a beautiful expanse of red, yellows and greens. There was foliage like they’d never seen, flowers that had never grown in their area, and a lake of water that was the clearest they’d ever laid eyes on.

When the wagons were unhitched, and the animals set to graze, the people relaxed for the first time in over a month. They reclined under thick green overhangs formed by vines of sweet smelling honeysuckle. They rolled their eyes in pleasure when they were given nests of ripe fruit, hardy vegetables, and nutty grains.

After their meal, the tranquility lulled some of the Arcadians to sleep, others were walking around exploring the enchanted valley that surrounded them. Troi and Keller sat in silent awe, as they looked around them. Everywhere they turned they saw something strange, exciting and beautiful.

Across the valley, grazing on the tops of trees, they saw giraffes, their long necks and yellow coats, mottled with brown spots, standing out against the greenery. In the bush they caught sight of a large tiger, it’s tawny coat and black stripes making him almost invisible in the high grass. Lounging in the nearby lake they saw several hippopotamus’ dipping their large heads in the water, scooping up a drink with their incredibly wide mouths, which were in direct conflict with the short legs that supported it’s massive body.

As the midday sun started it’s journey west, somewhere in the distance someone, or something was heard humming a melodic tune. Then chirping bird calls joined in, followed by the rhythmic cadence of foot stomps. Finally it came together in the Arcadian’s minds…music…they were listening to music.

Roger looked to Succor with the question on his lips. “Your kind knows music?”

‘The Lady owes me for this. The exiles are not nearly as presumptuous as this human is.’

“Is man so arrogant as to think that, just because you gave it a name it was your creation?”

“I meant no disrespect,” Roger yielded, in a self-reprimanding voice.

“I know,” Succor said. “But you must understand. Long before man gave words to sound, we had the trumpeting of the elephant’s trunks, the pitch of the hyena’s wail, the thumping of the gorilla’s chest, even the deep timber of the lion’s roar. Do you think that we never put these things together, and gave praise to the mother?”

“The mother? Are you saying that all of the animals share a single mother?”

Golden eyes rolled for the countless time that day. Humans were a tedious species.

*******

After a few hours of rest, Succor informed the Arcadians that was time to meet the Lady, but there was one stipulation.

“Along with the elders that you bring, you must include the dark protector, and her fair mate.”

Knowing that he had already tested the lion’s patience, instead of questioning how he knew who Troi and Keller were, Roger just nodded his head in agreement.

They were led to a cove deep in the woods, the likes of which they had never seen. As they made their way to a pond, the lush green grass under their feet felt like a soft cushion. The water that formed the pond was crystal clear, making the sunlight that shone down on it sparkle like hanging ice shards in the wintertime.

There was a miniature waterfall that fed the pool, the powerful flow strong enough to cause the water spray it created to appear more like a mist of smoke, than water. In the middle of the tranquil pond sat an island, that supported a large cave.

Succor slowed his steps as he neared the small island, then he completely stopped. Speaking softly in a hushed reverence, he called out.

“Lady, may I approach?”

After several minutes of waiting, a slow moving tortoise appeared. She was easily six feet long, and six feet wide, with a shell that gave her a height of four feet. Her shell was an incredible mixture of bronze, copper and blue. Umber colored mounds created a valley, where blue veins of color ran through each section, creating a unique pattern, and when she spoke, it was in a measured tone that involved a lot of thought.

“Welcome, young ones,” she said in greeting. “I am Sulcata. Who speaks for you?”

The eldest committee member stepped forward. “I am Baxley Reynolds. I have been chosen to speak for Arcadia.”

“Step forward Baxley Reynolds.”

The man did as requested.

“I have taken the necessary steps to insure you have safe passage through our lands.”

Although he was very appreciative of the effort, Baxley wanted to know why. From the greeting they received from the chimp guards, and the obvious tolerance that Succor tried so hard to maintain, he knew they were not wanted there.

“Why have you offered us this safety?”

“Because you are nearing the end of a journey that was started centuries ago.”

“How can that be? None of us have ever been away from Arcadia to start a journey.”

Sulcata took a deep breath. “There is one. Where is the fair woman and her dark mate?”

Baxley turned, and caught a glimpse of frightened green eyes. He motioned for her to come forward, and stepped aside when Keller and Troi approached.

“This is Keller Morgan and Troi Donner,” Baxley informed the antediluvian.

Keller could feel her knees shaking. What did the Lady know of her? But when she felt Troi’s strong presence beside her a calm cloak fell over her.

“The brave steps you took set things in motion, fair one.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand,” Keller said. “Set what in motion?”

“More than one thousand years ago, man turned away from human contact, preferring instead to use math and science to communicate, that is when the gauntlet was thrown. His heart was replaced with equations and codes, and his soul went into hibernation. When this happened he hid his essence from the mother, and she no longer recognized the beat of his heart, leaving him in the dark.”

They weren’t sure what Sulcata’s words meant, but felt their importance because of the emotions they provoked.

“The journey you took to find your mate, opened the mother’s ears to the beat of man’s heart once again.”

“I didn’t know Troi when I left the center, I was just trying to get away.”

“Were there no other options?”

Keller had to think about that. Why had she risked her life crossing dangerous foreign territory? If she had gone home, and told her family about her treatment, they would have hidden her from The Order. She looked up at her mate, and for an instant she could have sworn that she saw herself looking back. Then she was struck with a revelation.

“I did come looking for you. I could have gone home, but something inside of me wouldn’t allow it. I remember my heart pounding, and my mind never being at ease the entire time I was out there. I thought it was just fear, but now that I think about it, no matter how afraid I was. No matter how close I came to danger, never, not once did turning back ever enter my mind. All my mind kept saying was, ‘keep moving forward.’ Then, the moment we met, everything in me settled, and it’s been that way ever since.”

They stood in silence, communicating with looks and smiles that only the two of them understood.

Now that the young women seemed to be only interested in one another Baxley addressed the Lady.

“When will this journey end?” Baxley inquired.

“Not until you reach the valley of the kings, in the western mountains of Poole’s descent. There you will discover the tools of his origin, and find the answers that will lead to your understanding and freedom.”

Their attention back on their surroundings, Troi asked a question. “Where is this place?” Her stomach fluttered at the prospect of seeing the sacred mountain.

“You must travel west, and when you reach the stony path turn north. Not all of your village will follow, but this is as it should be. Those of you that continue on will travel the road to the dark passage. But, take caution, the dark passage is an unyielding land, populated with creatures that survive in the slime and bile of the earth. Menacing things dwell there. Things that are evil. Things that are growing impatient. You must stay alert, never let your guard down, and never…ever, believe what you see.”

Here she stopped, allowing the humans to processes the information.

“The things that dwell there make crossing the dark passage a treacherous journey. In that place, the mystical energies that resurfaced where from the dark powers, and are very strong. You must be very cautious when you enter.” she stopped to address Keller.

“Pella, one of the moon sprites has requested that she spend time with you before your departure, she wishes to present you with a gift.”

Sulcata pulled in deep lung full’s of air, giving her visitors time to take in all that she had said. When enough seconds had ticked by, she continued.

“Do not let my warnings stop your journey. With love, trust, and a brave heart, your people will make it through, and the rewards will be life changing.”

“Isn’t there a way that we can form a…an alliance of some kind with your land? There is so much we could learn from you.” Baxley asks.

Without judgment or malice, Sulcata answered. “We, in the Low Lands do not cast our bread upon the waters of man. A bountiful return will never reach our shore. An alliance would be futile, Baxley. We are perfectly content to live as we are.”

Keller felt timid, but she wanted to ask a question that she thought should be obvious. “Excuse me, Sulcata?”

“Yes, fair one?”

“Why must we make this journey at all, especially if it’s a dangerous one?”

‘She is very bright,’ Sulcata thought.

“Because there is a nefarious shadow that stalks you, and only you and your mate can deliver it to the light.”

Keller looked to Succor for clarification, but the lion shrugged his shoulders in that odd fashion again, signaling that he was just as confused as she was.

“And this light is in the valley of the kings?”

“Yes it is,” was all that Sulcata would say.

“Is this a journey that we can refuse to take?”

“Your will is as free as the air you breath,” was the short answer.

Keller knew there had to be more to it than that. “What happens if we say no?”

“Then the darkness will be set free to spread across the land, casting a shadow over all that is good.”

Keller looked to Troi, and when the sentry nodded in agreement Keller was not surprised. Troi was a protector, that was something that came naturally to her and she would always answer the call. Keller turned back to Sulcata.

“We will see the journey through to the end,” she said with a smile.

*******

When they returned to the valley, the committee members went to share with the village what Sulcata had told them.

Roger hated to do it, but he didn’t have a choice. They needed more information if they were to continue on. He needed to ask Succor more questions.

“Sulcata spoke of the stony path, but how do we get there? We were headed to the land of the exiles.”

Succor tilted his regal head and the casual movement caused the crown of golden fur to ruffle a little as he gave the attentive group the information.

“You must pass through the exile’s lands to reach the stony path. The only clear route to the west is by their grace. But they are good people, I’m sure they will grant you passage. When you leave here there will be signs, follow them, not only will they lead you to the exiles, they will lead you to the path.”

“When you say signs…are you speaking of the divine kind, because if you are we need more information. We don’t have any…what do you call them? Conjurers, yeah that’s it. We don’t have…”

Succor released a frustrated roar that silenced the entire valley. “You…” he pinned Roger with a hard golden glare. “will speak to me no more. Your mind can never be filled, and your voice can never be silenced.” He took a menacing step forward. “Take yourself away from me, Roger Meeks, I can tolerate your presence no longer.”

The historian turned and walked away without saying another word.

Succor returned his attention to the young women that still stood with him. “Forgive me young ones, but the man was making my ears twitch. You should go and join your kinsmen, eat, rest and take comfort. No harm will come to you here.”

They watched as the lion walked away, and wondered at his presence and power. Keller smiled at her mate, but the mischief in her eyes made Troi raise a brow. “What?”

“I used to think that you had a roar that could make people scatter, but after that display, I see how sweet and cuddly you really are.”

Keller took off running, but didn’t get too far before she was lifted from the ground. A strong arm rested under her heaving breast, and she relaxed into the body behind her.

“Now that you’ve caught me, what’re you gonna do with me?”

Troi dropped her mouth close to Keller’s ear, and whispered things that made the shorter woman’s face hot, and her scalp red.

Keller turned in the embrace, and wrapped her arms around the tall woman’s neck. Raising up on her toes, she first licked Troi’s lips, then pressed her own to them. When Troi opened her mouth, Keller took the invitation, and their tongues started to dance together.

Pulling back, Keller licked the moisture away from her lips and hummed. “Mmmm…think we can talk Miss Millie into letting us sleep in her chuck wagon?”

Troi leaned in for another kiss. “If not, I’ll find us a secluded spot somewhere.”

Keller took the larger hand in her own, and pulled Troi with her. There was a baker they needed to find.

*******

A small group was sitting around one of the many circles that had been formed across the valley. Out of respect for the land that was hosting them, no meat was eaten by the humans, but as they looked around the same couldn’t be said for a few of the animals.

Way across the valley Troi could see Succor hunkered down in the grass gnawing on the haunch of some animal not fast enough to get away from his triad.

Keller was snuggled close to her mate, Troi’s long arms wrapped around her from behind. When the dark head dipped down to nibbled an exposed ear, Tanner walked by and pulled a tuff of his sister’s hair.

“Why don’t you let the girl breath, butthead. You act like you’ve never had a girlfriend before…oh, that’s right…you haven’t.”

Before he could make his getaway, Nicola walked up behind him and smacked him in the back of the head.

“Ouch, mom. How is it that you’re always around when I say something to her, but you’re no where in sight when she’s giving me grief?”

“Oh pishpaw, Tanner. My sweet little girl would never give anyone grief?”

Tanner rubbed the back of his head. “Little girl?! Your little girl is six feet of pure torment.”

Nicola straightened to her full six-foot-two height, and winked at her seated daughter. “She’ll always be my little girl.”

White, even teeth smiled at the standing woman. Thank you, mommy,” was said sweetly.

Tanner threw his hands up in the air. “Where’s dad? I’m outnumbered.”

They watched the retreating wide back, and held back their laughter until the tall man was a safe distance away.

Keller wiped her eyes, and tried to stop from shaking. “You guys should give him a break.”

“You can’t be serious. When he’s around I don’t have a name, unless it’s butthead,” Troi pouted.

Keller didn’t bother to turn around, she just raised a finger in the air. “Put it away.”

The protruding bottom lip was returned to it’s normal position. “You need to put that finger away, or I might find some place for you to stick it,” Troi whispered.

Before Keller’s embarrassment could expose their game. Everyone’s attention was captured by Barrett.

The monkey rode into the circle on the back of an elephant. It’s gray skin, long flexible trunk, prominent ears, and pointed tusks, gave it a formidable appearance, making the people nervous, but when Barrett introduced him, it became obvious that this huge beast had a soft heart.

“Can I please have everyone’s attention,” Barrett requested.

“Like anyone could have ignored that entrance,” Davis teased.

“Hush, fry cook,” Barrette countered. “I would like to introduce everyone to Reilly, he was one of my best friends here before I left for Arcadia.”

The large pachyderm comically wiggled his ears, and raised his tusk in welcome. “Greetings, Arcadians.

*******

It had been a long exhausting day, and Troi and Keller were ready to retire in the back of Miss Millie’s covered wagon, but before they could excuse themselves, they saw two wolves approaching. One was pure white, the other was silver-gray, and it was limping.

Barrett jumped off of Reilly’s back, and went to greet them. “My friends, it’s been so long.”

“How have you been Barrett?” The large, silver-gray wolf greeted.

“I have been well, Gerund.”

Barrett felt the piercing blue eyes watching him and turned to greet the white wolf. “Falieri, it is so good to see you again.”

The gentle, soothing voice that spoke to Barrett was hypnotic. “It’s been too long, Barrett.” She turned her head and looked in Keller and Troi’s direction. “And who are these lovely young people?”

“This is Troi and Keller, they are…”

“Holo. We know.” Falieri focused on the couple. “We picked up their scent, and couldn’t believe what we were smelling, so we came to see for our selves.”

It was kind or eerie for the couple to look at the white wolf as she talked. They felt swallowed up when looking into the depths of those understanding eyes…It made them feel naked.

“It is an honor to meet two humans that have the gift, ” the female said. “Not everyone, animal or human have been blessed enough to find their life mate.” Falieri continued.

“You are the first humans to receive the gift since the mother’s slumber began over one thousand years ago.” Gerund added.

The young women sat with the wolf couple until the moon was high above their heads, that’s when Falieri told the humans it was time to let them rest.

“I hope we will see you again before we leave,” Keller said to the white wolf.

Again she was captured in those rich, blue eyes. “I will make sure that we do.’

*******

Early the next morning, Troi and Keller were awakened by a light tapping on the wagon wood. Troi pulled on her union suit, and crawled forward to open the canvas. When she pulled back the flap, she began a back crawl to her mate.

“Oh, my Deus, what are you?”

A tiny winged woman, no bigger than a bluebird was hovering at eye level, just outside the cloth opening.

“I am Pella, a moon sprite. I have come for the fair one, there are gifts that she must receive.”

Troi held up a blanket, allowing Keller to quickly get dressed in as much privacy as could be provided. “Can’t you give her these gifts here?”

“Fear not, life mate, I mean her no harm. My gift is one of light, it holds no ill will.”

Finally dressed, Keller kissed Troi on the cheek and scooted past her.

“Hey, aren’t you in the least bit scared?”

Keller jumped down to the ground, and got an up close and personal look at Pella. “Why should I be? If her intent was to harm, she didn’t need to knock, she could have flown in, hexed us and left.”

Troi was crawling across the floor, trying to pull on her trouser and keep up with her departing mate all at the same time. “Hex? What do you know of hexes?”

Keller started a trot to keep pace with the flying sprite. She waved over her shoulder at the dark head that was poking out of the wagon. “I read about them in the fairy tales book.”

*******

Keller was led to an area that was covered by a canopy of trees. To one side was a leveled tree stump that served as an alter. That is where Pella led the enthusiastic blonde.

“Please have a seat, Keller.”

Keller did as she was instructed, and watched as Pella disappeared into a knot in a tree. Green eyes closed as Keller thought about all that has happened, all that she has experienced, all she has seen, since leaving the Province.

“Were there no other options?” Sulcata had asked her.

She opened her eyes and looked around in wonder feeling her heart fill with love for her mate. “No,” she whispered. “There were no other options.”

When the moon sprite returned, she was holding a small burlap sack. “This is for you, Keller.”

The blonde opened her hand, and watched as Pella dropped the sack into her hand.

“What is this?”

Instead of answering the question. Pella started with an explanation.

“Here in the low lands the power of the light is practiced by the wood nymphs and the moon sprites, but the farther west you travel the way becomes dark, and more ominous, where shadow demons have control. Your Troi has a mighty spirit inside of her. The dark things will be drawn to her, and if they possess her, only you can reclaim her.”

Pella pointed to small package in Keller’s hand. “If they should have the opportunity to possess her, that is what you will need to help her.”

Keller felt like her heart was going to beat out of her chest. ‘Was Troi in danger?’ She pulled the drawstring, and opened the top of the bag. She could see that it was filled with tightly packed leaves, then a strong odor attacked her nose.

“Ew…what is that?” she asked, quickly cinching the top closed again.

“Pairing leaves. You will need them if the way goes dark. If that happens, you must wait until she is asleep, then you tuck one of the leaves between Troi’s cheek and gum, then do the same for yourself. Within seconds it will slowly release it’s essence, allowing you the time you will need to enter your mate’s slumber. That is where you will confront the darkness.”

“I don’t understand, Pella. This is really scaring me.”

The moon sprite smiled. “Fear not. Your love is strong, always remember that, and nothing can ever harm you, or your mate. If the leaves becomes necessary, you will do what needs to be done.”

*******

Two days later, the animals stood at the back exit of the lands and watched the human wagon train leave. Succor, Gerund and Falieri, Reilly and Pella. Even Sulcata had left the seclusion of her small island to bid the travelers farewell.

When the last horse was out of sight Sulcata spoke with Succor. “This isn’t over yet, more are coming.”

Succor tensed his jaw. “Is there no relief from these…people?”

Sulcata ignored the annoyed lion. “Two of them will carry the scent of the fair one. Ensure their safety, no harm must come to them here.”

“What of the others?” the majestic creature inquired.

“A tortured, misguided soul leads them. He too must go unharmed. His destiny and ours do not cross threads. He must continue to cleanse the land. It is almost time for the mother to open her arms and embrace mankind once more, but first the abominations that have been allowed to grow unchecked in her absence must be put back in their boxes.” She paused before continuing.

“The others are of no consequence, you may do with them as you please…” Here she paused again. “But, there must be enough of them left to safeguard the three that will continue, they will need to reach the road’s end before the light flashes across the sky.”

“What of us, Lady? Will we survive?”

“Of course. We are everlasting, like the trees and the sun and the moon. We are as much a part of her as they are. We live in her grace, and respect the blessing for the gift that it is.”

Succor listened well, and he would obey. Years ago he had given up trying to understand everything that the antediluvian said. She tended to speak in circles that held no escape, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he fulfill his duty by obeying her request, that was the way of the Low Lands, and thus far all had been well under her care.
Part Fifteen: If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked A Cake. ~Eileen Barton~
The rider’s forces had dwindled down to one hundred and twenty physically drained men. Their encounter with the links, and most recently the wild dogs had left their numbers low and their bodies exhausted.

The four-legged mongrels had not been as difficult to eradicate as the links. Primarily because or their inability to stay focused on their own combatant when one of their pack members was being attacked. This turned out to be a fatal flaw that made destroying them in groups an easy task, but not a task that was accomplished without a few men losing their lives.

That was why Brent was hoping that the high wall that could be seen from a distance would offer his men the opportunity to get some much needed rest.

As the riders got closer Brent wondered who, or what had erected something as complex as the security barrier that loomed before them. Although the structure looked like it would take a certain amount of intellect and organization to construct, Brent wouldn’t make any assumptions. Because of their encounter with the links Brent wasn’t going to let his guard down.

After entering the underground building that the man-beast lived in he knew that just because an environment looked fairly civilized didn’t mean that it was inhabited by civilized beings. That’s why he assumed that anything could be living behind those walls.

“Stay Alert!” Brent cautioned his men as they drew closer.

He watched as the gate slowly opened, his hand on his weapon and his eyes watchful. When the gate was fully opened, Brent led the riders into Arcadia.

Almost immediately his senses went into overload. The trail boss could not believe what he was seeing. All around them were things that should not be. Signs with words written on them, pictures of food, horses and clothes were hanging in front of several of the structures that were on the main road.

To Brent it looked like a smaller version of the Province’s main street, with the exception of the writing. But that could not be. Surely the people that lived here were not that advanced. But the proof was right in front of him. Maybe he could have convinced himself that these people were primitive…maybe, but the written words that were scrawled across every sign wasn’t something that could be ignored. The outcasts had been able to establish their own village. And from the looks of it, they’d done an exceptional job.

As they rode down the main street, people were lined up all along the way. What struck Brent as odd, was that not one of them looked shocked or surprised to see them.

When he stopped midway down the road he asked no one in particular, “Is this you entire village?”

“Yes,” was heard from somewhere along the line.

Before another questioned could be asked, the leader rode up beside the trail boss, and the atmosphere changed.

The moment Myron had entered through the gate he was amazed. The layout of the village, it’s obvious upkeep and the building proclaiming itself to be the learning hut made it very clear that the people that lived here had a bit of intelligence and were not the cave lurking ditch dwellers The Order had predicted them to be.

Myron didn’t know why, but seeing that the outcasts were living well, all one their own, offended him on a level that he could not understand, and that confusion showed itself through his anger. Without knowing why, he rode to the front of the procession and stopped his horse next to Brent’s.

The first thing he noticed was the number of people that lined the streets and knew there had to be more of them. “Is this everyone?” he asked Brent.

“That’s what they said,” Brent answered.

Myron looked around the village and knew that a place this size should have a larger population. “I want every home checked. If you find someone hiding away, bring them out,” he instructed the riders.

‘What has crawled up his trousers?’ Brent wondered.

Tom and Earl jumped from their horses and grabbed Warren and Sherman. When Zack saw the four men, he jumped from his horse and ran to catch up with them.

“Where do you guys want to start?” he asked enthusiastically.

Earl pointed. “How about that row of huts. They look like we could make quick work of them.”

Aged eyes watched as the men dismounted to carry out the young man’s order, and became agitated.

“We’ve already told you we are the only ones here,” Delmar Ramsey yelled out.

The old man’s wife gave him a cautious look. This is the behavior their daughter Jennie was afraid would surface when she begged them to leave with the rest of the village. Even in his advanced age Delmar was still a sentry at heart.

“Hush, old man,” she whispered. “The situation is tense enough without you bringing attention to us.”

Delmar was about to respond to his wife, but Myron spoke first. “Was that defiant tone in your voice meant to test my patience?” The leader asked.

Delmar had never been a man to back down from a fight and this wasn’t the day he was going to start. “Test YOUR patience?! You’ve come to our home, not the other way around. I’d say it’s our patience that’s being tested.”

Everything went still. Only the shuffling of hooves and the braying of the horses could be heard. No one had ever spoken to any leader in this manner and the riders waited to see what the consequences would be.

Myron spoke in a slow, measured voice, but he couldn’t stop the menace from leaking through. He really didn’t understand these outsider’s attitude.

“I have risked life and limb crossing the Badlands just to save you people, and this is the reception I’m met with?”

“Save us from what?” Delmar asked. “For more than nine hundred years we have thrived without the help or consideration of the Province. Why now? Why after all of these centuries do you think we need a savior?”

Mattie wished her husband would stop talking.

“Enough!” Jay yelled. “You will not speak to the leader this way!”

That statement caused every Arcadian to go wide-eyed. This…boy was leading the Province?

Delmar made a snorting noise. “Are you telling us that you grown men are being led around by this child? What’s wrong with him? Was he bored with his toys and decided to come looking for new things to play with?”

Before anyone knew what was happening, Jay had leaped from his horse, made four quick steps across the road and backhanded Delmar across the face. The old man dropped to his knees with blood pouring from his nose, and Mattie went down with him, kneeling beside her husband she began wiping away the blood with the hem of her dress, while glaring up at the wild-eyed man.

“Does it make you feel good to strike a man old enough to be your father?” she spat out

Jay’s hand went up, prepared to deliver a blow of equal force to the old woman. Things were getting way out of hand and seeing that Myron appeared to be satisfied with Jay’s actions, Brent knew he had to get a grip on things before this escalated into a brawl.

“Halt!” Brent yelled, then he jumped off of his horse and approached the three people that were the center of the conflict. He knew because of recent events Jay had gained the leader’s favor, making the already volatile man more difficult to control, so he knew he needed to be close to the rider to make sure Jay obeyed his order.

When the aggressive hand didn’t drop, Brent grabbed Jay by the wrist and held his arm in midair. “Hit that woman and I will break this,” he gritted out.

Jay snatched his arm away and glared at the trail boss. “That’s twice you’ve put your hands on me, Brent. If it happens a third time…it’ll be the last time.”

The angry man stomped away with Todd close on his heels. He turned into the first building he saw and everyone heard the unmistakable sound of chairs breaking and glass shattering.

Brent turned his attention back to the older couple. He reached down to help them up, but his hand was pushed away by an Arcadian. “We help our own.”

Brent didn’t say a word. He just watched the couple being helped down a side street by a couple of their neighbors. When he turned his attention to Myron, he closed his eyes and asked the Deus for strength.

Not only did the young leader have no idea what he was doing, he had no desire to control Jay. And out in the wild, that was the most dangerous weakness the young man had.

*******

A few of the riders gathered in what they decided was the village meeting hut. They sat around the table, each in his own thoughts. Not one of them had expected to find a village of civilized people. In some ways they had been better prepared to deal with the beast in the wild than a village of people that for the most part was just like them. So they remained silent, waiting for their leader to speak.

But Myron was lost in his own maze of confusion. How could this be? How could theses people have had the ability to accomplish this without the guidance of The Order? The written signs marking, food stands, saddles and announcements for new shirts just made, were posted all over the place. But this couldn’t be. Surely these people didn’t have the gift of literacy. But the undeniable truth was all around him.

Especially in this room. All around him were drawings that ran in a ring around the wall. Drawings of people harvesting the fields, horses pulling wagon loads of hay and one particular picture that really caught his eye. It was a nighttime scene depicted a large group of young people sitting around a fire pit that had a spit pig roasting over the flame. The faces reflected in the firelight were filled with a joy that Myron had never known. Maybe it was because all of the young people looked to be about his age, or maybe it was the carefree spirit that was being sent out from the drawing, whatever the reason was Myron Scott found himself yearning for that kind of existence.

The longer they waited the more obvious it became that Myron wasn’t going to say anything, so Brent cleared his throat to get the young man’s attention. When that didn’t work he called out to him.

“Leader, what do you want us to do?”

Myron didn’t move or say a word, so Brent spoke a little louder with more force. “Leader!”

Startled into the present, annoyed eyes turned in the trail boss’ direction. What?!”

Brent lowered his voice. “What do you want us to do?”

Myron let his gaze fall back on the picture and answered without looking away. “I know the men are still checking, but I doubt if they will find any more people. Go visit one of the occupied homes and question whoever lives there. I want you to find out what has happened to the people.”

*******

Brent was sitting in the home of a man that said his name was Peyton, and Peyton was telling him the end of a very interesting story.

“They’re gone and there is no need to follow them. I’m sure they are well out of your reach by now.”

“Where did they go, Peyton?”

“Brent, despite who you travel with I sense that you are a just man, but you are riding for an unjust purpose. You have no reason or right to be here. The day our ancestors were put out, their lives became their own and that is the gift that was bequeathed to us. The Province and it’s leaders have no authority over us. Therefore, the answer to your question is, none of your business.”

Brent laughed out loud. If nothing else, these people had guts. “I like you, Peyton, but that’s me.” He hated what he was about to do, but in the long run it would be what was best for all involved if he could get the information that was needed voluntarily. “Regretfully, I can’t say the same for some of the other men that I’m riding with.”

“Are you threatening me, Brent?”

“No, I would never do that. What I’m trying to do is stop your friends and neighbors from being hurt.”

“You would do that?”

Brent hung his head. “No, not me.”

“If not you, then who? Aren’t you the trail boss?”

“Yes I am, but the leader is riding with us and he has the final word, and unfortunately, one of my more… difficult riders has his ear and that is not a good thing your people.”

Peyton released a frustrated breath. “Let me guess. The brute that hit Delmar. It’s him isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid so, and he wouldn’t hesitate to try and convince the leader that torching your village should be an option if your people didn’t cooperate.”

Peyton stood up and Brent followed. “Let me talk to the others.”

Brent gave the man a nod “How long will you need?”

“Give me an hour.”

*******

Jay had a piece of wood in his had that had been carved into an odd colorful shape. On the low table in front of him was a wooden picture depicting a bird in flight and in the center was a hole in the same shape as the piece in his hand. He leaned over and heard a satisfying click when he dropped the colored piece into the slot.

“Wow! Todd said. “Would you look at that.”

Jay remained silent and just poked the completed picture with his finger. The more of this village he saw, the more he hated it. Being here made him feel like something had been stolen from him, what, he didn’t know, but somewhere deep inside he felt cheated.

He walked over to a wall of empty shelves and wondered what they were for, leaving when an answer didn’t come to him. Todd followed his friend into the kitchen and watched as the irritated man lifted a pot from the stove and took a sniff.

“Mint tea,” he whispered.

Confused about what he was seeing, Todd asked a simple question. “Jay, what are we doing here?”

The quiet man continued looking through the cupboards and the pantry, finding all of the areas empty.

“I was just wondering who lives here? What they do? What they look like? Is it a man or a woman?”

Todd scratched his head. “Why? I mean, who cares. They’re just a bunch of idiots.”

Jay looked at his less than brilliant partner and gave him a sad smile. “Todd, when you look around what do you see?”

“A hut full of furniture and empty shelves,” he said with a smirk.

Jay rolled his eyes. “That’s not all that’s here, Todd.”

“Well, that’s all I see.”

“Can’t you feel it? Although there is no one here this place feels…full.”

Todd shrugged his shoulders. “I think you’ve been out in the wild too long.”

Jay took one last look around and walked out. Unaware that when he left he gently closed the door behind him instead of slamming it.

If he had taken the time to examine his surroundings more thoroughly he would have found a hidden latch, that led to a hidden room, that safely hid away seventy books and over five thousand scrolls.

*******

The five men that were still searching the homes were doing it respectfully, not wanting to disturb the wonders they were discovering. Instead of the rough cut wood used to make tables and chairs in the Province, these people sat on and ate off of wood so smooth the surface almost shined. There were candle shades, carved wall hangings and painted pictures.

They were shocked to see how advanced the intuitive’s society was. The Province would never allow this type of self-expression, to do so would mean banishment. But looking around this village they understood why it made quite a few of the riders jealous of the inhabitants obvious freedoms.

The five companions were entering the last two homes on the stretch of road they were searching. Tom and Earl walked into the hut closest to them while Warren, Sherman and Zack continued on to the last one the short block.

Warren enter first followed by Sherman and Zack. The place was like the other small three-room homes they had already visited, so they didn’t expect too much of the scenery to change, so when Warren stopped in his tracks, causing Sherman to run into his father’s solid back. It was very unexpected.

“Whoa, give me some warning, dad.”

“Yeah, me too,” Zack said as he rubbed the soreness from a nose that had been planted in the middle of Sherman’s back.

When he didn’t get a response Sherman walked around the older man so that he could see if something was wrong. When he was able to get a look at his father there was an expression on Warren Morgan’s face that Sherman had never seen before.

“Are you okay, dad?” he asked with concern.

The smile that spread across Warren’s features was so broad that it created a dimple in his cheek and his hazel eyes twinkled with the glee of an excited child as he pointed at the far wall.

“Look,” was all he said.

When Sherman turned his head and followed the direction of his father’s finger, the sight that greeted him caused a sob to escape from his throat.

There in plain view, on the wall across from the front door was a drawing, but what made both men weak in the knees was what the picture depicted. It was a Morgan family portrait. Sherman, Walter and Thomas were standing in the back, and seated in front of them were Warren, Keller and Ellen.

This proved it. There was no doubt. Keller had made it across the Badlands and she was alive. Warren walked over and reverently pressed his fingers to the drawing. “I see you’re still up to your old tricks, daughter,” he said.

As Sherman moved beside his father, he placed his arm over the older man’s shoulder. When they both realized that there were tears rolling down their cheeks, it only drew them closer together.

“She’s alive, dad. She’s alive.”

“That she is, son. Now all we have to do is find her.”
Part Sixteen: O’er The Land Of The Free, And The Home Of The Brave. ~Francis Scott Key~
Once the wagon train left the Low Lands it became obvious what Succor meant about following the signs. Every few miles they would see an ancient metal sign with the number fifty neatly written on it. The traveling was fairly easy and a little more than a week later they rode passed a much larger metal sign announcing they were entering, Independence Missouri.

It was another five days of riding before they reached the land that had always been a curiosity to every Arcadian in the wagon train. They had finally come upon the place that the villagers had never been sure really existed. It was the land of the original outcasts. They were about to enter…Émigré.

There was a huge sign on the side of the road that read, ‘This is the land of Émigré. Safe passage may be given, but there is no comfort here for the uninvited.’

There was a heavy pounding in Troi’s chest, a mixture of fear and excitement, that practically had the sentry jumping out of her saddle. This really was turning into quite the journey.

“Well, Baxley, here we are,” Troi announced. “What should we do?”

“There is only one thing we can do. We ride through and hope for safe passage.”

The wagon train moved forward and once they crossed the border, up ahead, for as far as the eye could see, the road was dotted with signs. As they got closer they noticed that for every sign there was a long path that led to a wooded area, never giving trespassers a clue as to what they might be riding into.

Baxley looked to the tall woman beside him and asked her opinion. Village business was his area of expertise, not choosing which path would be the safest to lead their entire village down. So he looked to the person that would have a better take on the situation.

“Which path do we take, Troi?”

They all waited. No one in the front of the line making a move in any direction.

Troi looked around. The choices seemed endless, but then her eyes fell on a name that looked familiar, and smiled. The choice was made.

“This way,” she said. And lead the wagon train down the long path, heading into woods with no clue as to what was on the other side.

*******

They traveled for several miles before the woods gave away to a wide open expanse of land. In the distance they could see wisps of smoke swirling in the air and the smell of wood was everywhere.

“Let’s stop here for now,” Troi said. Then she turned her full attention to Baxley. “You should probably get the committee together and go searching for the people that can give us safe passage.”

Baxley raised an amused brow. “Thank you for reminding me,” the committee member teased.

“Sorry,” Troi sais sheepishly.

Alice walked over, but before she could say anything Baxley took her by the elbow. “Come on, let’s get the others. We need to find out who’s in charge here before we get attacked.”

As they walked away Alice yelled over her shoulder, “Get the people organized. We can’t set up camp, but we can rest the animals and get everyone fed.”

“I’m on it,” Troi answered.

*******

Keller was pulling the saddle off of her horse, even if they couldn’t stay long she wanted the animal to have a little time were he wasn’t burdened. She decided that the horse also needed water. Feeling confident enough in her skills to protect herself if she were attacked, Keller checked her weapon and set out to find water.

She walked passed the chow wagon and spotted her tall lover having a conversation with Miss Millie. Smiling, she continued on in the direction that she thought she’d heard water flowing. The closer she got to what she was now positive was a water source, she thought she heard a voice. Thrilled that maybe she had found someone that could help them, she quickened her steps.

When she rounded a few tall saplings she found herself looking upon the most unusual looking person she had ever laid eyes on. Lounging near the water was a man with skin darker than any she had ever seen, and a head covered in tight dark curls.

She surmised that this was one of the black people Roger had mentioned when telling her about the exiles, but there was nothing black about him, well, maybe his hair, but his skin was more of a sepia than anything else. Nothing like the pitch of night she had imagined. As a matter-of-fact, she found his coloring quite pleasing. It reminded her of the newly turning leaves, or the rich soil that lined the banks of the falls, and in that moment she realized that she wanted to memorialize his imagine on parchment.

He was sitting on the riverbank, pole in hand as his fishing line floated along with the current. It was a very peaceful scene as the man casually waited for a fish to bite, but when he began singing in a deep melodic voice, Keller closed her eyes and found herself letting the words wash over her.

I was born by the river in a little tent
and just like the river I been a runnin’ ever since
It’s been a long, long, long, a long time coming but I know
A change gon’ come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
Cuz I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, long, long, a long time coming but I know
A change gon’ come, oh yes it will…

The voice stopped abruptly and pulled Keller out of the trance she didn’t know she had fallen into. She didn’t know if she would ever get used to the variety of songs and lyrics that the ancients used to express their feelings. What she did know was that music was one of the most beautiful gifts that she had been given since meeting the woman that held her heart. When she opened her eyes she realized that the man was just staring at her, then she remembered her manners.

“Oh…um…I’m sorry to intrude, but our wagon train stopped back there a ways,” she pointed behind her. “I came looking for water, but when I heard you singing…well…I couldn’t help myself. I had to stop and listen.

The man smiled and as he stood up to greet the intruder, Keller didn’t think she would ever stop looking up, until finally, the man had unfolded to his full height. He was humongous, there was no other way to describe him. Davis was tall, but this man stood at least four inches over him and he was built like the trunk of a tree. But as he walked towards her and extended a hand the size of a cooking pan, she knew instinctively that he was as gentle as a lamb.

“The name’s William Randolph Tennyson, glad to make your acquaintance.”

The way the dimples sunk into his cheeks when he smiled and the playful twinkle that sparked in his light brown eyes made Keller return the warm smile with one of her own.

“I’m Keller Morgan, pleased to meet you.”

Before the introductions could go any further, Troi came barreling out of the brush with panic filled eyes. When she saw her small partner standing in front of the extremely tall man, she came to an abrupt stop and grinned.

“Well, if it isn’t William Randolph Tennyson,” she said as she walked closer.

“Troi Donner,” he responded with a warm familiarity. “I can’t say that I ever thought I’d see you here.”

Keller stood in-between the two tall people and found herself trying to keep up with the conversation by whipping her head back-and-forth as they spoke.

“Neither did I, William, but trouble was heading our way and we had to leave Arcadia with haste.”

Brown eyes became concerned.

Keller interrupted with a question. “How is it that you two know one another?”

“Sorry,” Troi apologized. “I should have made proper introductions. Keller, this is William. William, this is Keller.”

Keller rolled her eyes. “We got that far on our own. Now, answer my question. How do you know each other?”

William chuckled, but stopped before it became a full out laugh when green eyes turned in is direction.

“William’s family carves the masks that hang on the wall,” Troi informed her mate.

“Really?!” she turned back to William. “Those masks are beautiful. I wanted to bring them with us…but there wasn’t enough room,” she said sadly.

A slightly raised brow was William’s only indication that Keller’s innocent comment had clued him in to the nature of her relationship with Troi. “I see there is much to tell,” William said. Referring to more than the Arcadian’s presence in their land.

He walked back with them to where the travelers had stopped their wagon train and led them to his part of Émigré, to a village called Busara.

*******

The decision was an easy one for the elders to make. It had been during their last yearly sabbatical to the Low Lands that Sulcata had informed them that this day was near. She had said…

“The time has come. There is change in the air, the wind is calling your kind together. Your arms are open and your hearts accepting. It is time to open your land to your brothers and sisters. The great mother has judged the hour and the place. It is time for you to embrace and welcome one another home.”

It had been several years since the first invitation from the antediluvian. The elders of Émigré were called to the Low Lands for what would become a yearly meeting. Many things had been shared during that time, but the most important discussions of late had revolved around what Sulcata had termed the reawakening.

She had told the elders that some time soon the Arcadians would come to them seeking sanctuary and they should give it to them. She also told them to be prepared for, but do not fear those that would follow. She’d said they would be turned away by the roar of a nation. The elders didn’t quite understand that, but with the Arcadians arrival the protectors of Émigré would be put on alert.

In the mean time, their guests were sent to Graig where the people there would house them until other choices could be made.

*******

Troi and Keller were in Busara visiting with William. They really enjoyed the man’s company and now that a true friendship was starting to develop he was sharing more about who the people of Émigré were. As they walked and talked the women noticed all of the activity going on around them. Troi knew from the wears the exiles brought on the trade caravan that they had odd and exciting items, but to see the different way they dressed, the vibrant colors, sights sounds, and even how some of the trade goods were made was thrilling, and Keller was barely able to contain herself.

“Oh, my Deus,” Keller exclaimed out loud.”

The stares she received made her wonder if she had said something wrong. She looked to William with question.

The Busaraian smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “There is no Deus here, Keller. The Deus is the guiding spirit of the Province. It does not dwell in this land.”

Keller furrowed her brows. “Why?”

The soft laugh spoke of patient understanding, not ridicule. “Because, it would not make sense for us to follow a spirit that led The Order to exile us.”

“Oh,” was all Keller could say. “Do you have a…” she paused, trying to remember his words from a moment ago before continuing. “a guiding spirit?”

The most beautiful smile spread across the man’s dark features. “Yes, we do.”

Now, not feeling so foolish, Keller pressed for more information. “What do you call it?”

“It’s not just one. Every tribe is guided by the spirit that speaks to them. Like the people of Tiyatani have great respect for the Wakan. The Zūn Jìng believe in a more philosophical spirit. We in Busara feel the most spiritually connected through our respect for the changes the earth goes through, the different seasons.”

“Are there names?”

“Some have names, others don’t. Names aren’t important, Keller. What’s important is that your spirit leads you to understand and respect that there is something bigger than yourself.”

“Something bigger than me?” Keller thought that was funny. “There are a lot of things bigger than me.” She poked Troi in the stomach with her elbow. “This one is a constant reminder.”

William liked the blonde woman. A light lived in her. One that could bring even the darkest spirit out of the shadows.

“I can see your point. But I’m talking about the bigness of all that is around us.”

He saw that the women were not making the correlation, so tried to give examples. “I can’t make a tree, or a rainfall, but I can build a home for shelter from the wood or dig a well to quench my thirst with the water it brings forth, the materials are already there. I just learned how to use them for my benefit. Do you understand?”

Troi watched as Keller puzzled through what she was being told. To be honest, she was pondering it herself. When the trade caravans came, the people were always friendly and sociable, but the Arcadians and the people of Émigré never talked of the running’s of their lands and certainly not their belief systems. This was interesting information.

“I…I think I understand. No matter what greatness we achieve we should never forget from where it started.”

William smiled. “Very good.”

Keller started looking all around her. She looked up into the sky, then turned her focus to her foot where she swiped her toe across the ground. She pulled in a deep breath of fresh air and took in the lushness of the forest as the bright sun warmed her face.

“What are you doing, Keller?” Troi asked.

“I just realized something.”

“What?”

“This,” she waved her hands around the area. “can go on forever without people, but it’s not the same for us. People need it, it doesn’t need people.”

William clapped his hands together and gave a hardy laugh. “Yes!” he said. “It is what’s bigger than us.”

Keller beamed with understanding and looked to her mate, she could tell from the knowledge that glowed in Troi’s eyes that she too had made the connection.

“One day you will come to realize that all things serve the will of the guiding spirits,” William shared with them.

Troi hugged Keller close and looked deeply into her eyes. “I think we are already well on our way to reaching that understanding,” the tall woman said.

*******

Pip was walking along a deserted path in Graig talking to himself. He was never one to feel sorry for himself, there was no point in it, but lately the sentry had been indulging in a bit of self-pity. He liked Keller. He liked Keller a lot, but from the moment she’d arrived in Arcadia she was Troi’s main focus and he missed his friend. He didn’t begrudge her the happiness that she had found, but…he missed her.

“Troi finds someone, so I give it a try when Patsy arrived. But of course Davis beat me to her…Meathead. I sure wish I could find someone special,” he continued to mumble.

“Who might be the source of ya troubles?” was asked out of nowhere.

He looked around and was shocked to discover that he had been so involved in his misery that he hadn’t noticed when a young woman had walked up beside him.

“I…I well…”

The blue-eyed blonde held up her hand to stop the stutters. “Let’s begin again. I’m Eireen,” she introduced herself.

Pip remained silent for a few moments, just enjoying the whimsical lilt to her voice. They had been in Graig for two weeks now, and he was getting used to the way the people spoke, but Eireen’s voice seemed to be a little more musical than the others.

“The name’s Pip,” he finally offered.

The blonde raised a leery brow. “Surely yer name’s not Pip? I know yer folks didn’t tag ya with that moniker fer life.”

Pip had to laugh. This woman had to be the boldest person he had ever met. Maybe that’s why for the first time ever, he didn’t feel the need to hesitate before giving his name.

“My name is Peter.”

“Ah, I like it… Payter.”

“No, not Payter, Peter.”

“That’s what I be saying…Payter.”

Deciding that he actually liked the sound of it, he smiled and gave in. “Payter it is then.”

It would be the first day of many that Pip and Eireen spent in one another’s company. Pip didn’t know it at the time, but just by speaking his desire to the wind, his wish had been granted.

*******

Keller was in what had become her favorite position…lounging in front of Troi, using her partner as a backrest. Pip and his new friend, Eireen were beside them. Everyone was sitting in the dark waiting for the show to begin. The people in the land of Émigré were holding a welcome celebration for the Arcadians, and the visitors couldn’t wait for the festivities to begin.

Excitement moved through the crow when, first, low drumbeats were heard, then several torches were lit at once, illuminating the entire field they were sitting in. The bright light made it possible for the audience to see a dozen costumed men and women, each in an outfit representative of their village.

There were beads and feathers and ruffles everywhere. Then to add to the excitement the drums were joined by other sounds. Someone from Graig stepped forward and began blowing and squeezing on what looked like a bag with small tree branches coming from the top, but the sound it made complimented the drums. Then stringed instrument were added, until it all blended into a vibrant concert of sound.

Roger Meeks sat in amazement, and in that moment understood Succor’s words, he had to admit that indeed the drums could be the pounding of chest and the bag-branch instrument could be the trumpeting of the elephants trunk. ‘No wonder he was so frustrated with me,’ he thought.

Keller was thoroughly enjoying the show, and so was everyone else. When she looked to her left she could see Davis frantically writing by firelight as Patsy was dictating something to him. This caused a gentle smile to cross the artist’s face. They had all noticed that Davis was taking time to teach Patsy to read and write so that she could have a record of her stories, but they had also noticed that the pit cook was more than willing to write down her observations whenever the mood struck the redhead.

Her smile got bigger when she felt soft lips kiss her neck and warm breath tickle her ear. “Are you enjoying yourself?” was whispered.

She pulled the long arms around her waist tighter and snuggled deeper into Troi’s embrace. “Yes, I am.” she turned her head a little and looked up at Troi’s profile. “I never imagined such wonderful things existed.”

Troi looked down into dreamy eyes. “Neither did I,” she said.

“Really?!” was asked in shock.

Troi couldn’t resist. She leaned forward and kissed Keller’s soft lips. “Really,” was said before she went back for more, this time deepening the kiss for several moments.

“Are ye not finished yet?” was said with amusement.

Both women pulled apart and looked in Pip’s direction. The redhead went wide-eyed and shook his head back-and-forth as he pointed to the woman beside him in a ‘it wasn’t me’ type gesture.

Both Keller and Troi tried to hold back their laughter. Over the weeks they had learned to enjoy Eireen’s company and brash sense of humor. But the one there was one important thing they had discovered, when it came to the Graigian woman, one had to give as good as they got or risk being teased to no end.

Keller never took her eyes off of the blue-eyed blonde as she wrapped her fingers in Troi’s dark hair and pulled her mate’s face closer to her.

“You wouldn’t have time to worry about us if you had your own pair of lips to keep you busy,” Keller zinged.

Never missing a beat, Eireen looked at Pip and pulled him to her. “I think ye be right, Keller.”

The kiss that followed lasted so long that it became uncomfortable to watch, so Troi and Keller turned away. “I think she got you again,” was whispered in Keller’s ear.

“I think you’re right,” was whispered back. “But look at Pip, I bet he’ll be thanking me later.”

When Troi looked at her friend he had a dazed look on his face that quickly turned into a huge smile. “I think you’re right.”

*******

The Arcadians had been putting off leaving Émigré for a little more than a month, but the time had come to move on to the next part of their journey, the part that really was only for Troi and Keller to make.

They stood among their friends and neighbors and announced that the time had come for them to do as Sulcata had instructed. They informed everyone that they were not expected to follow, as a matter-of-fact they were encouraged to stay in Émigré, but that didn’t go over too well.

The Donner family stepped forward first. “If you think we are letting you and Keller go into the unknown all alone without anyone to watch your backs then your not as bright as I thought,” Magnus spoke for the family.

“And if you think I’m gonna let you go on an adventure without me you’re crazy,” Pip added.

“As unrefined as that sounded, I must agree,” said Barrett. “We have always been there for one another when there was danger about, this time will be no different.”

The couple had to admit that the people who had stepped forward didn’t surprise them, but the next voice did.

“I’ll be coming along too!” was yelled out.

“Are you sure about this Miss Millie? You might want to stay here where it’s safe, we don’t know what we will be facing once we reach our destination,” Troi informed the baker.

“I can take care of myself, Troi Donner, besides, what will you young people do for food if I stay here?”

Then Mona piped in. “Or clothes, if I don’t come along. You will all be running around in union suits and boots if I stay behind.”

Davis volunteered to join them. “I’m coming too, every extra hand helps,” he said.

Everyone smiled when Patsy spoke up. “If you’re going, I am too.”

Davis smile and draped his large arm over Patsy’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re stuck at the hip ya know.”

Patsy smiled brightly, and just for emphasis bumped the tall man with her hip.

Roger Meeks was standing off to the side, very amused by the conversation.

“What about you, Mr. Meeks? Are you coming along?” Troi asked.

The older man shook his head from side-to-side. “I don’t think I’ll be taking this trip with you Troi.”

“You have to come, Mr. Meeks. We need someone to keep a record,” the tall woman said.

He gentled his eyes in Patsy’s direction. “You have someone that can do that, he said with confidence. “I think the next part of the journey should be recorded by a fresh set of eyes.”

Keller understood that Roger was passing along a duty that in the past had only been served by his family. The artist knew that in the historian’s eyes this change was a significant one, and it made her wonder what was waiting for them in the west.

*******

The day the group headed out, before they could get too far out of the territory, the sound of horse hooves pounding down the road could be heard approaching the group, but it wasn’t until they heard a voice yelling out that the small wagon train stopped.

Payter! Wait!” Eireen didn’t stop riding until her tan horse was beside Pip’s.

“What’s going on Eireen?” Pip asked. He looked around and lowered his voice. “We said our good-byes last night,” he whispered.

“That we did, but I’ve been thinking’ to be joinin’ ye on this trek.”

A russet brow rose. “You are, are you? We will see about that,” was Pip’s sarcastic response.

A countering blonde brow rose. “Don’t give me no cheek now. I’ll not have the backtalk, Payter. My decision’s been made.”

Very aware that they were the center of attention, Pip rolled his eyes and gave in. “Fine, come on.”

Eireen smiled wide and sat tall in here saddle. “Let’s be movin’,” she instructed the waiting travelers. “We be wastin’ daylight.”

When they started moving again Keller leaned over and whispered to Troi. “This trip just got a lot more exciting.”

*******

The sun was slowly setting and the Arcadians would soon be looking for somewhere to make camp. Davis was riding on a horse that kept pace with the wagon Patsy and Millie were guiding, and every time Patsy would glance up to get a look at the handsome rider, he would already be looking at her.

“Something you want to say, Patsy?” he asked.

Looking over at Millie and seeing her trying hard to act as if all of her concentration was on leading the horses, Patsy turned her back to the older woman so that she was sitting sideways on the wagon seat, and motioned for Davis to lean in her direction. After he did, the redhead whispered loud enough for her voice to be heard over the wagon wheels.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be what you want me to be.”

A dark brow rose. “What is it that you think I want you to be, Patsy?”

She glanced over at Millie again and waved for him to lean in closer. At the risk of almost riding on the horse’s side Davis leaned even closer.

“A bedmate,” she whispered.

He nearly fell off of his mount, but managed to straighten himself before slamming his head into the side of the wagon. He knew this subject would eventually come up. The time they had shared so far had consisted of long walks, quiet talks, and an occasional kiss here and there. Yes. He wanted to get closer to Patsy, but that wasn’t the most important thing to him. Now he had to think of a way to tell her so that she believed him.

He reached down and held out his hand, waiting until she gave him her hand. When she did he spoke in a low and loving manner. “I would love it if we could become…closer.”

The sadness that flashed in her eyes cut right through him. “Let me finish,” he gave the hand he was holding a little squeeze to keep Patsy’s attention. “But, that’s not what’s important to me. I would be the happiest man in the world if I could get special smiles, just for me, or a gentle touch that tells me how you feel, or a sweet kiss that warms me all over. Honestly, Patsy, those things would fill every empty spot inside of me, but only if they came from you.”

She started wiping the tears with her free hand. “I can’t ask that of you, Davis. You’re a good man and you deserve a whole woman.”

“Hold it right there, Patsy Thirwell, there is nothing partial or incomplete about you, and any man would be lucky to have your attentions.” He softened his voice and his eyes. “I think you are perfect.”

Without looking at the young people, Millie reached into the front of her dress and pulled out a cloth. She handed it over to Patsy without taking her eyes off of the road, waiting for the young woman to return it so that she could wipe her own eyes.

‘That’s a mighty fine boy,’ she thought. ‘Mighty fine.’
Part Seventeen: Jungle, Welcome To The Jungle, Watch It Bring You To Your Kn-kn-knees.
~Guns N’ Roses~
Arcadia…they told him that was the name of the village. Myron knew the name meant, imagined place of rural bliss, and that’s why he decided that when he rode out it would be best to leave a squadron of ten of riders to watch over the place until his return.

The villagers had confessed that their neighbors had headed out of the back gate in an unknown direction, or destination. But to permanently leave a place so lovingly named didn’t ring true for Myron, so he thought it best to leave a few men behind…just incase the people were lying and the missing Arcadians were hiding somewhere, waiting for the riders to leave.

Brent had cleared up a huge mystery for the leader when he reported that Peyton, the trail boss’ source of information, had confessed that the Arcadians knew to leave because the village seer had warned the citizens that the Province riders were coming. But Myron wasn’t sure he believed that. He knew what mystics were, had even been warned to set out everyone he suspected of being one, but he never understood why. But if a mystic was the reason these people had gotten away, Myron wanted to meet the person. Their skills could be very valuable in his new world, and after seeing how these people lived Myron felt even more determined to bring them back. He could tell from the size of the village that the citizenry should be large…large enough to give him the numbers he would need to dismantle The Order and put his own kind in charge.

Things were falling into place nicely. It was almost as if the way had been laid out for him and all he had to do was follow…and Myron wanted to follow as soon as possible. He would give the men one night to rest, then they would set out on the trail of the missing Arcadians.

*******

The journey out of the back gate revealed a wide freshly cut path. This was more of what Myron expected. It also convinced him that the well executed escape the Arcadians had managed, most likely was a chance occurrence, because the trail that the villagers had left behind was so obvious that the tracker had no problem following it. These people really did need his guidance. If there was not one person in this group that knew they should cover their tracks, they most definitely needed his protection.

After two weeks of travel the trail abruptly stopped. There was nothing in front of them but narrow foot and horse paths. Myron rode to the front of the line to investigate. When he saw what the hold up was he faced the tracker.

“What does this mean?” Myron asked. “Where did their tracks go?”

“I’m not sure, Leader,” was all the tracker said. The man would need to give the area a closer inspection before he could give a conclusive answer.

“How long before you do know something?” Myron asked with impatience.

“I’ll know something within the hour,” the man answered as he dismounted his horse.

The men used this time to make a small camp and stretch their backs and limbs to get the kinks out of their bodies.

“Are there any trail rations left in that wagon, Piss ant?” Jay yelled in Zack’s direction.

The young cook rolled his eyes and looked in Sherman’s direction. He mouthed the word ‘pig’ before giving an answer.

“Yeah, there’s a few strips of spiced beef left.”

“Hand them over,” was said without any thought to anyone else.

As he chewed on the tough dried meat Jay turned his attention to Tom and Earl “You two need to go out and replenish the meat,” he said between bites.

Tom ignored him, but Earl did not. “Who put you in charge? We’ll go hunting when the boss says so.”

Jay stopped chewing and narrowed his eyes. “You giving me back talk, Earl?”

“Who are you, Jay? You are just a rider, like the rest of us.”

Jay took a menacing step forward and spoke in a low tight voice. “Who am I?” he asked. “If the leader continues to seek my advice, I’m the man that’s gonna be your boss real soon.”

This was surprising news to the few men that were in listening distance. They all knew that Myron Scott would sit at Jay and Todd’s campfire, but they had no idea that the relationship was going in that direction, and this man some of them wondered if Brent had any idea that Jay was trying to backdoor his position.

Seeing that the situation was about to escalate, Sherman intervened. “Come on, Earl. What do you say, you me and Tom go out in the woods until the tracker can get us moving again? Who knows, we might get lucky and catch a few rabbits.”

Earl’s response wasn’t immediate. The hunter still had some adrenaline running through him. He’d had about as much of Jay as he could take, and if Todd nodded and grinned in that idiotic way of his, Earl knew he was going to lose it and go after both men. But the Deus was with him. No more words were said, so he followed the tall blonde into the brush.

Jay just stared holes into his back. “You will be the first man I replace,” he said out loud. Then he faced Todd. “You gettin’ any better at shootin’ them arrows?”

Todd just grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “Good enough.”

Warren had silently watched the entire exchange and if things continued in it’s current direction he had a feeling that this journey was not going end well for quite a few of these men.

*******

It had taken all of his knowledge and experience, but the tracker was finally able to find a trace of something to follow that the weather hadn’t erased, and it wasn’t long before the riders were back in their saddles. From the looks of things, the Arcadians had turned around and headed back in the direction of home. This forced the riders to double back and lose quite a few days progress. And just when they thought they might be getting closer to the runaway villagers, they were faced with another lost trail.

Myron’s frustration had reached a boiling point. “What is going on?! These people can’t be this skilled at subterfuge.” Then he remembered Brent telling him about a seer. Maybe this was a trick. But before his thoughts could travel down that road…he heard a voice.

“Turn back, Myron.”

The leader rolled his eyes in annoyance. He was getting used to his father’s daytime visits and had every intention to ignore him.

“You don’t have to respond, I know you can hear me. Go back to the Province where you are needed.”

“I am needed out here,” he thought. “That’s why the Deus sent Sam to me.”

“The Deus didn’t send anyone to you. Sam is just a wandering simpleton that was able to safely cross the Badlands because he held no interest to the beasts that dwell there.”

“That’s not true. Sam’s safe crossing was a sign. That is why the first part of this crusade has been successful. We were able to eliminate the links and the wild dogs,” Myron responded with pride. “Only a messenger from the Deus could have set my feet on this path.”

Garland’s voice sounded helpless. “It was a mistake to clear the Badlands, Myron. Those beasts served a purpose, but it’s not too late. Return home and find another deterrent to stop those who will become curious and seek to explore what lays beyond the Province borders.”

Myron mentally waved off his father’s lecture. “Your advice is beginning to bore me, father. You claim to see many things from beyond the grave, but you obviously have no vision of the future.”

“I see more than you know, Myron. There is still time. Turn back. If you stop right now and take those people that were left in the village back to the Province it will impress the citizenry. They will be filled with confidence and see their leader as a savior.”

“Those few old people that were left behind are not enough, I need them all.” Suddenly he saw a flash of the picture that hung in the meeting hut. “It is the young people that will make the change I’m seeking.”

Garland was beginning to learn the man his son was becoming, and knew that it would be folly to continue to talk to him, Myron had turned a deaf ear, so Garland left his son…for now.

When Myron felt the air around him release the presence of his father’s spirit, he blew out a frustrated breath. ‘I wish that man would leave and never return. What good is death if they keep coming back?’ he thought. “Is the tracker having any success?” he yelled from his position in the middle of the riders.

The harried man released a thankful breath when he found the place where the road had been covered. His thorough investigation hadn’t exposed a clump of dying leaves on an otherwise health tree limb. If not for that, he would have never thought to investigate the area.

“Yes, Leader. I have found their path,” he responded with relief.

“Then what’s the hold up? Brent, get these men moving!”

Brent Murdock did as he was ordered, but was disturbed. Riding the trail always changed a man, but the change in the leader was unusual. Where life in the wild could make one more introspective, thoughtful and cautious, it seemed to be causing Myron Scott to become more aggressive, and when aggression wasn’t tempered with forethought that could put a lot of lives in danger.

Myron’s behavior was causing Brent some discomfort, mainly because the man was beginning to act like Jay, and the thought that he might have another Jay on his hands was a little frightening. Not because he couldn’t handle Jay, he knew that he could, but because dealing with this man would be a thousand times worse than trying to control Jay. Unfortunately for the trail boss, he couldn’t force this rider to obey orders and stand down…because this bad tempered impetuous young man ruled them all.

*******

When the trees and brush was cleared away, the riders were shocked. Before them was a road that was well maintained and often used. There wasn’t enough wheel and horse tracks to indicate constant use by wagons, but the low grass and even ground was a sure sign that animals lived and grazed here.

Following the Arcadian’s trail into the Low Lands had been easy after finding the hidden road, but suddenly things changed. The air around them crackled with menace, causing the horses to whinny and stomp, the animals becoming so agitated that the riders were forced to dismount and soothe the animals or risk being thrown.

Brent looked around, but didn’t detect any danger. He looked to the sky and only saw the bright sun. The horses were acting like bad weather was coming, but there were no clouds in the sky or the smell of rain in the air, but the thick woods that loomed in front of them didn’t look too inviting, making Brent think that what ever was distressing the animals was coming from that direction. Instinct told him to go no further, so he sent word back that they were going to make camp for the night. When he saw Myron approach he steeled himself for yet, another confrontation.

“There is still plenty of daylight. Why are we stopping to make camp for the night?” Myron asked.

In a measured voice, hoping to find a bit of patience, Brent answered the leader. “Something is spooking the horses, and since it doesn’t look like the weather is turning bad, I’m assuming that the cause of their agitation is coming from in there,” he said as he pointed in the direction of the jungle.

Myron said nothing. He walked closer to the dense woods and extended his senses. He felt many things…none of them good. He looked to his right and saw an old wooden sign mixed in with a tangle of honeysuckle vines. ‘Lake Of The Ozarks’ was what it said.

‘More written words,’ Myron thought. Although it was obvious that these words had been written long ago, they still ignited a flame in Myron’s soul. He wanted to go in and see if there were people in there. He was about to order the riders to do just that, when a noise like nothing he had ever heard before filled the sky.

“What in the name of the Deus was that?!” he asked as he turned in Brent’s direction.

“I’m not sure, Leader, but it sounded like the roar of a very large, very angry animal.”

Up until that moment the most fearsome roar they had ever heard was in the Badlands, and that was coming from the links. This was obviously no link. This was obviously not human in any way.

Brent waved to the men lined up and down the road. “Move back!” he yelled

After establishing themselves a safe distance from the woods a tight campsite was set up, but the usual activities were left undone until the men could scout the area. For the men that had been assigned that duty, it would be the last time they were seen…None of them knew it at the time, but they were being stalked.

*******

These men were unwelcome, Succor had sent out the word that the patrol force could do with them as they pleased…with one stipulation. If the scent of the green-eye blonde was on any of them the animals must let them be. And the one that ruled over them was to also go unharmed.

Even with the restrictions, Romolo was pleased. They had been forced to allow the first group of humans safe passage, but that would not be the case with this bunch. And unlike the first human travelers, this band of men carried an aggressive scent that caused the chimp’s blood to burn like fire. The battle lust rushed forward pushing the chimpanzees into action.

An unsuspecting rider was slowly making his way through a patch of foliage that was no more than two hundred yards from the campsite when his eye caught a movement, thinking it could be something they could use for a meal, he followed. When he came upon what appeared to be an injured rabbit, laying on it’s side he smiled and moved closer.

Before he knew what was happening, a pair of aggressive arms pulled him deep into the woods. His mouth was covered by a leathery hand and his nostrils were filled with the scent of the wild. The panic in his eyes and the pounding of his heart seemed to thrill his assailants, and before the man could call for help or seek escape. Blows were being reined down on him, his arms were being pulled from their sockets and his face was being clawed to shreds.

When the attack was over the stalkers moved around the perimeter and reset the rabbit carcass. The vine that was used to pull the creature across the forest floor was repositioned and they waited…knowing that it wouldn’t be long before another man found his way into their trap.

*******

The next morning the men awoke to an entourage that was missing ten men. That was one of the reasons Sherman and Warren wandered off together, in search of a private place to take care of their morning needs. Usually the mornings were not a problem, the men did what needed to be done without a care as to who was beside them, but sometimes the morning relief required a squat, not a stand, and this was one of those mornings.

They’d found a spot that was close enough to hear the movements in the camp, but far enough away for them to have a little privacy. When Sherman was about to push the shovel into the dirt to dig the latrine hole, they were suddenly surrounded.

The animals that formed the threatening ring resembled the wild dogs, but they were smaller. Their front legs were a little longer than their back legs, giving them a distinctive gait as they slowly walked around the startled men and their coats were brown with reddish amber spots.

The hyenas continued to circle the men, sniffing the air and growling when a very distinctive scent permeated the air. These two belonged to the blonde woman, therefore off-limits…but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have a little fun before running off to seek more available prey.

The Morgan men didn’t know what to do when the animals forced them closer together by making their circle smaller with each pass they made around the men, and when the dog-like animals raise their tails and made whooping noises, every bit of morning waste that had previously wanted out of the men’s body, crawled back up into their bellies.

Feeling like the men had been sufficiently frightened the clan backed away and disappeared into the woods.

Nothing was said for several long minutes and neither man moved. When laughter was heard coming from the camp, it seemed to break them out of their paralysis.

Warren spoke first. “Right about now I could use a cup of your mother’s senna tea, cause I don’t think my bowels are gonna loosen up anytime soon.”

This made Sherman laugh. “You and me both, dad. What do you think those things were?”

They continued talking as they headed back to the safety of the campsite. “I don’t know, son. But I hope we leave this place soon. I’m getting a real solid feeling that we aren’t wanted here.”

*******

Two days later, with a lot less food and short, twenty missing men, the Province riders left the Low Lands. The tracker had found a way around the unwelcoming forest and was thrilled to report to the trail boss that he had spotted a set of wheel and horse tracks that had to have been made by the escaped Arcadians.

Romolo and Succor watched, hidden in the shadows as the men rode away. Romolo turned to Succor and spoke with a snarl. “You should have let us kill them all.”

“That was not to be, Romolo.”

“You know what will happen, Succor. It will only be a matter of time before they ruin things again.”

The magnificent cat turned to walk away, with the chimp following behind him. “For whatever her reasons are, the mother has deemed man the lord of her land, and no matter how many times he pushes her to her limits she will forgive him and return him to power.”

The chimp was barely able to maintain a cool head. “Why not us? Why can’t we be the lords?”

The golden lion stopped walking and raised his muzzle to the sky. He closed his eyes and let the majesty of his surroundings envelop him.

“Because we don’t need to be. We don’t need to constantly prove we are her equal. We know we are not. I think that man must always repeat this cycle until he realizes it too.”

Romolo continued to stomp beside his leader. “So, what do we do now?”

Succor exhaled. He didn’t want to speak the words, but it was necessary. “The Lady says that we must scatter and become cunning. No more will we speak with man. That time has passed. She has predicted that in a not too distant future man will forget that he ever had a relationship of equality and mutual respect with the animals, and instead, see us as their mortal enemies.”

“You should have let me kill them all,” Romolo repeated.

The two, sometimes combatants, walked side-by-side along the leaf covered road in silence. One, angry and feeling somehow cheated. The other, thoughtful and reconciling himself to their future. But both knowing that whether they agreed with it or not their time of freedom was running short.
Part Eighteen: If I Could Save Time In A Bottle, The First Thing That I’d Like To Do, Is To Save Every Day Till Eternity Passes Away. ~Jim Croce~
After leaving Émigré the journey had been fairly easy. The roads were clearly marked and level. When the wagon train passed through Independence, Missouri the road changed to number twenty-nine, and they had followed it into Iowa, but now they were facing their first obstacle. The road had suddenly dropped off, leaving them standing on a riverbank looking across a fiercely moving body of water. They stood there looking at the distance, trying to decide how to get to the other side where the road picked up again.

Tanner suggested that they build rafts. Magnus agreed. The men figured that way the horses and wagons would easily float across instead of risking hitting deep levels in the water and losing horses and wagons, there was just one problem…someone had to swim across and tether the rope to the other side.

“I’ll do it,” Troi volunteered.

“You will not,” Keller scolded.

Troi leaned down and urgently whispered in Keller’s ear. “I’m the strongest swimmer, Keller. The scouts are the only ones that get the chance to swim regularly in the powerful waters of the falls.” She looked around before continuing. “Pip is too small to do it and Barrett wouldn’t stand a chance…it has to be me.”

Seeing the logic in her mate’s words, Keller gave in. “Fine. But if you drown I’ll never talk to you again.”

Troi pulled the shorter woman close and kissed the top of her head. “If I drown I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Keller’s wasn’t the only objection to Troi’s decision, but Troi’s mind was made up. She tied the rope around her ankle and wadded into the water until the ground below her dropped off, then she began to swim across the strong current.

Things were going well, until out of nowhere a powerful rapid came around a corner, headed right for the scout. Troi went head over foot a few times, then bobbed to the surface, the only problem was that the rope had loosened from her leg and she was being pulled down stream.

Both Keller and Nicola stood and screamed in horror, but Tanner jumped into action. He pulled up one of the ropes and dove into the water, trusting his father to tie off the loose end. His strong strokes cut through the water quickly, and his determination to reach his sister never gave his mind time to feel the physical strain that was being put on his body.

When he finally made it to her, Troi was sputtering water and flailing. When Tanner yelled for her stop fighting him. All movements stopped immediately. Troi relaxed and allowed her brother to pull her ashore.

On the other side Davis was holding a hysterical Keller against his chest to stop her from following Tanner, and Nicola was relieved that she hadn’t lost both of her children.

*******

Troi was sitting beside Keller with a pout on her face…her ego was bruised. After Tanner rescued her, he secured the rope on the opposite side and helped his sister back across the water to help cut wood and build the rafts. Now she was sitting beside Keller with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, becoming more and more agitated with every, ‘are you alright’ that was asked.

“I can’t take all of this attention,” she mumbled.

Without saying a word, Keller pushed in Troi’s bottom lip and grabbed her by the hands. She pulled the tall woman off of the ground and led her away from the campsite.

“Where are we going? I need to help build the rafts.”

“I don’t know yet, but once we get there I’ll let you know.”

Minutes later, as they were trekking up a dirt hill, the tip of Keller’s boot caught on something sticking out of the ground, causing her to trip and almost fall. Troi grabbed her arm after she stumbled and held her steady. Once the shorter woman was upright, they gave closer observation to what had caused the stumble. Troi squatted down and started wiping dirt and twigs away from the object. At first she thought it was a rock, but after paying closer attention, she saw that the protrusion looked more like metal than stone, then a top of some kind was revealed.

“What’s that?” Keller asked.

Troi shrugged her shoulders. “I have no idea.”

Troi stared, trying to figure out what angle she should approach the cap from in order to open it. After a while she nodded her head, a decision had been made. She reached down with both hands, grabbing the wide handle with both hands, pulling with all of her might, but nothing happened.

Keller saw how much wasted effort had gone into the attempt and made a suggestion. “Maybe you should twist it,” she said.

Troi rolled her eyes. “That was going to be my next move.”

“Oh,” was all Keller said.

Troi exhaled a long breath and took hold again. It took a lot of effort, and she felt the muscles in her forearms and biceps begin to strain. Eventually she had to sit in the dirt, dig in her heels and use her whole body to get the top moving, but once it started spinning, the threads began to glide smoother over one another, and the top began unscrewing much faster until she was able to pull the cover free, exposing the insides of a metal tube.

When Keller walked closer she saw that there was something stuffed inside. Troi reached in and pulled a hard box out of the hole. It’s weight was substantial for its size, it was about the size of cooking pan, and didn’t look familiar at all Keller reached over Troi’s shoulder and flipped the latches that were on each end. Both women jumped a little when the top popped open to reveal another, slimmer box.

The top of it had the word Gateway on top. When Troi carefully pulled the item out she noticed that the box seemed to be split in half, so she pulled it apart, and as soon as the sun hit the small solar panels on the inside, the box sputtered to life, revealing a young blonde woman who introduced herself.

“Greetings, people of the future. My name is Hallie Sutherland, I’m twenty-one years old and the date is July thirty-first, nineteen ninety-nine. I am on summer break from college and decided that while I’m home I would record some footage that I plan on burying in a time capsule when I go back to school in Iowa. I am doing this so that people one hundred years from now will know what life was like back in the olden days. I guess by now people are riding around in hovercrafts and taking vacations on Mars,” the woman’s image joked.

Troi dropped the box and backed away from it, Keller right beside her moving just as quickly. They looked at each other…bewildered and a little frightened. If this talking-picture machine wasn’t confusing enough, the words that were being used certainly were. What was a time capsule or a hovercraft? What did nineteen ninety-nine mean?

“Troi?” Keller asked in a shaky voice. “What…is…that…thing?”

Troi’s curiosity was getting the best of her, so she slowly made her way back to the talking picture box. “I don’t know, Keller, but maybe if we look at it a little longer we can figure it out.”

When Troi picked the box up again, the picture started to shift and the young woman could no longer be seen. Instead the screen showed things, the likes of which Keller and Troi had never imagined.

Dwellings that were built close together and seemed to stretch the entire length of the road, horseless wagons that moved on their own. Neatly carved out paths that were dirt free and hard packed with yellow lines running down the center. Then the picture moved skyward.

“You are looking at the Washington Monument. It is five hundred and fifty feet tall. It was built in eighteen eighty-four in honor of our first president, George Washington, who also happens to be the person this city was named for.”

The screen went blank for a moment, then came back to life. The woman was the same, but her clothes were different, and so was her location, and things were a lot noisier than before.

“I am standing in Washington National Airport. Actually it’s been renamed, but I prefer to use the old one. Anyway I thought it might be fun to show you what we had to use to fly around in on those long distance trips we have to take. I’m sure by now everyone just steps onto a platform and, whoosh…instant transportation.”

Again, Hallie disappeared and the young couple was amazed. A huge tube with bird’s wings was rolling down a smooth hard looking surface at an incredible rate of speed. Then, as if an invisible hand was lifting it off the ground, it headed towards the sky.

The sight made them feel as if they were spiraling down a dark hole, making them feel dizzy and off balance, and if they were to admit it, a little insane.

“What kind of magic is this?” Troi asked.

“I…I…I don’t know. This can’t be real. It must be some sort of illusion.”

Before much contemplation could be given, the scene changed again.

“This is a music video. I know, I know. You guys have holographic imagery by now, but please indulge me for a couple on minutes. A hand was seen bringing another type of picture box closer. “This is Ricky Martin singing Livin’ la vida loca.”

The singing, the dancing, the music…all of it was frenetic, energized…exciting. The women felt their heart’s pounding and smiles bloomed on their faces. They turned to one another and said simultaneously,

“Amazing.”

Then, suddenly, the picture started to waver. Hallie’s voice became indiscernible and the screen would blink off and on, then it all just went black.

Troi shook the machine, trying to make it talk again, but nothing happened.

“Troi, what’s wrong with the Gateway?” Keller questioned. The things they had been shown were incredible and she wanted to see more.

“I think it’s broken,” Troi answered.

Keller released a sad sigh. “Just when it was getting exciting,” she pouted.

Troi was thrilled to have the opportunity to turn the tables on Keller, she reached out with a long finger and pushed Keller’s bottom lip back in. “Put that away,” she said with a playful smile.

Keller slapped the finger away. “Don’t get cute.” She turned her attention back to the dark screen. “Is there any way you can fix it.”

Troi looked at her like she had two heads. “I don’t even know what it is, let alone be able to fix it.”

“What are we going to do with it?”

Troi thought before answering. “I think we should put it back in that tube and bury it deep in the ground.”

After making sure there was enough dirt on top of the tube to stop anyone else from tripping over it, the couple made their way back to the riverbank.

“Troi, do you think Hallie was from the future?”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because she said it was July thirty-first, nineteen ninety-nine. Nineteen ninety-nine must be the year. That would place her more than a thousands in the future.”

“Not necessarily, Keller. There are two problems with that. First, there are only thirty days to each month, and second, she said she was making the pictures for the people in the future.”

That logic made no sense to Keller, and she wasn’t willing to give in that easily. “Okay, you’re right about that, but how do you explain all those things we saw? The things she called airplanes and cars. That gigantic monument thing. Nothing like that exists here. And although we know that there are only thirty days in month, and ten months to a year. Maybe in the future the months are longer.”

Troi was forced to consider the possibility as she thought out loud. “Their paths were really smooth, no ruts or bumps in them. The land was bare, no woods or trees anywhere and the clothes they wore and the shoes on their feet. No hand could have sewn them. I mean my mom is good, but shoes like those people were wearing…”

Then a thought hit her again. “But if that was the future, why did she say she made the pictures for the future?”

Keller didn’t have an answer to that. She started to rub her temples and scrunch up her forehead. “This is making my head hurt.”

Troi pulled her lover close. “Should we tell the others about this?” Keller asked.

“Um…I don’t think so. It will only give them headaches too. And besides, I think it’s broken. It wouldn’t show them anything.”

Keller rubbed her temple again. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

But, Keller couldn’t help but wondered why, the Gateway, as strange as it was, hadn’t shocked her as much as a moving picture, talking box should. Then she shook her head in silent resignation. ‘Since leaving home, I’ve seen talking animals, tiny, flying, winged women, and people of every color, shape, sound, and look that could ever be imagined. I guess I’m lookin at this as just one more odd thing to add to the growing pile,’ she thought.

Then she heard a sound, and it made her smile. Troi was singing under her breath and moving her hips as they walked.

“Her lips are devil red, her skin’s the color of mocha , she will wear you out, livin’ la vida loca.”

*******

The couple returned to the river and helped with the raft building, never mentioning what they had found on their walk. It took until the next day to complete the cutting and building, and soon after they were making the trip across the water.

When the wagon train reached the other side and everyone was safely on dry land, the group of travelers looked around. A downed sign welcomed them to Omaha Nebraska, and wished them ‘happy motoring’. The long road ahead of them was flat and wide and there were no obstacles for as far as the eye could see. They set their feet on the highway that now read just the number two, and headed in the direction they hoped would lead them to the rocky path.
Part Nineteen: I’m Not A Perfect Person, There’s Many Things I Wish I Didn’t Do. ~Hoobastank~
The riders were in Independence Missouri, setting up camp in a much more inviting territory. The men they had lost a long the way had dropped their numbers to less than eighty, and Brent was getting worried. Surely it would take more than the men they had now to return an entire village to the Province. In his estimation, things were just getting worse. The only bright spot being the tracker’s news that there was a clear set of Arcadian prints to follow, not to mention the horse droppings that were like a guiding light.

The good news caused Myron to feel generous and let the men rest for a little while before moving on. He noticed that the fire circles that had been built were fewer now than they had been at the start of the journey, but that didn’t bother him. On the way back the fires would increase in numbers once again.

Warren and Sherman were sitting around a fire talking with Zack, Tom and Earl. The riders were sharing some of the things they knew about the center, and the Morgan men were horrified. And as horrified as they were, were as ashamed as the men in their circle was.

“I can’t believe I just turned away and let those poor girls be treated the way they were,” Earl lamented.

Tom hung his head low. “At least you never walked in on an attack and did nothing,” the rider said in shame.

Warren couldn’t believe what he was hearing. These men had shown themselves to be upstanding. How could they let these things go on?

“Why didn’t you help, Tom?”

The man pushed some ash around with the tip of a stick. “Because, Warren, when you’re out numbered you feel helpless.”

“You saying most of the riders are crooked and vile?” Warren asked with some heat as he looked around the campsite.

“No, not at all, most of us see our positions as honorable. We feel like we are the guardians of the Province and it’s people, but a few of the men have started to lean more towards abuse than protection.”

“Then I’m confused. How were you out numbered?” Warren asked.

Earl answered for his friend. “When a family member of the five fellows runs the center and condones, even participates in certain behavior, it’s the same as being out numbered…at least that’s how we see it.”

“A descendent of the fellows lets these things go on…and takes part?”

The two men nodded their heads.

“Deus, bless,” Warren whispered.

Then Zack said out loud what the other two men would not. “Todd and Jay are the worst offenders. The men are heartless animals that have no conscious.”

Sherman seethed as he listened to what was being said. What was going on? How could men like these ever be put in trusted positions? “There is no one that can put a stop to this?”

Zack shook his head. “Nope.”

It was then that Brent joined the men and they made room for him. Looking around at the dropped heads and tight faces, the trail boss wondered what he had walked up on.

“Is it that bad, fella’s?”

Sherman snorted in disgust. “Let’s see. Our leader is a wet behind the ears kid. Men have died, been injured, or just outright disappeared from around us. We are chasing a village of people that have every right to be left alone, and we just found out that a family member of one of the fellows runs the center and teats it like his own personal house of pleasure! Yeah, I’d say things are bad.”

Brent wasn’t expecting such a venomous barrage of accusations, so he held up his hands and tried to calm Sherman down.

“Whoa there, young Morgan. You are right in all that you say, but let me ask you this.”

Sherman waited.

“What would you do to fix things?” Brent held his hand up again to stop Sherman before he spoke. “Something that wouldn’t have you, your family and anyone that spoke kindly about you, set out?”

Sherman’s mouth just bobbed up and down, and nothing came out.

“Exactly,” the trail boss said.

The silence that ensued was long lasting, until Brent broke the tension.

“So, Warren. You still think your daughter is alive?”

Warren smiled crookedly. “I know she is, trail boss.”

“Oh, really? How can you be so sure?”

That’s when Warren revealed what he and Sherman had discovered in the village.

“Her affliction makes her draw pictures, we saw one of her pictures back in Arcadia,” he said without fear or shame. Those were the feelings that had caused him to put his daughter in harm’s way, and Warren was determined to stop following that path.

“I’m sure Arcadia had many people with that affliction, I saw several pictures in the meeting hut. How can you be sure you saw your daughter’s pictures?”

Warren’s ears burned red, but he raised a defiant chin in the air and held the trail boss’ eyes. “We found a picture of our family, only Keller could have done that.”

Brent nodded his head. “Good enough,” he said.

The men went quiet again for a while, each in his own head thinking his own thoughts about the quest so far, until Zack broke the silence.

“Um, Warren, when we find your daughter, how about introducing me to her?”

“What? Why?”

Now the young man became nervous. “Well, um…in that picture she was real good looking and…”

Before he could stutter out any more of his answer Sherman’s large hand fell on his shoulder. “I like you, Zack, but if you go anywhere near my sister with the intentions of courting her I’ll take you to the woodshed.”

“Oh,” was all the young cook said.
Part Twenty: It’s Strong And It’s Sudden, It Can Be Cruel Sometimes, But It Might Just Save Your Life…It’s The Power Of Love. ~Huey Lewis~
When the traveling Arcadians reached the stony path there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was. Boulders, most likely from a landslide, blocked the road, entirely obscuring any landmarks. The only thing visible was another ancient sign that read ‘Nebraska National Park’ and a narrow passage no wider than a wagon’s width beside it. This forced them to travel single file through the entrance.

When they came upon the second forest they had encountered during their journey, they noticed the difference immediately. Where the forest in the Low Lands was bright, green and alive, this one was dank, dark and desolate.

As soon as they crossed over it’s borders the temperature dropped and they were immediately overwhelmed by the stench of sulfur and musty decay. To the Arcadians the place felt…wild.

Even in Succor’s kingdom, where the animals ruled, there was a feeling of civility, an order to things, but here, with the odd sounds, offensive odors and strange darkness it all seemed untamed.

There was nothing green anywhere, everything, from the soil on the ground, to tops of the trees was a muddy brown, which Keller found odd, mainly because she’d never seen a fully bloomed leaf with such a thick and heavy color to it.

The further in they traveled they found themselves constantly swatting at the gnats and mosquitoes that steadily buzzed around them, and there were strange sounds that caused fear to skitter down their spines, Troi gathered the small group and made a suggestion.

“I think we should stay close together. You know, make our lines as tight as possible.”

“I agree,” Pip added, as he looked around the strange place.

The path they walked along seemed more marshland than road. The ground under their feet gave slightly, causing the soles of their shoes to leave imprints in the spongy surface, and they could hear the sounds of creatures slithering along on their bellies.

Everything about the place seemed slightly…moist, not saturated, but a light sheen of sweat seemed to rest on every surface of the place. Making it all smell moldy.

Off in the distance they heard what sounded like something slurping soup from a bowl, and they fought with themselves whether or not they should investigate…curiosity won out. They followed the noise and when they reached the source they were not prepared for what they saw. Down on all fours, sucking nutrients from a mound of bug infested mud, was Mona’s missing sons, James and Paul.

In the year and a half since they had left Arcadia their clothes had been worn down to nothing but a pair of tattered shorts and nothing else. No shoes, no shirt, nothing.

Mona saw them and clutched at her chest. “Oh, my Deus. What has happened to them?”

The men heard their mother’s voice, but did not recognize her. They jump up from their meal and ran off. Troi and Pip didn’t waste any time following them, with Davis and Keller close on their heels.

As they gave chase, strange things were falling from the trees landing in their hair and on their shoulders. They wiped them off our peeled them away without stopping their pursuit. When a strange looking frog with turquoise colored skin and black eyes jumped from a branch and landed on Troi’s shoulder, she just swiped it away, but not before the bug-eyed dart frog had licked her neck, passing it’s toxic secretions onto the unknowing scout.

Pip and Troi were able to catch up with the men before they could disappear into a hole in the ground. The scouts tackled their childhood friends and pinned them to the damp earth.

“James, have you and Paul been here all this time?” Troi asked in a panic.

The frantic man continued to struggle as if he didn’t know who this woman was. When Troi got a glimpse of his eyes, she saw that they were wild and crazed, that was when she realized that the brothers were in desperate need of help.

“Pip, let’s get them back to the group. Maybe if their mother talks to them she can some how bring them back to themselves.”

*******

No one could believe what they were seeing. In front of them was James and Paul Garren, but in a way they were not.

The men had squirmed and flailed around so much that they had to be tied in the back on Mona’s wagon, where she was now trying to soothe them with words and fill their bellies with warm soup.

A clearing had been found that wasn’t as moist as the rest of the forest, but it wasn’t dry either, but the travelers didn’t have a problem stopping to make camp in this dank place if it meant helping their long missing neighbors.

“What do you think happened to them?” Pip asked in a whisper.

Troi scratched the side of her neck and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, but it appears that they’ve lost their minds.

Keller moved closer to her mate. “Do you think they can get it back?”

Troi scratched the itchy patch on the side of her neck again. “How should I know?” she asked a little harsher than she meant.

The young people went still and stared at Troi, but said nothing. Realizing what she had done, blue eyes went apologetic before the words left her mouth.

“Keller, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me, love. I don’t know why I said it like that.” When she finished speaking she went back to scratching.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. I think you’re over tired.” Noticing the red rash that was forming in the area of Troi’s scratching, Keller pulled long fingers away.

“Let me see that.” After a quick inspection she winched. “Ouch, that looks uncomfortable.”

She grabbed an aloe leaf from the healer’s bag and rubbed it on her mate’s irritated skin. The cool gel instantly gave Troi a bit of relief. She reached up and pulled Keller’s hand to her lips and kissed her knuckles.

“I don’t deserve you,” she whispered with sincerity.

“Don’t be silly, you deserve better.”

“No way, there is no one better.”

The friends that were around them rolled their eyes and walked away. The tender display was too icky sweet to continue watching.

“Why ya never say silly sweets like that ta me, Payter?” Eireen asked.

The red-head went bug-eyed. “I’ve only known you a little more than a month, Eireen. Can you give me some time?”

The blue-eyed blonde gave the man a suspicious look. “Alright, Payter, I’ll give ya time…but don’t keep me waitin’ too long. I’m not a patient woman.”

This last part made Patsy giggle and the writer looked up at Davis. “Kinda pushy isn’t she?”

Davis gave his girl a big smile. “Yeah, she is. That’s why I like my women kind and sweet.”

A russet brow rose in question. “Your women?” Patsy asked.

‘Oh, oh,’ Davis thought. “Did I say women? I meant woman.”

“Good answer,” Patsy said with a twinkle in her eye as she walked away.

If she had turned around she would seen a huge smile grow on Davis’ face. Patsy was gaining more confidence…and he liked it.

*******

Mona, Nicola and Millie were in the chuck wagon preparing a meal. Millie was placing a beef and greens mixture onto thin slices of bread and rolling them into tight tubes.

“Just give them these, Mona. It’ll help them remember. Those boys of yours could eat five of these at a time when they were no more than thirteen years-old. Remember?”

Mona just shook her side from side to side. “What happened to them, Nicola. Why don’t they know me and why are they acting like wild animals?”

“I wish I knew, Mona. But we’ll do everything we can to help them…to help you.”

“Thanks, the two of you have always been good friends. I don’t know what to say.”

“There’s nothing to say. Here, take these back to your wagon and feed them boys,” Millie said as she handed the pained mother the rolled foods. “We’ll be by later. Nicola has a couple of pair of shoes they can wear and I think Pip said something about trying to get them to play a few rounds of flip the chip.”

Mona headed back to her wagon, her heart less heavy. Knowing how much her friends were willing to support her made the burden a little lighter and she felt like she could go on another day.

*******

That night the travelers that couldn’t find room on the back of a wagon to sleep, strung up vines to lay blankets over so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the wet ground. Nicola thought that Troi was running a slight fever and insisted that she and Keller sleep in the back of her wagon. Magnus didn’t object, he thought his daughter was probably getting a cold from her tumble in the river and he knew this damp forest wasn’t helping.

It was a good idea for Troi, not so much for Keller. She didn’t get much rest. Her mate tossed, turned and mumbled all through the night. The next day Keller was left feeling cranky and tired, and not very sociable.

As the group was packing up, preparing to move on, Troi barely said anything to anybody. It was obvious that she was in a bad mood and her friends gave her a wide berth.

Keller remained silent also, the only time she approached Troi was to rub a little more aloe gel on the now spreading rash.

“Thanks,” was mumbled.

“Welcome,” was returned, as Keller walked away.

Their friends were steadily working, but keeping a close eye the couple.

“I tell ya, Pip she be plagued,” Eireen said.

“I don’t believe that, not Troi.”

“It be true. I’ve seen it before, she be plagued by the dark demons.”

Tanner had heard enough. He knew something was wrong with Troi, but he wasn’t going to stand by and listen to someone claim his sister to be somehow diseased.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Eireen. Troi is just tired, and when she gets tired she gets a little short tempered.”

Barrett had been listening to the human’s conversation and felt it was time to add his opinion to the circle. “She’s not plagued,” he said. “At least not in the manner that you suggest, Eireen. Troi is trying to fight off the poisonous affects of one the vile beings that dwell here.”

“How do you know that?” Tanner asked.

“I know it because the slimy little leapers that did this to her live in the swamps of the Low Lands. I’ve seen their work before. On many occasions they were able to prove themselves quite capable of protecting themselves. That is why they go unharmed in our lands.”

“If you know what it is, how do we help her?” Tanner wanted to know.

“The only way to break the hold the illness has on her is to give her a very potent leaf that grows in the Low Lands, without it we can’t help her, Tanner. Either she will survive the poison or she will not.”

“Are you saying my sister is going to die?”

“No. I’m just stating the outcome of two possibilities.”

*******

Troi didn’t know what was wrong with her. She was hot tempered, and the previous night she’d had the oddest dreams. She knew that she was being mean to Keller, but couldn’t seem to stop herself.

What Troi didn’t know, was that a malevolent spirit that had been held hostage for centuries in these woods had targeted her to help it make it’s escape. In the past the only thing that it could inhabit to attempt to break free was the creepy, crawly, slimy things. But their limited abilities would never enable it to cross over the borders of the dark forest, it was always forced to retreat back into the muck.

And then when the men and women began to attempt travel through this dark place, none of them ever had a will strong enough to hold it’s presence for too long before losing their minds. That was the problem with the bumbling brothers that were running around in the forest. It had tried one, and then the other, but both were lacking strong enough spirits to hold the entity’s power.

After abandoning them the entity had no care of the men’s situation, it knew that it wouldn’t be long before they would shrivel up and die, just like the others, becoming a part of the sludge and slop of forest.

But then something happened that was very unexpected. A will stronger than any it had ever felt entered the forest, and the entity became excited. This presence was so powerful that the entity could almost feel itself becoming solid just from woman entering the forest.

It knew it had to work fast. It had no more than three days before the travelers would reach the other side, and this chance would be lost, so it sent out one of it’s minions to mark the woman, she had to be put into a weakened state, her defenses needed to be broken down so that it could bind with her spirit.

Once that was done it would have complete control over her body, and then it would finally be able to leave the slimy, moldy filth that had been it’s prison.

‘Just a few more hours,’ it thought. ‘Tonight I will have my freedom.’

*******

She was in a place that was surrounded by a sickly green light. It was missing the healthy glow of the waking world. And the smell was unbearable. The night terrors had gotten real bad, real fast and it was only through Troi’s strong determination that the terrors didn’t drive her insane.

This was only the second night, but it felt like more. Troi was in a dark place, confined and unable to break loose. She was trying hard to keep the panic down, but it was becoming more and more difficult to remain calm. There was a heavy weight on her, like something was trying to smother her, to steal the breath from her body, but she would not give in, she would not let it in.

Keller was laying beside her mate having an internal debate of her own. ‘What is going on with you?’ she asked as she looked at her sleeping mate.

Her eyes fell on the irritation on Troi’s neck and without thought, reached behind her and pulled an aloe leaf from the pouch. She gently spread the gel on her love’s neck, taking care not to irritate the area more, or wake Troi from her fitful slumber.

When the area was thoroughly covered, she wiped her hands clean and ran her fingers through Troi’s damp dark hair. It was obvious that Troi was in distress, she just didn’t know what to do.

“What can I do to help you, love? Please let me know. I’ll do anything, you know that, but I need to know what haunts you,” she whispered as she caressed a warm cheek.

Keller leaned over and kissed Troi’s chapped lips, then she pulled back with the intention of moistening the dry mouth with a damp rag, but stopped when Troi began to mumble.

“I won’t stay here,” Troi was saying. “You can’t have me.”

“Who can’t have you, sweetheart?”

“Let me go.”

Keller could feel her anxiety growing. “Where are you, love? Tell me and I’ll come and get you.” Keller held the warm cheeks between her hands and spoke with conviction. “You know I’ll come, Troi…just tell me…please…tell me,” she said with desperation.

“It’s too dark here. Where is the light?” was the fevered response she received.

Keller’s eyes popped open. “Where is the light?” she whispered. “Pella said to use the leaves when the way was dark. Is this the darkness she was speaking about?”

Keller scrambled around until she found her shoulder sack. She rifled through the contents until she found the small pouch she was searching her. She held it up in front of her and pulled the string that held it closed. When it opened her nose wrinkled and she drew away from the odor.

“Just as stinky as I remember,” she said. “Now, let me see if I can remember what I’m suppose to do.”

She pulled out a leaf and folded it into a packet small enough to fit between Troi’s cheek and gum. She pulled the sleeping woman’s mouth open and gently slid the pungent leaf into place. “I’m sorry, love,” she whispered.

She then pulled out a leaf for herself and folded it in the same way that she had folded Troi’s. Keller snuggled down beside her mate draped her arm over Troi’s muscled stomach, then laid her head on the slowly rising chest. Before placing the leaf in her own mouth, she hesitated for a moment. “By the Deus, I hope this is the right thing to do.” Then without further delay she wedged the leaf against her gum and closed her eyes, waiting for it to take effect…the wait wasn’t long. Her entry into Troi’s dream realm was almost instantaneous.

Keller stood in a place that was new to her. There was artificial light shinning from lamps that held a glass bulb instead of a candle. The walls that surrounded her were smooth and flawless, nothing like the walls of their log hut. The pictures that hung on the walls were in golden leaf frames that were crafted to perfection. Nothing around her looked familiar, and the place certainly wasn’t dark.

Troi was standing near a fireplace that burned, but the flame didn’t give off any heat, and as Keller moved closer, she saw surprise in the blue eyes that looked just a little…off.

“Where are we?” Keller asked.

“How did you get here?” was the response.

Keller didn’t answer, instead she inspected her mate and then their surroundings, there was something about this that was niggling at the back of her mind. Then it came to her, this place reminded her of the things they saw on the Gateway. The things from nineteen ninety-nine. Had Troi’s dreams taken them to another time?

“What is this place, Troi?” Keller asked after fully facing her mate.

The tall scout walked along the front of the fireplace and ran her hand along the mantle. “I really don’t know. It’s just a place where I come to in my dreams…now, I’ll ask you again. How did you get here?”

Keller was a little frightened by the lack of a real answer and the mild threat she heard in Troi’s voice. That’s when she decided that it wouldn’t be wise to share Pella’s gift of the pairing leaves with this dream Troi.

“I…I guess I’ve been so worried about you I was able to come into your dreams,” Keller deflected.

Trying to appear coy, The entity that masked itself in Troi’s body pushed out it’s bottom lip in a pout.

“Aww, were you worried about little old me?”

Keller snorted humorlessly. “Of course I was worried,” she said. Then she pointed at the pouting lip. “Now put that away.”

Troi held her hands out to the side. “Put what away?”

Keller titled her head in curiosity. “You know…that,” she said without giving Troi any hints.

Troi’s visage was quickly becoming annoyed with the game this intruder was playing. “Look, I don’t know what this game is you’re playing, but I’m in no mood for it. Now tell me what you’re talking about, or leave.”

The tall figure turned it’s back and mumbled under it’s breath. “I didn’t invite you here anyway.”

Keller felt her pulse start to race. Something was very wrong here. Something was not right with Troi.

“Troi?” she whispered.

“What?!” came the harsh response.

Before Keller could ask her question she heard a muffled sound coming from an area off to her right. The pull to go and investigate was too strong to resist, so she went to poke around.

When Troi saw where Keller was headed she stopped her with an order. “Don’t you move. Don’t you dare presume to walk around my domain freely. Isn’t it enough you’ve showed up here uninvited?”

‘Okay. Something was really wrong here.’ Keller thought. Troi had never spoken to her that way before. Ignoring her mate, Keller continued on, until she came upon a covered box. That’s where the sounds were coming from. She pulled off the cloth and saw that the lid was being held on by a metal lock. When she reached out to touch it, Troi bellowed again.

“Keep your fucking hands off of my things, you intrusive little bitch!”

Keller had never heard words like that before, she didn’t even know what they meant or where Troi had heard them, but what she did know was that the vicious tone that was used when they were said made her realize how harmful they were meant to be and that made her want to lash out in a violent way.

“Look, Troi, I don’t know where you learned those words, but I’m not gonna stand here and let you speak to me like I don’t matter. You have been a bad tempered grump for last couple of days and I’m getting real…”

The rest of her sentence was cut off when the noises in the box became more frantic and were accompanied by movement, causing the box to start rocking from side to side.

“What’s in there, Troi?” Keller asked with heat.

“None of your business,” Troi gritted out.

“We’ll see about that,” Keller said as she reached for the lock with every intention of ripping it off with her bare hands if she had to, but that wasn’t necessary. When she grabbed the metal, it just disintegrated in her hands like brittle winter leaves. Saving that curiosity for later contemplation, Keller pushed the top away, and stepped back in shock. There was a person inside. She covered her mouth with her hands and frantically looked back and forth between the box and Troi. What had Troi done?

Her eyes became even wider when the body that was in the box slowly began to rise, and didn’t stop until it stood at it’s full height. Keller felt like fainting. There standing in front of her, gagged at the mouth and bound by the wrist was another Troi.

“Wh…what’s going on here?” was the only question she could ask.

“That’s the thing that’s been making me crazy,” the entity defended as it pointed at the bound Troi. “That’s why I didn’t want you here…I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“How come she looks like you?” Keller asked suspiciously.

“Because it was going to pretend to be me.”

Keller wasn’t sure she believed this. “How did you get…her in the box?”

“I…I tricked her. Yeah, that’s it. I tricked her.”

Now Keller was really skeptical. She moved closer to the box to get a better look at the person that looked like her love.

“Troi,” she whispered. “Is that you?”

The bound woman started nodding her head vigorously.

When Keller reached out to remove the gage, the other Troi became violently angry. “You touch her and I’ll break every bone in your scrawny little body.”

Keller fought off the urge to cry. This wasn’t the time for that. “My Troi would never harm me,” she said.

“Maybe your Troi has grown up and realizes that her life could be so much more without a pathetic little hanger-on like you holding her back.”

It was like a blow to the chest, and Keller thought she would lose the contents of her stomach. She couldn’t stand hearing such hurtful words coming from Troi’s sweet lips.

The gagged Troi started hopping, trying to get out of the box. She could feel Keller’s pain and wanted to touch her, to hold her, to sooth her, but she couldn’t jump high enough, and just as she was about to fling herself forward and tip the box over, Keller came to life with a roar.

“SHUT-UP!!! JUST SHUT-UP!!!. I know what you are and I will not allow you to imprison her any longer.”

The glint in the blue eyes seemed to spark, then with astonishing speed, the spark became a heat seeking blaze. “Ah, so you think you’ve figure something out?” the entity teased.

The person that looked like the person she loved most in the world moved slowly towards Keller. “What is it that you think you know, little Keller? Hmmm?”

“I know that you are nothing more than a parasite. A lowly creature that doesn’t have enough worth to be gifted with a body of it’s own.” Then she decided to do a little taunting of her own. “Even the bugs that crawl across the dirt, being swatted, stepped on and killed without thought or care were deemed worthy of a body. So I ask you this…what waste pile did you dwell in before attempting to set up house in my beloved’s body?”

The entity didn’t answer…it was too furious, instead, the room seemed to vibrate with anger and the walls began to slowly expand and contract like the area was building up enough air to release a deadly cyclone.

The bound Troi could feel the pressure start to build and knew what was about to happen, so she tucked her body and propelled herself towards her mate. She landed at Keller’s feet and rolled her body, taking Keller’s legs from under her, causing the smaller woman to fall to the floor. Then Troi covered Keller as best as she could.

When it happened…the explosion that came was so intense that, both Troi and Keller were rocked back to consciousness by the powerful flow of energy.

They stared into each other’s eyes, both looking for and finding the familiarity that was expected.

“Are you okay?” Troi asked in a strained voice.

Keller leaned forward and kissed the soft lips in front of her. “I’m great. What about you? Did that…thing hurt you?”

Troi gave a weak smile. “No, I’m fine. H…how did you know?” she asked, near tears.

“Let’s just say, a little moon sprite gave me an early warning.”

They were silent for a moment, just letting their emotions flow between them.

“I love you, Keller,” was said with a mixture of love and respect.

“And I love you, Troi.”

The dark woman leaned forward and kissed her partner with all the love in her heart. “Show me,” she mumbled around soft lips.

As the two women strengthened their bond, a malevolent consciousness looked on with unfulfilled vengeance.

“We will meat again, Troi Donner, and things will end a bit differently than they did this time.”

*******

The next day, the Arcadians left the dark forest. Troi seemed to be over the worst part of the toxin that she was fighting, and was nearly back to her old self, joking and trading insults with her friends, and when they had traveled a distance far enough away from the forest where the trees could no longer be seen, the Garren boys began to stir. Mona thought they were about to go into another round of fits and prepared herself for the struggle, but instead of the men making harmful efforts to free themselves from their binds, they looked at their mother with clear eyes.

“Momma?” James said in a childlike voice.

Tears started to fall from Paul’s eyes. “Momma? Is that you?”

Mona couldn’t stop from sobbing. “Yes it’s me,” she said. Then proceeded to untie their restraints. “I’m gonna take care of you, I’m gonna take care of both of you,” she said as she released her sons and laid their heads in her lap. She soothingly rubbed their backs as Nicola guided the wagon along the road.

“Momma’s gonna take care of you.”
Part Twenty-One: I Hear You Knocking, But You Can’t Come In. ~Fats Domino~
“Turn back, Myron. Let those people be.”

“I can not father. I am compelled to follow.”

“Your compulsion will lead to your defeat.”

“By whom? A village filled with people who chose to run instead of staying and facing their leader? I think not.”

“Those people didn’t run for lack of brave hearts. Their reason for leaving was to keep themselves free.”

“I can do that.”

“No you can’t. You will not have the support of The Order, or the populace.”

“I don’t need their support. It is my word that is law.”

“That is true, but your eyes and ears can not be everywhere. What you plan to attempt will change everything. If you bring these people back, the entire Province will slowly turn into a land that you will no longer be able to control.”

“I’m growing tired of you, father. Be gone, you are nothing more than an unwanted specter.”

Again, Garland’s spirit left without protest.

“Well, well, well,” Myron said out loud. “This is getting easier and easier.”

*******

The riders had spent many days traveling down the main road, and on the sixth day, out of nowhere a huge sign appeared off the side off on the side. It read ‘This is the land of Émigré. Safe passage may be given, but there is no comfort here for the uninvited.’

Brent squinted his eyes and raised his hand to shade his face from the sun. He didn’t know what the sign read, but it left him unsettled. This didn’t look like the ancient signs that had been made by the ancestors, marking the roads as routes or highways, this one was very different, mainly because, unlike the signs of the ancients, it was obvious this one had been written by the hand of a man, but nothing like the hands that created the Arcadian signs.

These signs had swirls and curls that looked like one long flowing line. When he extended his vision down the long dusty road, for miles, as far as the eye could see, he saw several smaller signs posted along both sides. ‘By the Deus,’ he thought. ‘Has everyone except the citizens of the Province received the gift of literacy?’ He snorted to himself. ‘At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if those animals in the forest lands could read a few words.’

Seeing the giant sign up ahead, Myron Scott realized that he was needed, so he moved his horse forward until he was even with Brent.

“What does it say, Leader?” the trail boss asked.

Myron read the posting and was appalled by the obvious fact that these people could read and write, and affronted by the veiled threat at the end. Turning to Brent, Myron told him what it read.

“It basically says, we can travel this road through their land, but we’d better not stop until we have cleared their borders.”

As Myron was telling Brent what the sign read, Jay and Todd road up, and when they heard what the leader said, they were filled with an irrational anger that seemed to be a constant state for the two men. They wanted to destroy something, they wanted to destroy something in a big way.

They didn’t know where it was coming from, maybe it was the fact that they couldn’t read the sign, maybe it was the blatant display of disobedience, or maybe it was the fact that this was the second village they had come across where the people’s reading and writing went unchecked. Maybe it was the fact that they had lost so many men in the land of animals without having the opportunity to defend themselves…or maybe it was jealousy, pure and simple jealousy.

Todd pulled out his dagger, wanting some up close and personal contact. He gritted his teeth and kneed his horse forward, ready to storm the village and take over the lands, but before his horse could take a step Brent stilled his movement. The trail boss knew instinctively that it would be unwise to rush into this place.

“Let me go, trail boss. These people are breaking the rules.”

Brent understood Todd’s aggression. When they reached the forest of the animals it was the first time since he had been riding the trail that Brent had been forced to find an alternate route around the lands that they roamed. Running from a fight had never been the riders way. They were proud, skilled men of the Province, they faced their enemies head on. So, in a way that he hated to admit, he understood how Todd felt. Being threatened with an ultimatum to move on or face a fight was a very appealing challenge…but he was the trail boss, and he had to keep a cool head.

“Todd, no one knows anything about these people. They were the first to be set out and no one has heard anything about them for more than nine hundred years. I think we should accept the offer of safe passage and move on.”

“I’m real tired of running, Brent.” Jay interrupted. “First we tuck tail and run from a bunch of wild animals, now you want us to duck our heads and quietly pass through a land, that by all rights we should be overseeing anyway.” Then another argument for exploring the new land came to Jay’s mind. “And for all we know those blasted Arcadian’s are in there somewhere being protected.”

When Brent remained silent, and it didn’t seem like he wasn’t going to give in to Jay’s logic, Todd became even more frustrated, and the man almost pleaded. “Come on, Brent, we cleared the Badlands, these people can’t be anywhere near as dangerous as the things that lived there.”

Myron sat in silence, very interested in the conversation going on between the trail boss and his riders. What Jay and Todd were saying made a very compelling argument, but it wasn’t until the man mentioned the links that Myron’s interest was piqued, this could be a clearing of the lands in a different way.

If they could somehow ingratiate themselves to these people, maybe they could gain their trust and bring them into the fold of his new world. Unlike the links, these were the descendants of the original exiles, therefore, technically a part of the Province.

“Brent, let’s think about this. In a very abstract way these people are the responsibility of the Province, and as the leader it is my duty to insure that they are properly cared for.”

Brent didn’t understand what the leader had said, but he felt his stomach drop into his saddle. He hoped that the young man wasn’t about to put them in another dangerous situation. Between the men that had been lost during the fight with the links and the ones that had wandered off never to been seen again in the animal lands, their numbers were not strong, and if they had any hope of catching the Arcadians they would need every able body that they had.

But the trail boss needn’t have worried because the decision was already made. There would be no Province invasion…not in this land.

It started out as nothing more than a low buzz, then it grew, becoming more distinctive, until finally it culminated into pure power. The sounds filled the air for miles, coming from the entire land of Émigré.

There were low hums, deep drum beats and voices raised in unified solidarity. Strange words like, Saoirse, Uhuru, Zì Zhu, Isicola, Freiheit, ‘Hofeʃ], Libertad and Swaadheenata, washed over the wide open space like a battalion of warriors ready for battle, and although the languages were not understood, the message was loud and clear. “Never again!”

The energy that crackled through the air was so alive that it was like a physical being, demanding respect, and commanding obedience.

The unity that could be felt riding on the breeze made the thought of facing who ever the people were that was making such a mighty sound extremely unappealing to Jay, and he instantly changed his mind. Instead of attempting a takeover, he thought that it might be best to ride through this land without looking back.

In the voices that filled the sky, Myron heard the promise of a retaliation so fierce that the Province didn’t stand a chance of winning. He changed his mind, thinking instead, ‘maybe it is best to leave the original exiles to follow their own way.’ Exploring and conquering the unknown didn’t seem quite so appealing to the young leader anymore.

“I doubt if the missing Arcadians took the chance of going in there. Let’s pass through. I’m sure we’ll follow their tracks right out to the other side,” he announced to the others.

Myron didn’t need to hear his father’s voice again. This choice was an obvious one.

Keep moving and don’t stop.
Part Twenty-Two: And You, Of Tender Years, Can’t Know The Fears That Your Elders Grew By.
~Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young~
Two weeks after leaving the dark forest the Arcadians found themselves in a land called, Black Hills. As they rounded the bend in this new place, the entire wagon train stopped. People began climbing off of their horses and scrambling out of the backs of wagons, and those that were on foot started walking to get a closer look. Appearing in front of them was a magnificent sight.

It was a mountain, but not like any mountain they had ever seen. This mountain had faces on it. They could not begin to conceive of how the enormous heads had been carved. They knew no tools existed that was capable of such a feat, leaving them to assume that the source must have been something supernatural or spiritual or perhaps even mystical.

When Patsy got her first glimpse of Mount Rushmore, she started a quiet soliloquy, forgetting that she wasn’t alone… “Here, in the valley of the kings, the surveyors of times past look down upon us from on high.”

Davis looked at his girlfriend and smiled with pride. He loved to hear the way Patsy put words together. It always made him feel like he was in the presence of a great teller of lore, and the fact that this inspired spirit had chosen him to love never failed to humble him. He quickly wrote down every word she said, and when she stopped talking he waited patiently to see if any more inspiration would be coming.

“Amazing,” Keller said as she ran back to Mona’s wagon to grab a scroll and a writing stick.

She was shocked speechless when Paul handed her the items she needed. “How did you know,” she asked the slowly recovering man.

M…momma s…says you m…make pictures,” he pointed skyward. “T…that s…should be d…drawn.”

Keller took the parchment and stick and thanked the younger Garren brother. Both men had a stutter that Mona said wasn’t there before, but the seamstress also told her concerned friend that her sons speech was getting better everyday.

When she returned, Troi had already cleared a spot on a smooth rock for Keller to lay out her scroll. “Thanks,” she said with a smile.

“Any time, love, you know that,” she answered as she weighed down the corners with smaller rocks.

Everyone milled around and found something to do while the former Province women expressed their art. Keller was frantically sketching, bringing the mountain alive on parchment, and Patsy was walking around, Davis close on her heels as she eloquently described the scene in front of her.

It was a couple of hours before they set off to make camp.

*******

The Arcadians were lounging around in what was the nicest campsite they had been able to put together since leaving Arcadia. The grass was green, the land was firm, and wildlife could be seen peeking out of the brush.

But suddenly, in the high weeds, Pip saw movements that were unmistakably human. This put the travelers on alert. After all that they’d been through the Arcadians had no patience for any more predators.

“Make yourselves known!” Pip yelled. “We can talk or fight. It’s up to you!”

It only took a second before a group of about ten people slowly came into view. They looked normal enough, but the travelers couldn’t be sure.

“We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to frighten you,” A short man said. “It’s just a shock to see you folks.”

“Why?” Patsy asked. She knew the details would make an interesting story.

“Simply put, the way is rough and the path is treacherous. Because of the narrow passageways, rockslides, and dark energies that block the entrance, no one has come to, or left from the Highlands in centuries.”

“Well I’ll be,” said Miss Millie. “I guess this should be considered a special day.” She looked for Patsy. “Did you hear that, Patsy? We’re the first to come here in centuries.”

The storyteller nodded and smiled. “I heard him, Miss Millie.”

“Well, are you gonna write about it?”

“I most definitely am, but I’d like a little more information first.”

“Well I’m sure…” she waved her hand in the short man’s direction and waited for him to give a name.

“Lucas, ma’am.”

“I’m sure that Lucas will fill in the blanks.”

The Arcadians and the dwellers of the Highlands were sitting around the bright, sunny meadow, sharing a meal of roasted meat and wild vegetables, listening as Lucas shared some of the history of the mountain of men.

“They say the mountain is haunted. Legend has it, that more than a thousand years ago a group of crazies barricaded themselves inside the mountain, where they lived for years. They had their own little world up there. The people were born up there, lived and died up there, without ever making contact with anyone down here. The few times that anyone tried to get too close, they were injured, sometimes killed by one of the many traps that had been set. No one ever knew what they were up to, and after a while stopped trying to find out, then one day, out of the blue they just packed up and left.”

“Where did they go?” Patsy was really curious about the answer.

Lucas shrugged his shoulders. “That was way back in twenty-one thirty-nine. That’s all we know, the rest was never passed down to us.” Here he laughed a little. “We don’t even know if the stories are true.” Then he paused for effect. “But we think that people were still living up there until about a year ago.”

When he didn’t get a response he tilted his head. “Something wrong?”

The silence that followed was thick with confusion. The listeners felt so off balance their stomachs were filled with nausea. Then Troi spoke for the group.

“Did…did you say twenty-one thirty-nine?”

“Yeah,” Lucas answered, a little worried about the visitor’s pallor.

“As in the year two thousand-one hundred and thirty-nine?”

“Yes. Are you okay?” he questioned. “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”

“Where…where we’re from, the year is nine hundred and fifty,” she squeezed out.

Lucas was about to laugh, until he saw the shocked faces all around him nodding in agreement. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Very,” Keller responded.

“I don’t know what kind of calendar you folks go by, but the year is three thousand and eighty-nine.”

“That can’t be,” Magnus said. “That would put us in the past, and it is quite obvious we are in the here and now.”

Troi and Keller remained silent, they were both thinking the same thing…the Gateway. If what Lucas was saying is true, then the Gateway was from the past, not the future, and a past that was a very long time ago. Keller followed Troi’s gaze as her mate looked towards the mountain of men.

“I think our answers lay up there,” Troi said as she pointed skyward. “Sulcata told us that the place of Curtis Poole’s descent was where we would discover the tools of his origin and find our answers. I need to scout it out.”

“We need to scout it out,” Keller added.

“I’m going with you,” Pip said.

“As will I,” Barrett volunteered.

“Well I guess that means the team is back together again,” Troi said.

“Plus one,” Keller added.

Lucas stood wide-eyed, just staring at Barrett. His lips trembled as he tried to form words. “Oh, my god. A talking monkey!”

Barrett ignored the man. He was becoming used to the idea that not all humans knew of their existence. He tugged on Keller’s pant leg to get her attention.

“What do you think he would do if we took him to the Low Lands?”

Keller gave a quiet chuckle. “Probably swallow his tongue.” The irony that she’d had the same reaction a few months ago wasn’t lost on her.

*******

They follow a cobble stone path that led them to an opening. There was no door, no gate, no barrier at, just a large concrete opening, leading into a concrete hallway. As they walked along they noticed that everything was a drab gray, the walls, the ceiling, even the light seemed to be a gloomy gray.

But once they reached the end of the hallway it opened into a huge cavern. What was before them was just as unbelievable as the four faces that was above them.

They were high above the floor of a cave on a man made walkway, and all around them the walls and ceiling was covered by a large number of dangling stalactites. There were mighty columns that seemed to grow right out of the cave floor, and stalagmites and massive flowstones adorned the entire area. The colors that surrounded them were an array of golds, yellows, reds and pinks, and they filled the room with a calming glow.

Troi grabbed Keller’s had and led her down the ancient stairway, followed closely by their friends. They slowly and carefully made their way down until they reached the bottom. Once there, the tour began. They broke up into two groups, Pip and Barrett went to explore the area of the cave furthest away, while Troi and Keller searched the immediate area.

Right away they found remnants of old clothes, shoes and something they had never seen before, cans made of an odd lightweight metal. There was a picture on it, but it had faded long ago. This didn’t surprise the pair, since the parchment that circled the can was of poor quality, and too thin to be of any real use.

They moved further into the space and were startled when they found what looked like the remains of three dead bodies. Troi squatted down and used a stick to push around the bones. After spending some time studying the pile she determined that the people had died about a year before.

“Hey, Troi?”

“Yeah?”

“Didn’t Lucas say that he thought people might have been living up here about that time?”

“Yup.”

“You think this might be them?”

“Most likely.”

“That’s sad.”

“It sure is.”

“I wonder what killed them?”

Troi shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know.”

Keller turned her focus on her mate. “You don’t seem too concerned.”

“Why should I be? There’s nothing I can do about it now.”

“Because, Troi…” She couldn’t think of anything to say. She didn’t understand herself, why she was so interested in the bones of people long dead. “Never mind. Let’s keep looking around.”

They continued to move around what obviously had been used as a living quarters. The climate was cool and the items they found scattered around the area were covered in thick piles of dust, but most of the pieces seemed to be intact and undisturbed.

They found a tattered, cloth covered sofa and took a seat. In front of them was a low table with what appeared to be books of some sort laying on top. Their eyes immediately fell on a leather bound manuscript, titled, Novus Ordo Seclorum (New order of the ages) ‘A Guide to Restarting a Society after the Apocalypse,’ The first page laid out eleven rules necessary to get started.

1. To survive in a post-apocalyptic situation, you need at least five unrelated people to maintain genetic integrity.

2. Make sure your group understands that you are the leader. Pick people you trust, you don’t want any members of your group slacking or manipulating in your new society.

3. Find a place for your new civilization to begin.

4. Fortify your location against bands of refugees, raiders and predators.

5. Decide what type of people and personalities you would like to share your life with, then write out a list of rules that should be followed to maintain your society.

6. Faith may come in handy in the form of a deity. Find a God for them to believe in. It will fulfill the spiritual needs of your society.

7. Build a morality base of your choosing.

8. Reward those that follow, it will instill the need for approval.

9. Point out and exploit the differences between those that you have chosen and those that you have not.

10. When you have successfully separated the population into two groups, the acceptable and the unacceptable, you will be able to lead your nation in the direction of your choosing.

11. Eliminate the need for money. Wealth will create a faction that will challenge your power.

They turned back to the leather cover and saw a name on the front, written by T. L. Lawrence. Then they flipped back through the pages and was shocked when they came across the rules that Curtis Poole had given the Province. Rules they had lived by for nearly a thousand years, and then they noticed that it was listed under a heading that read, ‘Tips that may be useful when stranded in the wilderness.’

Tip 1. There are roots, berries, and even flowers that will provide food in the wild. Fear of starvation should never be a thought. Nature will provide sustenance.

Tip 2. When confronted by an angry predator, lay down and play dead. He will lose interest, giving you the opportunity to escape or attack. This will make his strength his weakness.

Tip 3. When you are alone in the woods there might be unseen predators, so you must also become invisible by camouflaging your scent to mask your presence.

Tip 4. If you are ever lost in the woods with a group, never let one person’s needs or fears override what is best for the group’s survival.

After reading a few of the “Tips,” Keller noticed that in the reference column, something called a survivalist manual was listed as a contributor to the text, but nowhere did Curtis Poole’s name appear as a contributor.

This was all very curious to the couple.

“Troi, what is money?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. For that matter, what is a God, or post-apocalyptic?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe we should ask Lucas. God, was the word he used when he saw Barrett.”

They put down the book and saw another one peeking out from under a threadbare blanket. When they pulled it out they noticed that most of the words had faded from the cover, leaving only four discernible letters, D-e-u-s.

Both women pulled in a loud breath. “Troi, cou…could the Deus itself have written this?” Keller asked.

Troi shrugged her shoulders. After the things that had been discovered so far, she wasn’t ready to commit to any opinion just yet.

They opened the book and tried to read the faint words. Inside was a story about an elephant named Horton that makes it his duty to keep a world filled with beings smaller than himself safe.

Green and blue eyes read the few pages that were still left, with first, a sense of awe, then an uncomfortable confusion sat in.

“Horton kinda looks like Reilly doesn’t he?” Keller asked.

“Yeah, he does,” Troi responded.

Do you think the animals in the Low Lands belong to the Deus?”

“I don’t know, Keller, but they sure do act a lot like this Horton guy, being able to talk and all.”

Troi waited, she knew her lover had another question in her. “The Deus speaks in an odd way. I mean, who says things like, On the fifteenth of May, in the jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool?”

“I don’t know Keller. This is all so strange.” She went back to the first book they had found and picked it up. “This book has rules in it that were handed down by Curtis Poole, but Curtis Poole’s name is nowhere on it.”

She pointed to the Horton book. “That book was written by the Deus, but it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, we are not whos, whatever that is. Our world is not a flower, and those pictures…your drawings look better, and more like real people. I just don’t get it.”

Keller understood Troi’s uneasiness, she felt it too. She felt like all the lessons she had learned and all the rules she had followed were given falsely, and if they were given falsely, who was Curtis Poole and what was the Deus?

“What does all of this mean, Troi? Is everything we’ve been taught, everything we’ve always believed in a lie?”

Troi shrugged her shoulders. “I honestly don’t know, love. Between the gateway we found buried in the ground, the book of rules, the Deus elephant book, and Lucas telling us we are more than two thousand years out of time, I don’t have any answers. All I know is that the rules we grew up with got you out of the center and across the Badlands. I know that believing in the Deus gives me comfort, and if we really think about it, does anybody really know what time it is? I mean, if it can be manipulated that easily, does it really matter?”

She pulled Keller to her. “That’s enough for me. And you’re right, whether or not Curtis Poole wrote the rules doesn’t matter.”

Keller raised up on her tiptoes and kissed her philosopher on the cheek. “That’s one of the reasons I love you so much, your ability to see through the obstacles to what is important is a rare thing.”

“That’s me, Miss Philosophical. Come on let’s find the guys and see what they found.”

“Whatever they found, I don’t think that it will be as interesting as what we found.”

As they headed in the direction Pip and Barrett had wandered off to, they heard the horn blow…there was trouble.
Part Twenty-Three: I Find It Kind Of Funny, I Find It Kind Of Sad, The Dreams In Which I’m Dying Are The Best I’ve Ever Had. ~Gary Jules~
Myron Scott was staring at a most unusual sight. It was a forest of…of mud and slime. Everything looked disgustingly wet and rotten.

“Brent let’s get through here as fast as we can. According to the tracker we aren’t that far behind the Acadians.”

“Do not enter the forest, son.” Garland’s spirit knew this would be his final opportunity to save his son.

“Why do you follow me? Your presence has tormented me every step of this journey, and I have grown weary of the intrusion.”

“I am trying to save you, Myron. You must believe me. If you enter those dark woods you will die. The evil that lives there is like nothing you could ever imagine.”

The cryptic warning made Myron hesitate. Would he die if he entered the forest? Or was this just another one of his father’s ploys to control him. Vivid memories rushed through his essence. Memories of his legs being bound, his head being dunked under water, clothes being stuffed in his mouth. Those things were also done for his safety.

That was when Myron made a decision, one that he hoped would free him of his father’s specter forever. He closed his eyes and squeezed them tight until little bursts of light fluttered across his vision, then he spoke what he hoped would be the invocation that would finally put an end to this.

“I renounce you, Garland Scott. I demit every lesson learned under your tutelage. I repudiate my nepotistic rise to power. I disavow every ounce of your blood that flows through my veins.”

When Myron finished speaking, a sadness fell upon Garland’s spirit that was so heavy it almost caused him to become visible. There was nothing he could do that would repair this. The final curtain had fallen. It was done. He would leave his son to walk the shadowy path he had set his foot upon, there would be no reprieve, he was now, truly…alone

“Fare thee well, my son,” was the last thing Garland Scott said to his son.

Myron’s eyes grew wide, but just for a moment. That was how long it took him to convince himself that the diaphanous imagine he saw of his father was nothing more than a thin veil of sweat over his eyes.

“Let’s go,” he said to the men. “We have a village to reclaim.”

*******

“Ah, another one. What are the chances?” the entity thrilled. “It surely must be my time to leave this place.”

It had been eons since it had been denied the gift of walking the earth in a human body. After committing a transgression against the universe, too atrocious and reprehensible to forgive. The gift of life had been stripped away.

But, now, for a second time in a short span it recognized strength. The man that had entered it’s realm was a good candidate, and it was pleased. Where the woman’s power came from her will, this one’s power came from his arrogance and greed. It knew that the morally corrupt had gaps in their souls that made it less complicated for the darkness to enter, this bonding would be a much easier undertaking. Convincing this misguided man to surrender his essence would take little effort, but it knew it had to work fast, time was wasting. It wanted to catch up with the dark woman. She was the one…the only one.

*******

Myron rode along in his position in the middle of the pack. His thoughts were wandering all over the place in an effort to block out the disgusting surroundings.

‘Maybe my father was right. Maybe I should turn back and leave those people to their own way,’ he thought.

‘Don’t doubt yourself, you know what you are doing.’

The voice Myron heard in his head startled him. He turned to the men around him looking for the source. “Did you say something?” he asked the man closest to him.

“No, Leader. Is there something you need?”

“No…no. Carry on.”

‘Now I’m losing my mind. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss my father.’

‘He was only going to hold you back. Don’t second guess yourself.’

He looked around again. Desperately looking into each man’s face, but none of them appeared to be paying him any attention.

‘Who is that?’ he wondered.

‘I am the one that can assist you in achieving your heart’s desire.’

‘How do you know what’s in my heart?’

‘I know many things, Myron. Let me in and I’ll show you.’

Myron snorted. ‘Now you sound like my father.’

‘No, Myron. I’m nothing like your father.’

The way it was said caused a mixture of fear and excitement to rush through Myron’s veins. The tone promised mysteries and curiosities the likes of which he could never imagine.

‘How are you different from him?’

‘He wanted to hold you back. I want to show you how to rule the world. I want to help you soar.’

When the young leader remained quiet, seeming to weigh the offer, the entity knew it was close to reaching it’s goal.

‘What would I need to do to…soar?’ Myron asked.

The entity could feel itself rubbing Myron’s hands together with glee. ‘It’s very simple, just relax and open your mind to me.’

Myron closed his eyes, pulled in a deep breath, and on the long exhale he allowed his mind to empty for a few seconds…that’s all it took. By the time he pulled in his next breath, he had taken on a mysterious companion, that unlike his father, would never leave him, and could never be commanded away.

“Leader,” Brent called out. “Maybe we should stop for a while. The animals need to rest.”

‘He doesn’t tell you when to rest the animals. They’re animals. They will go as long and as far as you tell them to.’

“We keep moving,” was Myron’s short response.

‘Very good,’ said the voice in his head. ‘very good.’

*******

Some souls have to be manipulated into surrendering, some have to be bargained with, then there are the ones that are there for the asking. These souls crave the darkness, it is where they feel the most alive. Jay Conover had one of those souls. He hungered for the menace that the darkness offered and thrilled at the opportunity to help spread it around.

But, Todd, never having a mind of his own, didn’t know what was waiting for him. So, when he followed his friend blindly into the abyss, the turmoil awaiting him was unexpected. Almost instantly his mind was filled with thorny pricks that never allowed him to concentrate, and he began to panic.

“Jay, what’s happening? I…I can’t think.”

His partner looked at him and smiled. His gift was having the exact opposite affect on him. For the first time in his life Jay’s mind was at ease and he felt like he finally understood his surrounding.

“Relax, Todd. You don’t need to think, that’s what I’m here for. All you need to do is trust me to know what’s best.”

Todd liked the sound of that, and it gave him something to hold on to. So he curled his mind up into a tight little ball, found a dark corner, and closed his eyes. Jay was in charge, that’s all he needed to tell himself…Jay is in charge.

The minion entities that were welcomed into these two men were celebrating, they had finally found a place to dwell, and they were excited that they too would be able to break free, and have an opportunity to carve out a piece of mayhem for themselves.

*******

Because Myron only allowed the men minimum rest, the three day trip took only a day and a half. The riders were only allowed to stop to relieve themselves. Some men even slept on their horse’s backs as the animal moved along.

But, finally they were out of the woods. And once Myron exited the forest, his eyes looked upon a world he didn’t recognize.

‘Wow, everything is so green, and the sky is a bright blue.’

‘You’ve never seen green and blue before?’ Myron asked his companion.

‘Of course I’ve seen green and blue before, you dolt. I’m the one that described them aren’t I?’

‘There is no need to be insulting, I was just making conversation.’

‘I’ll tell you when to talk.’

‘Wait just a minute. I’m in charge here, and I’ll…’

A pain shot through Myron’s head so severe that he thought his head would explode. “Oh, by the Deus, it hurts,” he moaned as he held his head.

“What’s wrong, Leader?” the nearest man asked.

‘Get yourself together and answer the man.’

“Nothing…I…I’m fine. Keep riding.”

The rider shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention back to the road.

‘You need to understand something, Myron Scott. It has been longer than you can imagine since I’ve been free, so I’ll be running things for a while. Until I can reacquaint myself with the world, all you need to do is relax and enjoy the ride. Does that sound reasonable to you?’

Myron mentally nodded. ‘Yes, I understand, but please don’t do that to my head again.’

The entity hissed. ‘Don’t give me a reason to do that to your head again.’

When the riders were miles away from the forest, something miraculous happened. The humidity was pulled from the air, the ground became firm, and buds of bright green appeared on the tree branches. Now that the evil was gone, this long absent part of nature was welcomed home and pulled into a loving embrace, the feel of which was almost forgotten. It once again become a part of the whole…the forest had been cleansed.

*******

When the riders rounded a bend the entire group came to a sudden stop.

“What in the name of the Deus is that?” Sherman asked his father.

The older Morgan rubbed his stubbled chin. “I don’t rightly know, son. But it sure is something.”

“Wow,” Zack said. “The one with the glasses looks like Mr. Campbell over at the bread building.”

Sherman tilted his head to the side. “Yeah, he kinda does.”

While the men were marveling at the faces on the mountain, the thing in Myron’s head was focused on it’s surroundings.

‘She’s here,’ it said.

‘Who’s here?’ Myron asked.

‘None of your business.’

In the distance, the entity could hear raised voices. Voices that sounded…happy, and this angered it. Then without any warning, Myron felt a heated aggression rush to the surface of his mind so fast, that before he knew he was doing it, a charge to attack was being yelled.

The men didn’t react at first. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Did the leader just call for an attack? On who? There was no one around.

Brent rode to Myron’s side and tried to gauge his mood. “Leader? Who are we attacking?”

“Them, you idiot. The people in the meadow.”

“The meadow? What meadow? Are you okay. I know how tired we all are, maybe you…”

The trail boss was cut off. “Shut-up. I said attack. I’m headed for the meadow. If the riders aren’t behind me when this horse starts running I’ll kill each and every one of them with my bare hands.”

“O…okay, Leader.” There was something very off about the young man.

Brent gave the signal, and led the charge. What they were riding into he didn’t know, but it wasn’t his place to question, it was only his place to lead Myron Scott’s riders.
Part Twenty-Four: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Does Anybody Really Care? ~Chicago~
When Myron Scott and the riders of the Province crested the hill, he was finally able to set his eyes on the people he had been pursuing for months. Down in the meadow, the Arcadians had set up a cozy little campsite.

The wagons were in a line off to one side of the clearing, the horses were leisurely grazing in a field of grass, and the villagers were moving about, preparing themselves for what seemed to be a long stay.

As the entity looked down on the scene, the happiness infuriated it. How dare they enjoy a life that it had been denied for so many millennia. The entity that shared Myron’s soul craved death and destruction, and now…finally, it had the opportunity it had been waiting for centuries to exploit.

He willed Myron to give the order, and without any control of his own, the leader raised his arm. “ATTACK!” he yelled, as he led the riders into the meadow.

*******

By the time Troi and Keller reached the ridge, there was a full out battle going on. Riders of the Province on one side, the Arcadias and the residents of the Black Hills on the other. The four friends didn’t waste any time rushing down the hill into the fight…the battle was on.

The Morgan men stood side-by-side, not moving. The fight that was going on around them made no sense. They were there to find Keller, not commit murder.

“This ain’t right, Sherman. I’m not here to kill innocent people. We’ve been riding with these men for a long while now, and I can’t believe how ready they are to follow these cruel orders.”

“What do you wanna do, dad?”

Warren took in the chaos all around him. These people were just like him. Ranchers, farmers, cooks. All they wanted was to be left alone. In the end, the decision was an easy one. He turned to his son, and with a glint in his eyes, raised his axe.

“We will fight on the side of the innocents.”

With that, both father and son changed sides, and in that moment they became Arcadians.

Warren and Sherman had formed a line of protecting for the women and children that were not fighting. It had not surprised them when Tom, Earl and Zack had joined them. What did surprise them was Brent Murdock’s subtle acts of sabotage on his riders.

While the trail boss would appear to be fighting with his men, he never landed a blow on an Arcadian, instead he would kick out a foot and trip one of his men before the rider could reach an innocent, or “accidentally” block a sword thrust before the blade could reach it’s target.

Those tactics worked fine on most of the riders, but Jay and Todd would not be sidetracked by juvenile tricks.

As Jay punched and kick an Arcadians out of his way, he yelled at the nearby trail boss, “I see what you’re doing, Brent, and when I get the chance you’re gonna pay.”

That’s all he was able to say before he had to defend himself in earnest. A tall dark-haired woman was approaching, he had already witnessed her skill, and knew he was about to be engaged by a formidable opponent.

*******

Warren had just blocked an attack with the handle of his axe, but he was trying hard not to stop and stare. There were four little monkeys in clothes, fighting. They were wielding sticks with an accuracy that was astonishing. He hoped that there would be time for questions later, because that was an amazing sight. Then his eye caught a flash of blonde hair. It was only for an instant, but he was sure…it was Keller.

He called to Sherman, and motioned for his son to follow him. “Tom and his men can handle this. I need you to come with me.” Without asking any questions, Sherman found himself running beside his father, blindly going wherever the older man led.

“Where are we headed, dad?” he panted.

Warren pointed his weapon in the direction of two people fighting. One was a tall rider, swinging his sword with deadly force. The other was a short blonde, who was holding her own, frustrating her advisory with her ability to keep him at bay.

“I…is that?” Sherman stuttered.

“You better believe it is,” Warren yelled. “Now lets go help her.”

Warren and Sherman ran faster, ignoring the fighting around them, their only focus was the one small blonde they were determined to reach.

When they got close enough, Warren grabbed his daughter by the shoulder and spun her around, intent on moving her out of the way so that he could take up her fight.

But he wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

*******

Seeing one of the riders engaging her lover prompted Troi to make quick work of Jay. She gave him a swift kick to the gut and came down hard with her pummel on his wrist, making him drop his weapon. She kicked it away, having no time to continue the fight. She had to get to Keller, her lover was in danger.

*******

When Keller felt aggressive hands on her, she went with the spin, using the momentum to her advantage. She rolled into the turn, and used her bodyweight to put more power behind the blow she was about to deliver.

Warren threw his axe up, just in time to protect himself. He was able to block Keller’s sword with the handle. “Whoa, daughter,” he said. “Be careful, you might hurt someone with that.”

She stood stock still, and stared at the face in front of her with shock. “Daddy?”

*******

Troi was moving at top speed. She had to get there. Keller’s life depended on it. When she saw her lover become motionless after her attacker block her sword, Troi’s heart nearly stopped. She gauged the situation and realized that she would have to cut down the tall blonde man that seemed to be guarding his companion’s back, before she could get the one attacking Keller.

With her weapon raised high, she released a cry that rattled the air around her. Sherman turned at the sound and was frozen in place. Never had he seen such passion and fury in a person’s eyes. The young rancher was so mesmerized he never realized the danger he was in. His life was about to end.

The loud cry pulled Keller’s attention from her father, and she looked over his shoulder. She felt her knees go weak with fear. Troi was coming and she was coming fast. And she was heading straight for Sherman…Sherman? What is he doing here?

“Oh, my Deus. She’s gonna kill my brother,” she whispered under her breath before moving into action.

Quickly stepping around her father she held up her hand and yelled a command. “Stop!”

It all happened so fast everyone’s movements were a blur. Warren moved to put his daughter behind him, to save her from this wild woman, and Sherman seemed to wake from his trance and moved to join his father in an effort to form a wall of protection between his sister and their attacker.

But, before the players could find their marks, the dark woman stopped, just like that, with her sword high above her head, she went completely still.

Warren and Sherman had never seen that kind of control before. Then they looked down at Keller, her hand still in the air, and realized that the control was coming from both sides.

Then the action started up again, and at first, Keller thought Troi had changed her mind. And was going to kill the men anyway, but that wasn’t the case. They had forgotten about Keller’s opponent, and the man was about to decapitate all three Morgans with one long swipe of his sword.

Troi changed her grip, and threw her sword like a dagger. For an instant Keller thought her lover was aiming for her father, but when she heard the release of air, and a thump behind her, she turned around and saw a rider laying dead, with Troi’s sword sticking out of his chest.

Troi stepped between the three blondes and retrieved her weapon.

Keller knew that there was no time for long drawn-out reunions or explanations, the enemy was moving closer, so she made it quick.

“Troi, this is my father and brother.”

“Your fa…” Her words were cut off as she turned to defend herself again.

The sounds of battle reminded them that they were in the middle of a fight, and Warren and Sherman jumped back in, this time fighting with more vigor. They had found Keller, and she was alive. And they were going to do everything in their power to keep her that way.

*******

It was dusk and the wagons were on fire creating a backdrop of yellow and orange light that was illuminating the slowly approaching night. The horses were neighing and whinnying in fear of the quickly rising heat, but they didn’t have anywhere to run.

The battle had all but come to a complete stop. Jay and Todd, with the minion entities inside of them, were determined to never give up, they were still fighting with the Highlanders who had come to the Arcadian’s aid.

Bringing an unsolicited battle to their lands was not acceptable. So they came ready, with weapons that the Province, nor the Arcadians had ever seen.

There were wheeled rafts that held long wooden arms that flung boulders into rider’s midst. They saw slings that were spun high over it’s user’s head before releasing the stone projectiles, and there were huge hammer like weapons that were being wielding by men larger than any of them had ever seen. Once they had entered the fray, the few remaining riders didn’t stand a chance.

So, for the most part the battle was, the majority of the riders laying dead in the meadow. Brent was walking around, looking down on his men. Good men that had died, for what? For the first time since he had became a rider, he was prepared to confront a leader, and demand an explanation.

He looked around until he saw the young man, and was headed in the man’s direction, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw him approach a tall dark woman with a short blonde by her side. He recognized the dark woman as the formidable fighter that had cut down a good number of his men, but he held no ill will towards her, all’s fair in battle.

He watched with a curiosity as the three people met. ‘Odd,’ he thought. ‘They almost seem to know one another.’

*******

Troi and Keller stood beside each other and watched as the dark-haired man approached. They didn’t remember seeing him during the fight, and from the condition of his clothes it looked like he hadn’t fought at all.

When the man was close enough to see the blue of Troi’s eyes, he stopped.

Well, we meet again, Troi,” he then nodded his head in Keller’s direction. “And, little Keller. It is good to see you as well.”

Confusion creased Troi’s smooth features. Who was this man and how did he know their names? But, to Keller there was something vaguely familiar about this strange young man. Although they had never met, she felt like she knew him.

Troi spoke first. “I’m sorry, you seem to have us at a disadvantage.”

He turned his gaze in Keller’s direction and held her for a moment. It was then that she saw it. The eyes were a different color but Keller was positive. The demonic glow that burned in the man’s pupil’s was the same as when the entity had tried to inhabit Troi.

Myron saw it in her eyes. The instant that Keller realized who she was speaking to, it was revealed in the depths of her gaze. “Ah, now you see, right?”

With disgust the artist rolled her eyes and made her partner aware of who, or better yet, what stood before them.

“Remember those horrible dreams you were having about being locked in a box?

“Yeah, how could I forget,” she shuddered at the memory. “It was so dark there,” she said absentmindedly. “If it wasn’t for you, only Deus knows where I would be now.”

Keller hooked her hand into the crook of Troi’s elbow. She wanted to feel close to her lover, but she also wanted a firm grip on her when she learned the truth. With a sarcastic tinge to her voice she made the introduction.

“Well, meet your host. He owns the box.”

First there was confusion, then understanding, and finally anger, and the change was immediate. Troi started to move forward, but was stopped when Keller tightened her hold.

“Slow down, sweetheart. I think there is more to this guy than meets the eye.”

“I would listen to the Mrs. if I were you.” He paused briefly in contemplation. “She seems to have a…what’s the old world term? Ah, yes…now I remember. She seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to me.”

“Who are you?” Troi asks.

“Why, I am the benevolent leader of the Province. Surely you’ve heard the name Myron Scott.”

Troi and Keller couldn’t believe their eyes. This was the leader? This was the person who held everyone’s life in his hands? Why, he couldn’t have been any older than they were.”

“But, you’re no more than a kid.” Troi almost laughed. “You know, you being the leader and all is good information to have, but you know that’s not what I’m asking. Who are you…really?”

“I’ve been know by many names over time, some you may remember, some long forgotten, but in this incarnation you can call me…Theo.”

Not impressed by the little speech, Troi shrugged her shoulders. “What is it that you want…Theo?”

“I thought you would have figured that out.” He raised his arms and waved them in a circle, indicating their surroundings. “I want it all. I want everything that has been denied to me for thousands of years. And now…it will finally be within my grasp.”

Troi had to stifle a laugh. “Forgive my saying so, but you must be pretty bad at what you do if it has taken…” she held her fingers up in quotations, “thousands of years” to reach this point. What’s wrong guy? You don’t have the right stuff?” Troi teased.

This time the laughter did erupt, and both women found themselves holding on to each other in an effort to remain standing.

“That traitorous, vengeful old crone. For eons she has imprisoned me in many locations across her lands, until finally she locked me away in that forest with no way out, but I found a way. She thought she could go to sleep and tuck me safely away? No. It has taken me many centuries, but finally I have broken free.”

He turned to them.

“I am the harbinger. The bringer of death and destruction. The malignant manifestation of malevolence. And now the time has come to claim all that should have been mine during her long rest.” Then Myron turned to Troi. “And you will help me.”

‘Wow, that was a mouthful, and he didn’t stumble over one word,’ Keller thought mockingly, and as unladylike as it was, a humorous little snort escaped through her nose.

The sound was contagious. First Troi began laughing, then Sherman and Warren joined in. By the time Tanner and Zack had caught the laughing bug Myron’s entity was in full fury.

Suddenly, the air around them became increasingly hot, and the laughter stopped. Keller noticed the leader’s eyes glowing red, and didn’t like the feeling crawling into her stomach.

‘Well, this is new,’ she thought.

Up until that point the confrontation had carried a comedic air with it, but now things were getting serious.

With lightening quick speed, Myron wrapped his hand around Troi’s throat, and immediately the entity that had cloaked itself in the leader’s body felt her feral energy rush forward in protection. Troi’s response was fueled by an instinct so old, so primal that it came without thought, and in that instant, Theo knew that she would not go easily…but that was okay, the fight always made it more thrilling.

The resistant surge that coursed through Troi’s body caused Myron’s fingers to instantly tighten around her throat. The excitement accelerated the entity’s desire to make the transfer into this body. This…it knew, was the body he was meant to inhabit. From the moment the woman had entered the dark forest it felt her presence. It had been far too long since a spirit as formidable and fearsome as this one had walked the earth. That’s why this vessel would succeed where the current one would not.

Troi’s eyelids fluttered, the pull was so strong. This thing that had her now had touched her before. It had shared her body, and she couldn’t deny the seductive power it held. It called to her. It called to a place in her that was the total opposite of the person she knew herself to be. It wanted her, and she wanted to go. It would be so easy, all she had to do was just give in.

But there was something that wouldn’t let her go. Something that just wouldn’t allow it. And it was calling to her too. What was commanding her now was closer, deeper, stronger than anything this being could offer, and she could hear her screaming, ‘you can not have her!’ That’s when Troi began to run. She ran as fast as she could to her salvation…to her Keller.

“You can do better than this,” Theo taunted. “Leading a wagon train of farmers, women and monkeys? You could be so much more. I can show you, just let me in and you’ll see what greatness is. I’ll guide you, I’ll teach you, I’ll give you the world.”

When he felt Troi begin to struggle even harder, he changed his methods. “Let me put this another way. You have two options.” Myron held his hand out to his side, and within the blink of an eye, an orange ball of fire sprung up in his palm. “You can either accept me into your soul, or I can force feed you this fire ball.” Here he gave a sinister laugh. “Then, after turning you into a pile of smoking embers, I’ll entertain myself with your mate.”

Not waiting for Troi to respond, Theo made the choice for her. He squeezed her throat tighter, forcing Troi’s mouth to open. He would send his essence directly into her.

*******

Myron Scott felt like he was nothing more than a spectator. He watched as his hand grabbed the tall brunette around the throat. He felt the power that ran through her body, and he heard the invitation that was being presented with his mouth, but he could do nothing to stop it.

Then when the offer came to have the woman rule the world, the leader couldn’t stand idle any longer.

‘You said I would rule!’ he yelled at the entity.

‘You?…Rule?…Hardly. You weren’t capable of ruling you own land. You most definitely aren’t equipped to rule the world.’

‘But, you said.’ Now he was whining like a petulant child.

‘I say a lot of things, Myron Scott. It was your misfortune to believe them.’

Myron started to pace back and forth in his mental prison. Arguing with the entity. ‘Up until the moment I left the Province I was certain there was nothing else beyond the borders except the shanty town that I thought the outcasts had built, but over the months I’ve learned that there is much more, and I think I should rule it.’

‘How about, I rule it and let you watch?’ Theo tormented.

*******

The internal debate that was going on in Myron’s head had caused his body to become motionless. Troi was still in his grasp, and the ball of fire still burned in the palm of his hand, but he was frozen.

Knowing that this would be the only opportunity she would have to save her lover, Keller quickly took action.

First she tried, with Troi’s help, to pry the fingers from around her throat, but the grip was too strong. Then they both rained down blows to the arm, still nothing. Keller contemplated doing something to the hand with the flaming ball, but quickly deduced that it was an unpredictable variable, and decided against it. Then, without a word, Keller stepped back and raised her sword high above her head, her intentions obvious, but before she could bring down the blade, her father stepped in.

“No, Keller.”

Green eyes went wild. “No!?” This thing has a hold on Troi, and I intend to break it in any way that I can!”

“I understand, daughter. I didn’t mean no, don’t do it, I meant no, I’ll do it.”

The rancher took a step back, gauged his aim, and raised his axe.

*******

Myron recognized the man with the axe. He remembered when the rancher had saved his life. From his internal prison, he watched, finding it a curious thing that the same axe that had saved his life, was about to take his arm. He watched Warren raise his axe and decided, in that moment, he was going to be a hero. He faced his prison guard, and held his attention until what needed to be done was done.

‘Isn’t there any way that I can rule with the dark-haired woman?’ Myron asked his captor.

‘That’s a ridiculous question. A will as formidable as hers has no need to share power.’

‘What about an advisory position? I could give her some great advice.’

‘I’ll advise her.’

Myron allowed himself a quick glance to the outside and closed his eyes…the axe was coming down.

Theo noticed the odd behavior. And wondered at the man’s actions. Then his eyes went wide as a searing pain propelled him back to the outside world.

Left alone, Myron watched as the hand around Troi’s throat lost it’s tension and feel away to the ground. He tried to use his mind to soothe the pain in what was left of his arm, as he considered the disfigurement, trying to see a positive side to things.

‘I can still be leader with one arm. I’ll just have to assign myself a personal scribe,’ he conceded.

*******

Warren brought down his axe with all of his might. The swift force severing the limb at the bend in the elbow.

Theo’s eyes refocused on the world around him, shocked to be missing an appendage, but before he could seek retribution, a bolt of white light streaked across the sky, illuminating the ground below. Then a loud boom thundered in the distance swallowing up all other sound. The air crackled with a wild energy, and the ground shook beneath their feet like a group of wild horses were stampeding.

Every person in the meadow was frightened by the display. What they didn’t know, what they had no way of understanding was that the earth was waking up…she had slept long enough.

She yawned, and fissures opened in the ground, causing entire hilltops to be swallowed whole. When she stretched to relieve joints that had gone unused for centuries, the ocean floor surged upward, creating foamy walls of liquid that dumped tons of water onto dry land, creating raging rivers where there was once only dirt and stone.

When she blinked, trying to focus bleary eyes, lightning flashed across the sky, temporarily blinding the people, then her exhale released a long held breath that began as a gentle breeze, then quickly turned into a raging windstorm, causing trees and man alike to bow to the power to avoid being split in half.

Theo seemed to forget about Troi, Myron’s missing arm and the flame that still burned in his remaining hand, and focused his attention on the sky.

“Now?!” he yelled to the heavens. “After nearly than one thousand years of languor, now you decided to awaken?!” He spat and stomped his feet and raised his now empty hand high in the air. Blue flames arced out from the fingertips, and his eyes glowed a deeper red like molten lava. “You will not take this from me,” he admonished.

The wind intensified and the trees began creak, making a noise that almost sounded like the mother was laughing at him.

Again, he shot flames from his fingers, sending threatening columns of swirling heat skyward, causing an explosion when it was met by a bolt of lightning. “You no longer have any power here, you old bag of wind. I command you back to your slumber!”

In an instant, all became quiet, nothing, or no one moved. Every person was caught in a bizarre tableau of fear and anticipation. Brent and the remaining riders had no idea what was happening to their leader, and the people of Arcadia had a feeling that whoever, or whatever it was that Myron was taunting didn’t take too kindly to being commanded by this man. Somehow they knew that it was about to respond in a big way.

Like all things that are in the early stages of wakefulness, the earth was grumpy, and she was in no mood to take up any of her precious time to scratch this old itch. She wanted this irritant gone from her.

It started with a deep rumble off in the distance, then the sound began building at a steady pace until the rumble became a continuous roar. The clouds in the sky became a dark and heavy, but suddenly they parted and a bolt of pure white energy raced down from the sky. It pierced the ground at Myron Scott’s feet, creating a gaping wound in the ground. From that hole, heat and flames shot up from it’s depths, causing everyone in the area to move back, giving the power the space it demanded. Then the earth shook, and long seams started to spread along the ground searching for, and seeking out a specific target.

When the hole grew wider, it was the mother’s mouth laughing at this insignificant being’s belief that it could command her. With one last roil of her chest she pitched Theo forward, casting him down into a fiery chasm, entombing the evil spirit in the bowels of the earth. It’s time had run out…unfortunately for Myron Scott it took him with it.

The last thing the young leader saw before disappearing from the face of the earth, was the mountain of men crumbling to the ground, leaving a wide expanse of dark sky in it’s wake.

As the leader’s body disappeared into the fiery hole, Jay grabbed Todd by the arm and took off into the woods. The minion entities were quick to realize that now that the dominate force was gone they would have to see what mischief they could get into on their own. As they slunk off together, Jay was already thinking of a way to get back to the Province. He knew that there were many souls there that he could influence.

Keller took in a sharp breath as she watched the last of the stone features disintegrate into dust. “It…it’s gone.” She tugged on her lover’s arm. “Troi, it’s gone,” she said again, almost in tears.

Troi pulled her close and rubbed her back with small circles. “I see, love. I see.”

Trying as hard as she could to hold back her tears at the total destruction of the most impressive work of art she could have ever imagined, Keller whispered. “Do you think that there will ever be anything that magnificent again.”

Troi kissed the top of Keller’s head. “With people like you around, love. I have no doubt.”

*******

The Highlanders had been gracious enough to send out their funeral brigade to remove the bodies from the meadow. Early the next morning pyres would be built and the souls would be sent off to whatever god they believed in.

After wounds were tended to, thirst were quenched and the weary rested, those that were able to, settled around a large campfire, and the conversations flowed easy as an affectionate camaraderie was shared by the pursuers and the pursued.

When Warren discovered what the relationship was that his daughter shared with Troi he felt a strange stirring in his stomach, but when he saw how happy she was he never gave it a second thought. ‘Life was too uncertain…too fragile to waste time on something as harmless as how one loves.’ he thought. He’d almost lost her once because he didn’t understand her spirit. That wasn’t going to happen again.

Keller, for her part, couldn’t believe she was sitting in a circle of victory with her father and brother.

“I’m so happy to see you, Shermy,” Keller said, full of love and excitement.

The big blonde blushed up to his scalp. But it was a good blush. “I’m happy to see you too, squirt.”

This caused Troi to shoot the water she was drinking across the circle, hitting Tanner square in the forehead. “Nice shot butthead,” he threw back.

“You see, Tanner? That’s just wrong. Keller’s big brother calls her squirt. You? You call me butthead. What’s the deal?”

Tanner was wiping the last of the moisture from his forehead as he answered. “Last I checked, you were about two feet too tall to be anybody’s squirt, and the butthead thing, well let’s just say…I saw you when you were a baldheaded baby, and the name fits.”

When Troi pouted, Keller pushed her lip back in. “Put that away, and if it makes you feel any better, you can be my squirt.”

“Aw, isn’t that sweet. The butthead is also a squirt.” Then he thought for a second. “I guess that makes you a Burt,” Tanner teased.

Just before he could gear himself up to create a Burt song, he felt a swat on the back of his head. “Are you teasing your sister again?”

He rubbed the sore spot on his dark head and winced. “You’ve gotta come up with another go to move, mom. If you keep this up I’m gonna have a permanent slant in the back of my head.”

Warren and Sherman laughed at the Donner’s antics. It was so strange to feel such joy in this odd place. But it was a joy like they’d never known. Warren only wished that the rest of his family was there to experience the freedom of this happiness.

“We need to get word to mom and the boys that we are all right,” Sherman reminded his father.

“Barrett, come here a minute,” Troi called.

The little monkey came bounding over. “You bellowed, Troi?” he asked.

Warren and Sherman almost fell over from shock. “Deus, bless.” They said in unison.

Barrett held up his tiny palm. “I know, I know. You can’t believe I can talk. You’ve never seen anything like me, yada, yada, yada. Get over it.”

“Hey, what happened to your proper tone?” Keller asked.

“When you’ve been through what we have you kinda relax your standards a little,” he replied.

“I can see the logic in that,” Keller said.

“What do you need, Troi,” he asked again.

“I was wondering if you could get one of your bird friends to deliver a message to Keller’s family.”

“I don’t see why not,” the monkey responded.

Warren cleared his throat to interrupt. “Um…that might be a problem, Troi. Nobody will be a ble to read it,” he said, a little embarrassed for the first time in his life about being illiterate.

“That won’t be a problem, dad,” Keller said. “Barrett will get one of his talking buddies to fly in. Right Barrett?”

“Right-O, Miss Keller.”

Sherman shook his head from side to side. “I would love to be there to see Thomas’ reaction to having a bird deliver a talking message.”

Keller thought about that, then shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t worry about, we’ll figure something out. One way or another they will know that we are all safe and sound.”

“How will you make it back across the Badlands without the riders protection?” Keller asked her brother.

“There’s nothing left to be protected from.”

“What does that mean?” Troi inquired.

That’s when Sherman enthusiastically launched into his thrilling tale “You should have seen it, Keller. We were attacked…”

Sherman went on to tell his sister about the extinction of the links and the wild dogs. Davis and Patsy were sitting nearby, and Davis with parchment in hand, waited patiently as Patsy reworded what she was hearing.

Keller was becoming more and more excited “Maybe we can go back with dad and Sherman and you can meet my mom and brothers,” she said to her mate.

Wanting nothing more than to see Keller reunited with her other family members Troi never hesitated. “I think that’s a great idea.”

“But the season has changed,” Warren reminded them. “I don’t think we’ll be able to make it back home before the bad weather sets in.”

Then, as if nature was agreeing with him, a couple of snow flurries landed on the tip of the older man’s nose.

Keller laughed at the look on her father’s face. “Maybe we should talk with Lucas, and ask if we can set up camp until Spring.”

Troi held her hand out and tried to catch a snowflake. “Sounds like a good idea, it seems like we’re gonna be here for a while.

“Hey, Patsy?” someone yelled, getting the red-haired storyteller’s attention. “Hows about a story…you know…to kinda ease the troubles of day.”

Davis gently squeezed the trembling hand he was holding. “Go on, you can do it.”

With Davis’ silent support she straightened her back and set her shoulders. After taking a few moments to think she started.

“I sing of Troi and Keller…the worlds first fighters for freedom…”
Part Twenty-Five: A Tisket, A Tasket, A Green And Yellow Basket. ~Ella Fitzgerald~
Gabriel Scott was a patient and observant student, and someday he would be a great leader, but for the time being the Province was under the stewardship of, The Oder. The advisors thought it best to start the young man off slowly, giving him time to mature, understand, and embrace his responsibilities. Roland watched over him and made sure he was always accessible to the young man whenever there were questions or concerns about his abilities to be a good leader.

One of the first major undertakings that became Gabriel’s duty was to decide what to do with the debris that was left behind after the center was turned into rubble. The unexpected, and frightening earth shaking the Province had experienced had made quite a few changes in the land.

Roland had never said it out loud to anyone, but the senior advisor thought the destruction of the building had been a gift from the Deus, and when it became obvious that the collapse of the structure meant that the former leader’s intuitive experiment wasn’t going to continue, the center’s staff was put to work in other areas of the Province.

Roland had no delusions that Myron, or the riders would ever return. He felt like they were lost to them, but the damage the young man had caused would take years to repair. New riders would have to be trained. That thought made Roland bristle. The loss of Brent Murdock, would be long reaching, the man had been an excellent trail boss.

The intuitives that had been exposed because their families voluntarily took them to the center, would have to be dealt with. Setting them out couldn’t be done now, not without angering the families, so at the moment leaving them be was the best option. And woodworkers needed to start rebuilding the wall that had come tumbling down when the earth shook. When Roland thought about it, the only good thing that happened the day the earth moved was the center disintegrating into a pile of rubble.

A few days previously, one of the riders that Myron had left in Arcadia…that had been a surprise to Roland, he had been positive that the outcasts were somewhere living like animals, but, the rider came back to the Province to inform The Order that the Badlands had been cleared of the links and most of the wild dogs, and that Myron had moved on to follow the villagers that had escaped. The riders that were left behind had been at a loss as to what to do, and had taken the chance to send one of their members back to the Province for guidance.

Roland had sent him back almost immediately, ordering him to stay in Arcadia until he received word to return. After the rider left Roland met with the other advisors to inform them of the new development. He knew that the citizens could never find out about the cleared Badlands, or the existence of Arcadia, if they did, he had no doubt that the Province would start to empty out.

Roland knew that something needed to be done, something that would return people’s faith in The Order’s inherent ability to know what was best for the Province.

He had maintained his own counsel for days, trying to come up with a solution until a thought came to him. Maybe it was time to read the book, maybe the answers laid within Curtis Poole’s writings. They were stories he said had come to him as a child, maybe they would help.

He went home and pulled a handmade, leather bound book from the wooden box he kept under his bed. He sat in a chair and placed the book on his lap. Inside were Curtis Poole’s writings. Stories written by him, on parchment made by his own hand. Roland turned the first page and began reading the first story.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
by Curtis Poole.
Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

Roland read, and reread the words, over and over again, but he still didn’t understand their meaning. “There must be something that I can do.” He flipped through more pages, hoping an answer would jump off of the pages and present a solution.

‘Maybe he should tell the other advisors that he had this long forgotten book,’ he thought. ‘Maybe we can find a way to hold things together. Maybe if we shared these writings with the people it would help.’

Maybe, maybe, maybe. That’s all that spun around in his head.

What he didn’t realize…could not even fathom…was that the earth had opened her eyes, and no longer would the people be blinded by false prophets…soon their eyes would be wide open too.

*******

The Morgan boys were digging trenches in the land, creating small creeks. They thought it would be the best way to distribute the water from the newly formed lake on their property. When the earth had rumbled and the ground moved, the Morgan family had taken shelter in the barn. The sounds that were coming from outdoors left them terrified, never had they felt or heard anything like what was happening around them.

When the noise stopped and the ground settled down, they slowly made their way out, and was overwhelmed to see the body of fresh water that was now a part of their property. That’s when the Morgan men had set about dealing with the change to the ranch’s landscape.

Now, weeks later, Walter was wiping sweat from his forehead and checking the direction of his trench, when Sam started to jump up and down, pointing to the sky, and yelling incessantly.

“Look, see, it’s a bird. From Sherman and father he brings the word.”

Sam took off running towards the house. When Walter and Thomas didn’t make a move to follow, the little man started to jump up and down in frustration.

“It brings a message from your brother, we must go to be with mother.”

By the time they had reached the house Ellen was walking out onto the porch, just as a bird of considerable size was landed on the rail.

The fowl had an almost human looking face, with large golden, front-facing eyes, curved brown feathered talons, and a small hooked beak. From that beak it dropped a scroll onto the wood decking. Then the owl cocked its regal head to one side, taking in the small woman as she wiped her hands on a towel, then he addressed her.

“Ellen Morgan, I presume.”

“Deus, bless,” Ellen said.

A trembling hand went to her mouth and green eyes went wide. It was only Walter’s quick reflexes that stopped the woman from hitting the wood when she lost the ability to stand on her own.

“My most humble apologies. It was not my intention to shock the poor lady into paralysis.”

“You fly real far across the land, scaring the mother was not your plan.”

The owl turned his large eyes in Sam’s direction, and if it had been possible for his face to form the expression, he would have smiled.

“Well, Samuel, I see you made it through. I must admit it is a pleasure to see that you are well.”

“I’m more than well, no more to roam, Sam has found a happy home.”

The Morgan family looked at the sight in front of them and felt a little addlebrained. It was…bizarre to watch a bird and a rhyming man have a conversation, just…bizarre.

Seeming to remember his manners, the bird returned his attention to the matriarch of the family. “Forgive my rudeness, Mrs. Morgan. I was asked by a Mr. Barrett to deliver this scroll, and tell you that your family is safe and will be home with the coming of Spring. Now that I have fulfilled my duty, I must go.”

He looked up at the sky, then without moving his body, he turned his head all the way around, facing in the opposite direction before turning back to them. “The sun is too high in the sky for my taste. I’m more of a nocturnal creature…if you know what I mean.”

They all nearly fainted. No they didn’t know what he meant. They didn’t know what any of this meant.

Without another word, or a backwards glance, the bird took flight. The Morgans watched him go, and Walter mumbled under his breath. “He didn’t even tell us his name.”

“His name is Phineas and he’s an owl, but he’s not always a friendly fowl.”

“Well, all right,” Walter said.

Thomas reached down, picked the scroll up from the porch and unrolled it, but before he could say anything Sam saw the picture and got excited.

“That is my home, I left with speed, the Deus book I learned to read.”

Thomas turned to his friend. “You’ve been to this place?”

Sam nodded vigorously. “It’s the land where I was born, I had to leave, it made me mourn.”

“Why did you have to leave, Sam?” Walter wanted to known.

“The Deus touched me with his hand, the leader needed to wash the land.”

“Myron Scott?”

“The Deus said it was the season, now his life must have a reason.”

“Are you saying it was Myron Scott’s purpose to lead the riders out of the Province?”

Again he nodded. “The people are free, the way is clear, there is nothing left to fear.”

They were all silent, something very profound was being said to them, but they couldn’t grasp it. But that was okay, there would be time.

Ellen took the scroll from her son’s hands and saw the portrait, even if the faces on it hadn’t been familiar, Ellen would have known by who’s hand it had been drawn.

There was a scene depicting four adults standing in front of a mountain with men’s faces on it. ‘A mountain of faces?’ There would be time to think on that later. There was an animal of some sort perched on a tall, dark-haired woman’s shoulder. It was black with a long tail, and it was also smiling and wearing clothes.

Ellen felt a little light headed. Where on earth had her family gone? Was this place real, or one of Keller’s creations? But didn’t Sam say it was his home? So it must be real. It was just too much to think about at the moment, so she returned her attention to the picture.

The picture was so realistic that Ellen felt like she could reach into the scene and touch her family. She didn’t know who the woman was, but there was no mistaking who the other three people were.

Standing, smiling out at her, and waving a hello, was the rest of her family. Warren had his arm around Keller’s shoulder and looked like he was about to burst with joy. Sherman stood on her left side with one of his arms draped across his father’s arm, draped over Keller’s shoulders. He was smiling from ear to ear with his free hand positioned out in front of them showing a thumbs up.

Keller stood between them, her smile just as big and bright as the other two blondes. The tall woman was standing behind Keller with one large hand resting on top of the other, both nestled on top of her daughter’s head with her chin cushioned on the back of them. The gentle smile on her striking face and the unspoken emotions in her eyes stirred something in Ellen. The way her daughter had paid such loving detail to the woman’s hands was so…intimate, and the tender look in her eyes had been drawn by a person that had been on the receiving end of the adoring gaze many times.

There was a story there to be told. Then a thought struck her, ‘I wonder if they are sweet on each other?’

Ellen had never thought about that type of relationship. ‘Two women loving one another like a man and a woman? How do I feel about that?’ Then she pushed those thoughts aside.

The most important thing was that they were all safe, that’s all that mattered, and if the Deus was kind, she would be hearing the story first hand when they all returned…in the Spring.
Part Twenty-Six: To Everything Turn, Turn, Turn. There Is A Season. ~The Byrds~
As they walked hand in hand Troi turned to the quiet woman beside her. “What’s on your mind, love?”

The embarrassed coloring rose quickly, heating Keller’s cheek. “I…um…I was just thinking.”

Her mate’s reaction to the simple question really piqued Troi’s curiosity. “It must have been a very interesting thought,” she said wiggling her dark brows.

Keller gently slapped her on the arm. “Not those kind of thoughts you pervert.”

Troi put her arm around the small woman and pulled her close. “Well, Barrett told me, once you get started, it’s hard to stop.”

The coloring in Keller’s face deepened at the truth of Troi’s words. Once they had became lovers their desire for one another had almost become an addiction, bordering on obsession.

“As true as that may be, that’s not what was on my mind. I was wondering, should we tell everyone about the gateway and the books we found in the mountain?”

Troi briefly thought about the odd things they had run across on their journey, and after considering the uncomfortable and confusing feelings the discoveries had left them with, she decided against sharing the information with the others.

“I don’t think we should. It would serve no purpose really.”

“You’re probably right,” Keller said.

“At least we don’t have to worry about anyone finding the books. When the mountain fell it buried all of the evidence,” Troi added. Then her attention turned back to her love. “But I doubt that thinking about whether or not we should talk about what we found was what made you blush…spill it.”

Keller’s attention turned to the empty skyline where the majestic mountain once stood. She was remembering the visage of the strong profiles, that until a few hours before, had watched over the land for centuries.

From the moment the wagon train had come around the bend, revealing the chiseled faces of the long dead strangers, something had stirred deep in Keller’s soul.

And now, with the battle behind them, and the threat of Myron Scott forcing them back to the Province no longer a fear, she found herself wanting to do something to commemorate the experience.

When she looked up at her brave partner and ran her eyes over the straight plains and strong features of her beautiful face, Keller understood how a person’s bravery, their nobility, their very being, could inspire someone to want to memorialize who they were in the biggest, most permanent way imaginable. She pointed to the empty space.

“I want to do something like that to remember the day.”

Blue eyes went wide in shock. “Um…sweetheart, you do realize that not only is the mountain gone, but we can’t even begin to create something that huge. I mean, I can’t even imagine how they did it.” Then she sighed. “But, if that’s what you want to do we’ll scout for a location and give it try.”

Green eyes glowed with a mixture of love and humor as Keller rose up on her tiptoes to delivery a lingering kiss to soft lips. “That’s why I love you so much. No matter the endeavor you never see it as impossible, but as sweet as that is, no. I have no intentions of trying to carve faces out of the side of a mountain. What I do have in mind though, is something a bit more manageable…”

They started walking again, with Keller tucked securely under Troi’s arm. Then the night was filled with a booming laugh when the small artist shared her idea.

“Create a likeness of ME?!”

Then a moment later the word, “NAKED?!” was heard shouted in the distance as the young couple disappeared around the bend…out of sight, unaware of, and unconcerned with the fact that they were ushering in what was to be, yet another of the earth’s countless reawakenings.

It was truly a new beginning…again.
The End
It’s Something Unpredictable, But In The End Is Right, I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life. ~Greenday~

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