Tales of the Great King



The Question
Part One
Hiding.
Alone.
Here, in my forest,
I stay.
Alone.
Wandering,
Walking,
Silent as the breeze,
Always on the move.
One day
He sees me
And I see him.
I freeze,
Poised to flee
But I do not run.
Not yet.
Something about him
Keeps me here,
Seems to call my name.
“Teresa,
Teresa,”
He somehow seems to whisper,
Tugging at me to come.
I stare at him,
Frightened,
And yet not afraid.
Finally, I speak.
“Who are you?”
He answers,
“I am
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King.”
I stare,
Trembling,
Wondering,
Who is this man to make such a claim?
Who is He to say
He is the Son of the Great King?
It cannot be possible
And yet, somehow,
I almost believe Him.
I look,
Fearfully,
Into His eyes,
And I find
Love,
Kindness,
And strength reflected there.
He speaks again
And His voice
Tugs at me,
Pulls at my heart.
“Come,”
He says,
“Follow Me.”
He turns to go.
I hesitate.
“Come,
Follow Me,”
He has said.
I am afraid.
I do not want to leave my hiding place,
My safe forest,
But
He has called me.
“Come,
Follow me.”
And so
I follow.

Part Two
Walking.
We have been traveling for weeks,
Following the One
Who calls Himself
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King.
Many have joined us.
Some wait for Him
To overthrow those
Who would oppress us.
Some are simply curious,
Wondering who He is.
And some believe that
He is the Prince of Peace.
I follow because
He called
And I could not say no.
One day,
Hot and dusty like all midsummer,
I see ahead of us
Two girls,
Both younger than my own fifteen years.
One guides the other,
Who stares off with
Eyes that seem not to see.
Their ragged dresses
Hang loose on their gaunt frames.
As they draw closer, I see
That one walks with a limp.
Now I know who they are.
Beggars,
A blind girl
And a cripple.
The blind girl walks humbly,
Guided by the cripple,
But seeming to listen for something.
The cripple steps
Almost proudly
Despite her infirmity.
They are those
Who exist solely on the charity of others.
A blind girl and a cripple,
Beggars,
Useless.
They should be hiding like I once hid,
Though I am not like them.
I hid because
I loved to be alone.
They would hide
Because they would have little choice.
Yet they do not hide.
They continue towards us.
I look at our leader.
Surely
He will not stop,
Not for these,
A blind girl and a cripple!
But
He stops
As they draw near.
They stop too,
The cripple glancing up,
Half in fear,
Half in scorn.
The blind girl still stares,
Sightless,
Her eyes blank.
Our leader speaks gently.
“What do you want Me to do for you?”
The cripple remains silent
But the blind girl
Turns towards His voice.
“Please, sir,”
She asks,
Her voice hopeful.
“Please sir, I believe You can give me my sight.”
A man next to me whispers
“I knew that girl in my old village.
She is blind,
Blind from birth.”
I stare at the blind girl.
She has never seen,
Yet she asks for sight?
I have heard that
Before I joined Him,
Our leader healed the blind,
The sick,
The crippled,
But I believed them to be only rumors.
How can she hope
To have her request granted?
Our leader speaks,
Smiling.
“Then see, daughter, for
Your faith
Has healed you.”
A smile spreads across the face of the girl,
Once blind,
As she looks around,
Seeing for the first time.
I wonder,
Not for the last time,
Who is this man
Who I am following?
This healer,
This miracle worker?
Is He a great teacher,
A prophet,
Like some people say?
Or is He who He says He is,
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King?
I look ahead
And see the cripple walking away,
Scornful of what our leader
Might do for her.
The once-blind girl,
Kneels before our leader,
Joyfully thanking Him,
And then she joins our group.
The whispers fly.
“The cripple,
The blind girl’s sister,
Refused healing.
She came only for her sister’s sake,
Now she is leaving.”
I watch her go
And wonder,
Not for the last time,
What she truly has refused.

Part Three
Weary,
We are all eager
For a rest.
The heat
And long days of travel
Have taken their toll on us.
Whispers run up and down the crowd.
“We approach a town,”
They say,
“Perhaps we will stop.”
I hope they are right.
We reach the gate
As the evening watchmen
Take their place.
As we walk down the main street,
I look around.
The town is quiet,
Somber,
Far more so than it should be.
I wonder what has happened
To bring on this gloom.
As the townspeople see
Our leader,
The One who calls Himself
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King,
A whispering cry goes up.
A man,
Dressed in the black clothes
Of mourning,
Steps towards Him.
“Please, lord,”
He says,
Hopefully,
“Please lord,
My daughter has died today,
But
I have heard of Your works.
If You come
And touch her,
She will live.”
I wonder,
Not for the first time,
At the faith people display that
Our leader
Can heal them,
Though I have never seen Him bring anyone
Back from the dead.
I know, though,
That He rewards those who have faith.
Sure enough,
He speaks.
“Lead Me to your daughter.”
The man turns
And we follow.
As we reach the man’s house
We hear loud crying
And wailing.
Our leader goes inside.
Most stay behind
But
I slip after Him,
Curious.
I follow Him
To the dead girl’s bedroom.
The girl’s mother sits,
Weeping,
By the bed.
Our leader speaks gently to her.
“Weep no more,”
He says,
“She is not dead,
Only asleep.”
The woman looks up,
Surprised.
Our leader takes the hand
Of the dead girl.
“Come,”
He says,
“The night is over.
It is time for you to get up.”
I watch,
Amazed,
As she opens her eyes
And sits up.
The girl’s mother
Throws her arms around her daughter,
Tears of joy
Flowing from her eyes.
The man bows
And thanks our leader.
I stare at Him,
Wondering.
Who is He
To give sight to the blind?
Who is He
To raise a child from the dead?
Could He truly be
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King?
I stare
And wonder,
Not for the last time,
Who He truly is.
Though,
Somehow,
I almost think
I already know the answer.

Part Four
Rushing,
The crowds of townsfolk
Bustle around me.
Housewives
Doing their morning shopping.
Peddlers
Hawking their wares.
Young women
Giggling and gossiping.
All these
And more
Fill the crowded marketplace.
I slip,
Unnoticed,
Between shoppers and stalls.
I listen to every word they say.
One name
Is on everyone’s lips,
The name of the one
Who I have followed.
“The Prince!”
They say,
“The one who calls Himself
Son of the Great King!”
Matronly women
Talk knowingly with their friends
About Him.
“I heard
He raised a girl from the dead,”
Says one.
“My cousin told me
That He gave sight to a girl blind from birth!”
Exclaims another.
“My husband says
That He knows more about the Great King than anyone,
Even the Elders!”
Another whispers.
Speculations fly
About who He is.
“He is the one we have heard of,
The one who says a Deliverer is coming!”
“He is one of the heroes of old,
Come back to lead us!”
“He is a prophet,
Sent with a message from the Great King!”
Everyone seems to have an opinion
But I do not think
That anyone truly knows for sure.
I leave the city,
Running out the gates
And back to the place
Where our group stopped
While I went on ahead
To find out what the townspeople say
About our leader.
I approach Him respectfully.
He turns to me.
“You have returned.
What have you learned?”
I tell Him what I heard.
“Some say
You are the One who proclaims a Deliverer is coming.
Others say
You are a hero of old
Or a prophet.”
He nods slowly.
“And you, Teresa,
Who do you say I am?”
I hesitate.
I have pondered the question
Many times
Despite having followed Him
This long.
Who is He?
Who am I following?
I feel as if every eye in the group
Is on me.
Who is He?
Who am I following?
I look up,
Into His eyes,
And I realize
I knew all along
But I would not admit it.
“You are,”
I begin.
“You are
The Prince of Peace,
Son of the Great King.”
The Prince of Peace smiles.
“Blessed are you,
Teresa,
For on this,
I will build My sanctuary.”
I do not understand His words,
But I do not care.
My question is answered.
I follow
The Prince of Peace. 
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The Sacrifice
Part One
            “Abbie, your father wants to see you.”
            The golden-haired nine-year-old looked up at the older lady speaking to her. “Why, Mama?”
            Her mother smiled. “He’s waiting outside. You’ll see why when you go. Hurry and find him.”
            Abbie jumped up, her brown eyes sparkling, and laid the book she was reading aside. “All right, Mama.” She cheerfully skipped out of the family’s good sized home. In the courtyard, she saw her father standing beside his black horse. Behind the horse was a smaller palomino pony. Abbie ran the rest of the way to her father. “Papa! Am I allowed to ride with you now?”
            Her dark-haired father, Matthias, enfolded her in his strong arms. “Yes you are, sunshine. Excited?” His deep blue eyes twinkled as he smiled at his daughter.
            Abbie wriggled out of her father’s embrace. “Oh, yes! I am, Papa!” She hurried over to the pony. “Let’s go!” she exclaimed. Although Abbie had ridden in the stable yard behind the house many times, she had never been allowed to ride with her father on his excursions.
            Matthias smiled and helped Abbie into the saddle, then walked over to his own mount and swung into the saddle. “Ready, sunshine?” he asked.
            Abbie grinned happily. “I’m ready, Papa. Look, I can make her go myself.” Abbie made a clucking noise with her tongue and the pony began walking forward. “See, I did it!” Abbie looked at Matthias. “What’s the pony’s name, Papa?”
            Her father urged his steed forward. “She doesn’t have a name yet, Abbie. After this ride, you can give her one.”
            Abbie nodded slowly. She knew all about her father’s view on naming horses and ponies. A name couldn’t be given until the horse or pony had been ridden by the namer. “Where are we going, Papa?” she asked.
            Her father turned to look at Abbie. “Where do you want to go, sunshine?”
            Abbie bounced in the saddle. “Can we go to the sweet shop, Papa?”
            Matthias nodded and tugged his horse’s reigns to turn towards the town marketplace. “Aye, let’s go there, Abbie.
            Abbie’s smile got even brighter. “Thank you, Papa!” she exclaimed. She began dreaming of the cakes, rolls, and candy at the sweet shop. Suddenly, a commotion from up ahead broke into her thoughts. “What’s that, Papa?” she asked.
            Matthias frowned and spurred his horse to go faster. “I don’t know, sunshine. Let’s go find out.”
            Abbie frowned too as she urged her pony to a trot. Why does Papa look so worried?
            Matthias froze when they rounded the last corner and found the source of all the noise. No .  . . it can’t be! A crowd had gathered along the sides of the street, and they were jeering at a man being led down the center of the road. This, however, was not what shocked him. He had seen these harsh processions many times, and when he was younger and wilder, he had been a part of many such crowds. No, what hit Matthias like a punch to the gut was the man who was being led down the road, a man who had been Matthias’s dearest friend over the past months. Great King, no! It can’t be! This man was not an ordinary man. He was the Prince of Peace, the Son of the Great King. This cannot be happening! The Prince of Peace came to save us, to give us a way back to the Great King! He remembered how he had heard of people healed by the Prince of Peace; people brought back from the dead; hopeless people given hope.
            Abbie’s voice, small and frightened, broke into Matthias’s thoughts. “Papa? Why is everyone shouting at the Prince? You and He both said that He came to help us.”
            Matthias looked back at his daughter’s worried face. I can’t let her find out what’s happening. She’s too young, too innocent. He glanced back at the figure of the Prince of Peace, noticing the soldiers prodding Him, the blood streaming his flogged back. The Elder’s work. I should’ve guessed. They’ve never liked Him. Suddenly, he wheeled his horse around. “Come on, Abbie. We’d better get home. I think a storm is coming.” He barely restrained himself from spurring his horse to a gallop, but couldn’t resist a canter. Behind him, he heard the sound of Abbie urging her pony on. I cannot let her see what is sure to happen.
            When the two arrived back at their home, Matthias sent Abbie inside, saying “Go in and find your mama, sunshine.” As soon as she entered the house, he turned him horse and sped away once more. I have to go find out what’s happening!
            Abbie frowned as she watched Matthias from the window. Where’s Papa going? She glanced back at her mother. Mama’s busy. She’s not watching me. In that split second, Abbie made her decision. I’ll do it! Quietly, she made hurried to the door, grabbing her cloak from a hook on the wall as she went. She slipped out the front door and walked quickly through the courtyard. A crowd was passing along the street in front of the house, and Abbie joined them. Maybe they’re going wherever Papa went. Inwardly, Abbie was sure that Matthias had gone to find the Prince of Peace. Abbie frowned. Why did the people seem mad at him? He’s nice. She remembered the first time the Prince of Peace came to her home. She remembered how her mother and father had promised to serve Him in any way they could, and how he had always had time for her and her friends. Why would anyone want to hurt such a nice man?
            As the crowd moved on, taking Abbie with it, Abbie realized where they were going. Why are so many people headed to the Death Hill? The Death Hill was a barren hill just outside of town with a single, ancient tree at the top. The worst of criminals were hung there. Abbie remembered the one time she had seen someone hung, and she shuddered. Maybe they killed the wrong person and they want the Prince to bring him back to life. That could be it! Abbie had heard tales of the Prince of Peace healing sick or hurt people and even raising a girl from the dead. That must be it. Abbie hurried on, but something inside told her that she was wrong.
            When Abbie reached the hill, she saw Matthias standing at the beneath a tree, at the bottom of the hill. She ran to him. “Papa, what’s happening?”
Matthias frowned. “What are you doing here, Abbie?”
Abbie looked up at her father’s face. “I came to find you.”
Matthias sighed. “You shouldn’t have come, Abbie.” He put his arm around her. “Now that you’re here, you have to stay with me. Understand?”
Abbie nodded and watched the scene at the top of the hill. The chief of the City Elders, the group who ruled the city, was saying something. Abbie shivered as she felt the stern man’s black gaze sweep over her as his jet eyes scanned the crowd. Who is he looking for?  The Chief Elder finished speaking, and turned to the Prince of Peace, who was seated on an old horse, hands tied. Someone led the horse to stand beside the tree, and a noose was placed around the Prince of Peace’s neck. Abbie’s cry of horror was stifled as her father turned her away from the sight. She buried her face in his tunic, half-sobbing. This can’t be happening! It can’t!
Matthias couldn’t look away. He wanted to, but at the same time he wanted to watch for any sign from his Prince. So he gazed, spellbound, as the Prince of Peace hung, the simple rope noose cutting into His neck. Matthias could do nothing. How could this happen? What has become of the Great King’s promise? His mind raced, remembered the words of the Prince of Peace. “I am the Way back to the Great King, the Truth, and the Life for those who believe. No one comes to my Father unless it is through me.
Matthias looked up at Him. The Elders were moving off, satisfied that their so-called enemy was gone. The Prince of Peace was still, and Matthias knew that he would move no more. The man fell to his knees. “Why, Great King?” he cried aloud. “Why? You said that You would send a Way back to You; You sent the Prince of Peace, but now he hang at a rope’s end. How could You let it end this way?”
Abbie’s small voice broke into Matthias’s misery. “Papa? Please don’t get upset. Please, Papa.”
Matthias looked back at his daughter. Oh, Great King, how can I tell her?
Abbie’s eyes were filled with tears. “Papa, please don’t get upset; please don’t. Didn’t you say that the Great King is in control? Won’t He take care of us?”
The simple words hit Matthias like a hammer. Of course! The Great King has a plan! He has to. Matthias knew that he was probably grabbing at straws, but any hope was precious now that the Prince of Peace was gone. Matthias looked once more at the still figure of his Prince. The dark clouds broke for a minute behind Him, letting the sun shine through. Matthias rose to his feet. I have to go on. It’s what He would’ve wanted. Picking up Abbie and placing her on his horse, he swung up behind her. Glancing one last time at the still figure on the hill, he spurred his horse to head for home. I must go on.           

Part Two
            Abbie watched as her mother bustled about the small room, pulling thins from the shelves and putting them in a basket. “What are you doing, Mama?” she asked.
            Abbie’s mother, Bethany, turned to her daughter. “I’m getting ready to go somewhere, Abbie.”
            Matthias appeared in the doorway. “Dear, you can’t be serious about this. You know what the Elders will do it they find out.”
            Bethany shook her head. “Matthias, you worry too much. He’s a friend of the family. It’s not against the law. Good know that He’s been hanging there long enough. Besides, they won’t dare bother me. I’m friends with most of their wives.”
            Matthias sighed. “Bethany, dear, you know the laws as well as I do. According to the Elders, He is a criminal, and anyone who takes His body down will be treated as an accomplice, no matter who the person’s friends are.”
            Abbie broke into the conversation. “Mama, where are you going?”
            Bethany resumed her work as she answered her daughter. “I’m going to get the Prince of Peace’s body, or what’s left of it after several days in the open, and see to it that His body is taken care of properly.” She turned to Matthias. “Don’t you dare try to stop me, Matthias. The Prince of Peace was the truest friend any of us had. It’s the least I we could do to give Him a proper burial instead of letting His body hang there for the crows.”
            Matthias sighed. “Very well, dear, but be careful.”
            Bethany smiled. “Of course, Matthias. When am I not careful?”
            “May I come, Mama?” Abbie asked.
            Bethany shook her head. “Not this time, Abbie.” She sighed. “Not this time.”
            Abbie frowned, but she didn’t protest. It won’t do any good anyway. She glumly left the room, leaving her parents to prepare for Bethany’s task.
            Bethany walked quickly along the streets towards the Death Hill, talking to herself. “I can’t believe they actually did that! The Prince of Peace was the best person to ever walk these streets! I heard that he healed a lass who’d been blind from birth, and I think he brought another young lady back from the dead.” Still chattering, she reached the Death Hill and began to climb its rocky slope. “And to think He died a criminal’s death! Him, the Great King’s Son! It’s enough to make one wonder what the world’s coming to!” She looked up at the tree and gasped. “He’s gone!”
            It was true. The rope noose hung, bloodied where it had dug into His neck, but His body was nowhere to be seen. Two guards sat at the bottom of the tree, obviously unconscious. Bethany dropped to her knees. “Oh, Great King, what happened?”
            A tall, strong-looking man appeared at Bethany’s side. “Lady, what is wrong?” he asked. His voice had an odd quality to it that Bethany couldn’t place.
            “He’s gone!” she whispered. “Who could’ve taken Him?”
            The man’s voice seemed to have a smile in it as he said “Why do you look for those alive in the place of death? Go, and tell the others what you have seen and heard here.”
            Bethany stood and looked at the man. “Who are you to tell me this?”
            The man said “I am a friend who you do not know. Do not fear, Bethany, follower of the Great King. Go, do as I have said.”
            Bethany turned, something about the man’s words putting hope in her heart. “Very well, sir. Thank you!”
            The man’s last words followed her down the hill. “Watch for Him! He is not gone!”
            Abbie looked up at the looming clouds. It had been dark and overcast ever since the Prince of Peace was hung; and this turned the garden, which was usually a cheerful place, into a dreary land of gloom. Still, it was better than wandering around inside the house with nothing to do. I wish that the Prince was still here. I miss Him.
            Footsteps came from behind Abbie. “Hello, Abbie.” The voice was kind and strong, and oddly familiar.
            Abbie didn’t look to see who it was. She didn’t really care. “Hello.”
            The footsteps came closer. “You seem sad, Abbie. What’s wrong?”
            Abbie sighed. “The Prince is gone. I miss Him.”
            “He is not gone.”
            Abbie frowned and began to turn around. “What do you-?” She saw who the speaker was and her face lit up. “You’re back! How?”
            The Prince of Peace, for it was He, smiled. “With the Great King, anything is possible, Abbie.” She ran to Him, and He hugged her.
            As soon as He released her, Abbie turned. “Mama and Papa will want to see You! Will You come?”
            The Prince of Peace shook His head. “Not yet. I must still greet others before I see them. Go tell them that you have seen Me, and that I will come see them soon.”
            Abbie nodded. “Yes sir!” She hurried away. The Prince is back!   
            Bethany was telling Matthias of the encounter on the hill when Abbie burst in, exclaiming “He came back! The Prince is back! He isn’t dead!”
            Bethany sighed. “Abbie, what do you mean?”
            “I saw Him!” Abbie exclaimed. “I did! He told me to tell you that He’ll come see all of us soon!”
            Bethany gasped, remembering the strange words of the man on the hill. He will return . . . can it be?
            Matthias, however, shook his head. “It can’t be. How could the Prince of Peace have come back? I saw him hung.”
            Abbie insisted “I saw Him! I really did.”
            “I believe you, Abbie.” Bethany said. “Someone told me that He wasn’t gone, and you wouldn’t lie about something like this.”
            Matthias shook his head. “She saw someone who looked like Him, that’s all. Don’t encourage her, Bethany.”
            Bethany frowned. “Matthias, if He could bring others back from the dead, why couldn’t He come back Himself? Why couldn’t the Great King bring Him back?”
            Matthias crossed his arms. “Believe what you will, but I won’t believe it until I see Him for myself, and that is my final word on the subject.”
            Bethany sighed. If only you weren’t so stubborn, husband of mine.  
             Abbie was the one who suggested it. “Why not have a picnic in the garden while we wait for the Prince to come?” she had asked Bethany. Bethany had liked the idea, and that was why they were setting out their noontime meal on a makeshift table.
            Abbie set down the last plate. “What now, Mama?”
            Bethany laid a platter of rolls on the table. “Run and get your father, Abbie, and I’ll bring out the butter. Hurry!”
            Abbie obeyed, running through the house to Matthias’s study. “Papa! Lunch is ready!” she called.
            Matthias rose from his chair. “All right, sunshine, I’m coming.”
            Abbie smiled and tugged on Matthias’s hand. “Mama said to hurry!”
            Matthias allowed himself to be pulled to the table, where he sat down. He bowed his head, saying “Let us thank the Great King for our food.” Abbie and Bethany also bowed their heads, and Matthias prayed “Great King, we thank you for this food and the hands that prepared it. We pray that it will strengthen our bodies to do Your will. Amen.”
            Abbie raised her head and waited for Bethany to give her some salad and fish. Her eyes roved over the table to the garden beyond. Suddenly, she saw someone standing at the garden gate . . . someone familiar. “Mama! Papa!” she cried. “Look who’s here!”
            Bethany and Matthias turned. Bethany gasped and dropped the plate she was holding, which fell back to the table. Matthias fell to his knees. Abbie rushed to open the gate. “You came back! I knew You would!”
            The Prince of Peace knelt to hug Abbie, saying “Ah, Abbie, I wish that all My people had faith like yours. You never doubted Me.”
            Abbie smiled. “You said You’d come. You wouldn’t break Your word.”
            The Prince of Peace stood, saying “Of such is the Great King’s Kingdom.” He walked to Bethany, who blushed.
            “I’m sorry for not having a place for You, my Prince. I wasn’t expecting you quite so soon.”
            The Prince of Peace smiled kindly at her. “Bethany, you have been faithful to Me ever since we met. For this you will be rewarded one day. Do not worry about the place, but be prepared in the future, for I may come at any time.” He turned to Matthias. “Matthias, stand up. Look at Me.”
            Matthias obeyed. “”Is it You, my Prince?” He saw the scars from the rope on His neck. “How, my Prince?”
            The Prince of Peace said “With the Great King, all things are possible.”
            Matthias hung his head. “I know it is You, my Prince. Forgive me for my unbelief.”
            “You are forgiven, Matthias. You believe because you have seen, but blessed are those who believe without seeing.” He looked at the three of them. “I cannot stay with you, My friends. Soon I must return to My Father.”
            Abbie frowned. “Will You ever come back?”
            The Prince of Peace said “Someday I will return, Abbie, and then I will take all those who follow Me back to live with the Great King. But before then, I will not return, though I will still be with you.”
            “What are we to do until then?” Matthias asked.
            “Spread the word!” the Prince of Peace replied. “Tell the world of Me. Do not fear, though people will persecute you, for the Great King will protect you.”
            Matthias nodded. “We will, my Prince. I promise.”
            The Prince of Peace smiled at them. “Thank you, my friends. I must leave you now, but remember me and my words.”
            Abbie, Matthias, and Bethany watched as the Prince of Peace turned and walked out of the garden. The Great King’s long-ago promise to provide a way back to himself had been fulfilled at last, and a new promise had been set in place. They would wait patiently for the fulfillment of the promise, wait patiently to see their Prince once more.   --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Treasure
Melody rushed through the dark castle halls, desperate to get back to the outside world. She, unlike many of the other castle servants, was not afraid of what lay outside, she was only afraid of what lay inside the castle. Rather who lived inside the castle. That was The Voice. Harsh and cruel, it belonged to the lord of the land. She feared it, and hated it. She never said this out loud. She did her best not to let it be known that she hated The Voice. To do so would mean trial before the Wraith Court, a court made up of The Voice’s greatest servants. For a servant like her, appearing before that court would likely mean a quick death, or worse, torture in the deepest, darkest dungeons, from which none except The Voice’s most trusted servants returned alive. The Voice, that was Melody’s name for him. To her, he was little more than a voice and a dark presence hovering above her, waiting to pounce. She had never seen him. The only ones who had were the Wraiths, a group of his closest, most trusted, and cruelest servants and knights. Melody shivered at the thought of them. They were almost as evil as The Voice, and she was so afraid of them!
            Melody spotted the door to the outside world. Gathering her cloak around her, she rushed outside and to a grove of beech trees. This was her favorite place in the world. Here, she could sit and daydream about a better life, a life where she had not been pressed into service when she was seven, a life where she knew who and where her father was, a life where she, her father, and her mother lived together far away from The Voice. She could think there too. There, in her special grove, Melody could think of her life without getting sad or angry. Today, she thought about how much she hated being afraid, and how everyone was afraid of The Voice. She remembered how when the housekeeper was mad at her, she’d say “Work harder, you lazy dog, or I’ll tell the lord of the land about you!” The fear of The Voice was always creating more work for her and the other servants. Except for Luke, she corrected herself. Luke, the newest servant, didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. She giggled to herself. Luke was also incredibly handsome! With longish golden-brown hair and blue-gray eyes, not to mention a fairly athletic build, Luke looked like a prince, or that’s what Melody thought, anyway. He was kind too, Melody thought, fondly. She had seen him help others at the risk of getting punished himself. Suddenly, a bell clanged at the castle, breaking Melody out of her thoughts. She rushed back to the castle, knowing that if she didn’t get back to work quickly, well, she could just say goodbye to her supper.
            That evening, as Melody hurried through the castle halls to her tiny room, she came upon Luke. Much to her surprise, he stopped her and pressed a small burlap sack into her tiny hand.
            “There’s a Treasure inside.” he whispered. “It’s from your true Father, and it will guide you to your real home.”
            “My true Father?” Melody looked quizzically at Luke. “My real home? What do you mean?”
            “You’ll see.” He replied, smiling. Then, with eyes shining, he bowed and hurried away.
            When Melody reached her room, she opened the sack and reached inside with a trembling hand. She pulled out an old book, bound in brown leather. “A book?” she said to herself. “How’s a book a treasure?” She stared at the book a few minutes longer, then told herself “Well, I might as well read it.” And with that, she opened the ancient tome and began to read.
            As Melody read on and on into the night, she realized why Luke had called this book a treasure. The tale within was better than any Melody had heard or read. It seemed real, oh so real! She learned of the Great King, the King who was father to everyone. She read how he had worked in the lives of the people who had gone before. She learned who The Voice was-a servant of the Enemy, The Dark Lord who had tried to take the Great King’s throne. But best of all, she learned how the Great King sent his son, the Prince of Peace, to die for all people, to save them and to make a way to the true home of all who believed in him-The Kingdom of Light. When she finally reached the end of the book, it was midnight, and she was very tired. But, despite this, she knew that she wanted to know more, though she also knew that she would have to wait until morning to learn more. Before she fell asleep, she tucked The Treasure under her pillow. She slept better that night than she had in all her thirteen years.
            Melody spent much of the next morning hoping that Luke would find her as she did her work. When he finally did, Melody asked him if he’d meet her at the beech grove. Luke agreed, and they met that afternoon.
            “Well?” Luke asked, as soon as Melody appeared.
            “I read the book you gave me. I could see why you called it a treasure. But, is it true?” she replied.
            “Oh Melody, it’s truer than the castle and the lord of the land!” Luke exclaimed.
            “Will you tell me more?” Melody requested, hopefully.
            “Of course!” Luke continued, passionately. “Let’s sit down and I’ll tell you all I can before the next bell. Now, what do you want to know?”
            By that evening, Melody knew enough about the Great King, the Prince of Peace, and the Kingdom of Light to know that she wanted to believe. But, she couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea, not enough to really, truly believe. Melody fell asleep wondering if this was too good to me true. Her sleep that night was as fitful as the night before had been restful.
            The next few weeks continued in much the same way. Every few days, Melody and Luke would meet and talk. Every time, Melody learned more about the Great King, but she still could not quite believe. 
            After three weeks, however, things took a turn for the worse. Melody and Luke met that day, and Melody asked “Am I pretty? I’ve tried asking other people, but they’re too busy to care. I know the Treasure says I’m beautiful, but I’d like to know how I really look.”
            Luke smiled. “I thought you might be asking that sometime.” He handed her a small package.
            “Is this. .  . for me?” asked Melody.
            “It is.” replied Luke.
            “From my true Father?” asked Melody. “Or from you?”
            Luke just smiled and said “Guess.”
            Melody looked at him quizzically, then opened the package. Inside was a small mirror. It wasn’t very fancy, as hand mirrors go, but it was fancy to Melody. She picked it up. Engraved across the top was “Daughter of the Great King.” As she looked in the mirror, she gasped. She had never seen herself before. What she saw was ash-blond hair framing a roundish face. Within the face were two blue-green eyes. “Is that. . . me?” she asked. Luke nodded. “Well,” said Melody, a bit nervously, “Whether this is from my true Father or from you, I should like to say thank you.” Luke just smiled.
             That night, Melody was awakened by cries of “Open up! Open up in the name of the lord of the land!” Melody quickly got up, stuffed her bag containing The Treasure and her mirror under her loose nightdress, and opened her door. When she did, her heart skipped a beat. Standing before her door were two Wraiths!
            “What is it, sirs?” asked Melody, frightened. “Do you need something?”
            “You’ve been accused of following the Enemy King.” said one. “You’re to come with us.”
            Before Melody knew it, she found herself in the dungeons-not the lowest level, but low enough.  She, unable to control herself, began to cry. Finally, her tears dried up. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Melody heard a voice. “You are alone!” it hisssed, menacingly. “You are alone and will die! No one cares about you! Where is your king now?” The voice trailed off into a cackling laugh. Melody knew that it was The Voice, the lord of the land.
            “No! No! No!” she cried, but to no avail. The cackling laugh continued. Fear and doubt pounded at her heart. What will happen to me? Where is the Great King anyway? Is He even real? She looked up and around, searching for and answer. Her eyes focused on the moon, for she was in a cell high enough to have a window. She felt strangely comforted by the moon . . . and by its light. Then, seemingly out of the light, there came another voice, soft and kind, like the voice of a loving father speaking gently to his child. “Do not fear,” the voice said, “for never will I leave you, and never will I forsake you. You are my child, and I love you. Call on me, and I will answer. Believe in me, for I love you more than the stars in the sky, and I will never let you go, my precious daughter.” The Voice’s cackling laugh had by now ceased, and all that was left was the second voice. Somehow, Melody knew that it was the voice of the Great King.
            “I believe you!” she whispered. “I do believe.”
            The next day, Melody found out that she was to appear before the Wraith-court. She was no longer afraid, but she was still nervous, for she was to appear before some of the Dark Lord’s greatest servants. She wondered if she’d be given a fair trial. She suspected that she wouldn’t be.
            The trial went badly just as Melody had expected. She was sentenced to death that very afternoon. Melody had four hours to contemplate her doom.
             Around the end of the noon hour, a guard showed up at her cell-a guard other than the one who was supposed to be guarding her. Melody thought it looked more like he was sleeping, but she didn’t complain. “I am to take the girl Melody away.” said the new guard. His voice sounded odd for a Wraith or an execution guard, Melody thought. It sounded too kind.
            “By whose orders?” grunted the cell guard, sleepily.
             “By my Lord’s orders!” the new guard impatiently shouted.
            “Very well, very well.” grumbled the cell guard, unlocking the cell door. “Take ‘er away.”
            The new guard led Melody away and out of the dungeons. Finally, he stopped in a copse of large pine trees. “Are you alright?” he asked, quite gently. Melody nodded. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.” he said, taking off his helmet. “I didn’t mean to scare you too much, but I suspected that a little fear on your part would be unavoidable.” By now, his helmet was all the way off, and Melody gasped. She recognized the tall, brown haired, grey eyed young man.
            “You’re one of Luke’s friends!” she exclaimed in surprise. “I’ve seen you two together!” 
            “Aye.” he replied. “Luke and I are in charge of getting the Treasure out to the people at this castle, but the Great King feels that someone else needs to take over. To be exact, He says that someone’s onto us. We’re to head to his land with everyone we got the Treasure to.”
            Just then, Luke drove up in a wagon filled with hay. “There you are!” he said. “I was wondering if you’d make it out. Good to see you, Melody. I see you’ve met Benjamin.”
            “Yes, I have.” she replied. “How are we getting out?”
             “Benjamin and I will ride on the front seat of this wagon.” answered Luke.
             “You’ll be hiding in the hay.” added Benjamin.
             “I wish you didn’t have to, but this was all we could think of to get you out of here without being seen. “
             “I don’t mind.” Melody assured them. Then, she inquired “Where are we going?”
            Luke and Benjamin grinned. “We’re going to the Kingdom of Light!” said Luke.
             Melody’s mouth dropped open. “Really and truly?” she gasped in wonder.
            Luke and Benjamin nodded. “Well, we’d better get going.” Benjamin reminded them. “We need to be far away before they realize we’re gone. Hop in, Melody.”
            And so, Melody journeyed with her new friends to the Kingdom of Light, her real home.

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The Escape
The dark figure was there again. The man had seen it many times, and he didn’t like it. There were strange things up here in the Northlands, and he didn’t want to encounter any of them. Grasping the haft of his huge war hammer, he stood and peered into the darkness. “Who’s there?” he called nervously. No one answered. The figure had faded from view and would not return again that night.
            Alanna carefully slipped out of her spot in the crowded slave quarters. She shivered, unused to the cold of the Northlands with its long winters and springtime snowstorms. I wish I could be back at home. It would be the prettiest part of spring back there, not cold at all. Here, it’s all slush and mud and freezing cold temperatures. Alanna knew that she could be killed for leaving the slave quarters this late. However, she intended to escape, and this was necessary. The Great King will protect me. She crept along until she was close to the main house, stuffing her brown hair down the back of her ragged tunic as she did. Most of the windows were dark, staring out like dead eyes. There was only one with a light, a single lantern that shed its golden glow over the log wall of the house. Alanna smiled grimly. So, she’s ready when I am. Too bad we can’t leave right now. The sooner we get away from this land, the better I’ll like it. Alanna crept closer, until she was directly under the window. Its light glinted in her eyes, and if anyone had been watching, they would’ve seen how bright green they were.  As it was, there was no one there to see as Alanna carefully drew a star in the damp ground beneath the window.  Then, she slipped away. Just say the word, unlikely ally of mine.
The next morning . . .
            Erica scowled. She was about to get in trouble again. Skipping out on her family’s religious services always meant trouble. It’s not like there’s a point to them. The daughter of one of the most successful raiders in the Northlands, Erica should’ve been the happiest girl in the area. And, for a while, she had been. Then, near her thirteenth birthday, things had changed. She had learned of lands beyond the sea that were not, as her father had said, filled with hostile inhabitants, and she had learned of Lords other than the dark dragon-god of the Northlands. To be exact, she had learned of the Great King. It had really been her father’s fault that she found out about the Great King. He had brought back a book with the words “The Treasure” emblazoned across the front. When he discovered that it held none of the things he deemed treasure, he gave it to Erica. And, she had found the tale within so amazing that she knew it had to be true. If he had known the truth I’d find it that book, he would’ve destroyed it as he saw it. Now, she was a follower of the Great King, and a near-outcast from her family. She was also in big trouble.
            “Erica! What were you thinking?” Erica winced. Her father was incredibly mad, and when he got mad, it was terrifying. “You missed the ceremony again to read some idiot book! Are you trying to bring the wrath of Sirpendiss down on yourself?”
            Erica winced again at the name, but she still stood strong. When she was younger, her father had taught her to stand up for herself, and she would still do that. “Father, I do not worship Sirpendiss. Only the Great King.
            Erica’s father was enraged. “Erica, you are not to speak that way! Do you understand?”
            Erica’s eyes flashed, and she struggled to keep from lashing out disrespectfully. “I understand, Father, but I will not be quiet about the truth.” She turned to leave; knowing that to stay would be a bad idea. Say what you like, Father, but you will not turn my faith and you will not turn me. Besides, I’ll be gone very soon.
Alanna smiled as she watched Erica climb out her window. She’s an amazing climber for a raider’s daughter. Their friendship was a strange one. Normally, Erica wouldn’t know that Alanna existed. However, once when Erica fell ill, Alanna had been pulled from outdoor work to tend to her.  Now, the two shared an amazing friendship, united by their faith in the Great King . . . and their desire to escape. Alanna wished to return to her family. Erica wanted to sail, see the world, and find a home where her love for the Great King wouldn’t get her in trouble. Erica won’t find any of those things here, in this horrid land of ice and snow! Her father won’t let her so much as set foot on a boat, let alone sail enough to see the world. And with her strong spirit, she’s been lucky to last this long up here without getting in bigger trouble than she’s already gotten in. 
            “Alanna, we need to go.”
            Erica’s voice startled Alanna out of her thoughts. “Sorry. Why do you say that with such urgency?”
             Erica rolled her eyes. “If I know my father, we have maybe half an hour to get off his property if we want to escape. Are you ready?”
            For the first time, Alanna noticed the large pack that Erica carried. She stood and hoisted one of her own, though not as large. “Yes. Which way?”
            Erica looked around, then began walking into the woods around the main house and the slave quarters. “I think it’s this way. Remember, once we get to the city, it’s your job to get us to the port.”
            Alanna nodded. While she would’ve gotten lost in three minutes if she tried to navigate these woods, Erica had played in them as a little girl, and knew the way almost perfectly. On the other hand, Erica had never been to the docks, but Alanna was sure that she’d never forget that road. It had been a last trek to slavery for her, but now it would be her escape route.  “I know.” she said, quietly. She followed Erica, not looking back. And so our escape begins for good.     
The day after . . .
            “Are you sure this will work?” Erica asked as she adjusted the large helmet that covered most of her long, reddish-blond hair. She was dressed in men’s clothing, and could’ve passed for a young raider.
            Alanna nodded. “Just try to make your voice deeper, and act sure of yourself, not as if you’re an escapee trying to fake her way onto a ship. And whatever you do, don’t act so friendly to me! Remember, if this is going to work, they have to think I’m your slave, not your best friend.”
            Erica gulped, nodded, and strode out of the shadowy alley she and Alanna had been hiding in. She walked over to the dragonboats, the long, low ships of the Northlands, and hid a scowl just in time. Each of the ships was carved with a grotesque dragon figurehead, a tribute to Sirpendiss. May the Prince of Peace keep me peaceful and the Great King restrain my tongue! Oh, how I hate Sirpendiss! Erica straightened up a little taller and called a greeting in the direction of the first dragonboat in the harbor, making her voice deep as she did. “Hail! Are you in need of extra crew?”
            A figure popped up, black eyes glaring out from under piles of red hair. “We don’t need the likes of you, boy. Try the last dragonboat in the harbor, the Dragonstorm. The fellow in charge just might be crazy enough to take you aboard.” The person disappeared, and Erica gritted her teeth.
            Ugh! Oh, how I’d like to punch him in the nose! The likes of you indeed! What I wouldn’t give for a good broadsword! She managed to restrain her feeling, and stalked down the row of dragonboats until she reached the last one. “Hail!” she called once more. “Are you in need of a strong, young warrior to join your crew?” Is that boasting?
            An old raider with ashen hair strode off the ship. It seemed that age had not diminished him in the least. His bare arms were incredibly muscular, and his build was like that of a bear. There was a slightly crazy light in his green eyes that made Erica nervous. “And who might you be?” he asked.
            Erica thrust her chin up. “I’m Eric. Who are you?”
            The old man laughed. “Bold lad, aren’t you, Eric? Well, that’s good. I like bold lads. I’m Olav Beirson, captain of the Dragonstorm. Anything you’ll be bringing with you, Eric?”
            Erica shrugged. “A couple packs and a slave girl.”
            Olav nodded. “I’ll only need you one way, Eric, so once we reach the other shore, you’re on your own. Will you agree to that?”
            Erica had to stop herself from breaking into a grin. “Aye. That’ll be fine.”
            Olav gave a crazy grin. “Good! Be on board by dawn tomorrow, or I’ll leave without you.”
            Erica nodded. “I’ll be there.”
The voyage went surprisingly well for the first few days. No one bothered Alanna, and Erica was not questioned about where she came from. Captain Olav didn’t make any raids, and Erica began to think that the Great King had granted them with a peaceful journey. She was wrong.
            On the forth day, they were attacked. No, not by another ship. There was no ship’s crew upon the seas crazy or foolish enough to try attacking a dragonboat, not if they had heard of the ferocity of the Raiders of the Northlands. No, they were attacked by a storm.
            It hit in the early morning. As soon as the first huge drops fell, and the huge, dark clouds began to gather above them, preparations began. Everything was made secure, and those on board tied themselves to something sturdy. Alanna and the other slave on board, a small sandy-haired boy, were tied to the mast, and Erica and the rest of the crew tied themselves to their rowing benches. Olav and his burly first mate secured themselves to the huge tiller. Despite all this, Erica did not worry. Storms were not something you worried too much about when you were a raider’s daughter who had never been aboard a ship. However, Alanna grew tense, even though she knew the Great King would protect her. Something about this storm frightened her. And when the full force of the storm hit, she was not the only one a little scared.
            Big raindrops were driven into the rower’s faces by a stiff wind. Huge waves appeared and broke over the ship, drenching everyone with salt water. The crew strained on the oars, and Olav and his first mate struggled at the tiller, all trying to keep the dragonboat under control. Wave after wave rose until it seemed that no more could come, yet still the came. Mentally, Alanna cried out to the Great King. Please, my King, rescue us from this storm! Reach out your hand to calm the waves and draw back the wind and rain! Just do something! Just as she finished, the biggest wave yet broke over the dragonboat, snapping ropes and pulling Alanna and the other slave off the ship, into the raging sea.
Time suddenly seemed to stand still for Erica. She saw her friend clinging to the side of the ship, her fingers slipping. Alanna’s scream was frozen, and a slithery voice crept into Erica’s head, hissing cruel lies. “Look where your faith has gotten you! You are trapped on a dragonboat, watching your only friend drown. What of your King’s promises now?”
            For a moment, Erica gave in to the voice. He’s right! I tried to follow the Great King and it’s about to rob me of my best friend! Now what? Then, strangely, a passage from the book in which she had learned about the Great King began to echo in her head. “Have I not lead you and given you this command? Be strong and brave, do not be frightened, for I, the Great King, will be with you.*” The passage repeated itself in Erica’s mind, and the voice saying it gradually changed into one that was oddly familiar. Erica thought back to when she was a little girl, pretending to go on adventures with a young warrior. The voice was like the voice of her imagined companion, but bigger, stronger, kinder, and real. Erica could tell it was encouraging her, saying “Take the chance, I’ll keep you safe.” Suddenly, Erica realized that it was the voice of the Great King. I am not alone. He has my back. At that moment, Erica knew what to do.
Alanna screamed again as she struggled to hang on to the side of the dragonboat. A harsh voice seemed to scream in the winds, its rough roars forming words. “Your King said he’d help you escape! Now you’re about to die! What of his promises now?”
            No! Alanna refused to give in, and she shouted at the storm. “No! He still holds me, and even if I perish here, he will carry me to his home!”
Her words were cut off by a new wave that washed over the ship, tearing Alanna’s fingers from the side of the ship and dragging her into the sea. As Alanna struggled to stay above water, she saw Erica stand and dive off the dragonboat. “No!” Alanna screamed. What is happening, my King? Is it your will that we both perish here? No offense, but I don’t know if Erica’s strong enough to rescue me!
            Erica kicked at the raging sea. She had often swam in the many lakes, rivers, and streams of the Northlands, but this was rougher than she had ever experienced. Still, she struck out towards Alanna and the other slave, trusting that the Great King would help her. 
As soon as Erica reached Alanna, she yelled “Hold on to me and try not to get in the way!” Alanna grabbed onto Erica’s jacket, and began praying harder. Great King, I know you’re with us, but we need more help! Please just rescue us!
            Erica hadn’t been entirely sure of what she’d do once she got to Alanna, especially since the other person had been carried farther away in the waves. Help! The answer to their desperate prayers became clear as soon as Erica got a little closer.  A rope dangled in the sea, off of the Dragonboat, which had been thrown by the captain when he saw Erica dive off the ship. Erica kicked over to it and said “Grab onto the rope and try to pull yourself onto the ship! Don’t worry about me!” Then, she swam away to rescue the other person in the storm ridden waters.   
            It took Erica more effort to reach the other slave. She had thought about just leaving him and letting him fend for himself, but she knew that she couldn’t just let him drown. So, she pulled him back the Dragonboat as well, then climbed back on herself. The storm abated a few hours later, and that was when more trouble came. Erica’s helmet had been lost in the roaring seas, and now her long, wet hair hung free. The others on the Dragonboat had noticed it before, but had been too busy with the storm to do anything about it. Now, however, it was a different story.
The captain was enraged. “What in the world? Eric, if that’s really your name, what are you doing becoming a girl? I want you off my dragonboat!”
            Erica looked calmly at the captain, doing her best to keep her temper under control. She found it easier than she expected, possibly because she was feeling too tired to get mad. “Sir, if you had known that I was Erica, and not Eric, would you have let me on board?”
            Olav shook his head violently. “No! No girls on board the Dragonstorm unless they’re slaves, and you’re not a slave!” Under his breath, he added “Unfortunately.”
            Erica wisely chose to ignore his slave comment. “Well then, sir, you can put me off at the next harbor, and consider me a bit of temporary free labor. Is that acceptable?”
            Olav thought it over. “Fine. But you’re off at the very next harbor, you hear?”
            Erica nodded agreeably. “Aye. Now, there’s the matter of the slave I rescued. I’d like to liberate him.” She saw Olav’s face begin to take on a mad expression. “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll pay for him, but I don’t want to have rescued him only to have him head into slavery.”
            Olav raised an eyebrow suspiciously. He obviously was skeptical of how much a girl could pay. “How much are you offering?”
            Erica considered, then pulled a small bag from her pack, which had been thrown off the top deck when the argument began. She handed it to Olav. “Would this cover it?”
            Olav’s eyes bugged out at the sight of the gold and gems within. “Aye! He’s all yours!” Then he hurried off, yelling for the crew to make for the next port. 
Alanna looked at Erica curiously. “Where’d you get money?”
Erica grinned. “Father was one of the most successful raiders in the area, and he gave me quite a bit of his loot before we had the . . . falling out. I figured that freeing a slave would be a good way to use it.”
Alanna nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, but . . . was that all the money you had? And what will he do? Will we take him with us, or just let him find his own way home?”
Erica frowned. “I didn’t think of that.” She sighed. “I guess we’ll have to figure that out. But no, that wasn’t quite all the money, though it was most of it.”
Alanna nodded again, wondering how this all would work out. 
Three days later . . .
            Erica, Alanna, and the recently freed slave stood at the edge of a harbor. Behind them, the Dragonstorm sailed away. Erica turned to the former slave. “You’re free to go where you wish. Do you have family somewhere?”
            The boy nodded. “Aye. I’ll find them. No need to worry, and thank you.”
            Erica nodded. “Good. Do you want any help finding your family?”
            The boy shook his head. “Nay. I can find my own way home. Thank you both, and farewell.” He set off away from the two, waving. They waved back, watching him go.
            After the boy was out of sight, Erica turned to Alanna. “Now what?”
            Alanna was looking around at the rolling, green hills, a huge smile on her face. “This is the area my family lives in. It looks like Olav finding out your secret was actually a good thing; we were put off in just the right place!”
            Erica shook her head, amazed. “Amazing.”
Alanna nodded. “Come on, I know the way back to my home from here! They’ll welcome both of us; I’m sure.”
Erica bit her lip. “You, maybe. I’m not so sure about me.”
Alanna shook her head. “Both of us. You’re my friend, after all. How could they not welcome you?”
Erica smiled. “I hope you’re right. Well, let’s go.” The two began walking quickly up into the hills, laughing and talking. They were almost home.
            The short journey to the small cottage where Alanna’s family lived was filled with rolling hills covered in springy heather. Erica soon discovered that it made for very pleasant walking except for one thing . . . she was lost. She glanced at Alanna. “You do know where we are, right?”
            Alanna laughed. “Don’t worry; I know these hills like the back of my hand. We won’t get lost.”  
            Erica nodded in relief, though she could hardly believe that anyone could navigate the landscape of one hill after another with such ease and confidence. “Good. So, how much farther is it?”
            Alanna pointed ahead of them. “It’s right there!”
            Erica followed the line of Alanna’s finger. “I don’t see . . . wait! I do see it!” Partially hidden in a grove of beech trees was a pretty little cottage.
            Alanna grinned. “Come on!” The two ran towards the cottage, Alanna eager to be home, and Erica eager to see her friend home at last. 
When the two arrived at the cottage, Erica hung back, suddenly shy. What if they hold what happened to Alanna against me?
            Alanna, on the other hand, flung open the door and almost bounced into the tiny front room, too excited to bother knocking. She was greeted by the surprised stares of her family, then she was immediately mobbed by three smaller children, obviously her siblings. Two of them were young boys who looked to be the same age, though one looked like a male version of Alanna and the other had dark hair and eyes. The third was a small girl who couldn’t have been more than four. She, however, was the most enthusiastic in greeting her sister. Throwing her arms around Alanna, she exclaimed “Alanna! I missed you!”
            Alanna laughed and hugged her little sister. “I missed you too, Brenna! Why, you grew!”
            Brenna’s eyes widened. “I grew? Really?”
            Alanna laughed. “Really.” Then, she turned to her brothers, who had obviously been waiting for their chance to get in unhindered.  “Casey, Connor, did you miss me too?”
            Both boys nodded and attacked their sister. “We missed you, Alanna, especially when we got into trouble!”
            Alanna gasped in mock horror. “You got in trouble without me? I can’t believe that! This calls for tickles!” She vigorously tickled her brothers until they could hardly talk for laughing. Then she finally pulled herself away from the little ones and walked over to her parents, who she greeted with a hug and a kiss for each. “Hello, Da, Mother. I missed you.”
            Alanna’s father, a tall, dark man, hugged her close. “Alanna, we thought we’d never see you again!”
            Alanna grew sober. “I thought the same a few times, Da.” He held her close and whispered something, with Alanna’s mother joining in. Finally, they released Alanna, who had regained her bright attitude. “Da, Mother, there’s someone I’d like you to meet!” She turned toward Erica. “Erica, come meet Da and Mother!”
            Erica hesitantly stepped forward. “Hello, sir, mistress. I’m sorry about . . . what happened to Alanna.”
            Alanna laughed. “Erica, don’t worry! It wasn’t your fault.” She turned back to her parents. “Not only was my capture not Erica’s fault, she helped me escape. And she believes in the Great King!” Alanna poured out the story, wile Erica stood awkwardly beside her, insisting that Alanna exaggerated.
            When the tale was finished, Alanna’s father stood. “We thank you for helping Alanna return to us, and we welcome you to our home.”
            Erica blushed. “I wouldn’t want to impose, sir.”
            He waved her comment away. “Nonsense. Any follower of the Great King and any friend of Alanna’s is welcome in our home.”
            Erica smiled. “Thank you sir, and may the Great King bless you all.”
            Alanna’s father smiled at her. “And may he bless you as well, Erica.”
            Alanna laughed. “You see, Erica? We’re home!” 
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*Based on Joshua 1:9

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