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* The Library - Fiction for the Heart *

The Gathering
Ch. 7 - Terror

As the days went by, Magda thought and worried about the others, the Lonelies, as she'd come to think of them, but because of the hope, she knew somehow they would find a way to save them.

One night she dreamed she left the valley and traveled out into the world of men.

Everywhere she went, she sought the Lonelies and gathered them to her, and everywhere she went, she tried to stay hidden so she could get them safely back to the valley. But everywhere she went, something dark pursued her, seeming to be able to sniff out her hiding places, no matter how clever or well-disguised she was. This terrible dark thing pursued her with a singleminded hatred... it wanted her dead and that was all its purpose. She knew it would never stop.

In the dream she knew she was at the last leg of her journey home, if she could only make it up and over this one last hill. As she approached the peak, she turned and looked behind her. The village she had just left was blanketed by unnatural inky blackness and she knew the dark thing had followed her. She watched as it seeped into the village, filling all the people with some horrible disease, and one by one they died screaming. Frozen with horror, she watched as the darkness lifted and moved toward her, picking up speed as it sensed her fear. She turned to run but the thing caught up with her and she felt its glee as it tore the little Lonelies from her arms...

"NO!" she screamed into the dark night.

The fire had dwindled to embers. She realized she was awake, lying on the grass. She tried to remember to breathe, her heart was pounding uneven drumbeats in her ears.

It had been a true dream. She knew with her truth-sense that some awful death/dark/thing HAD relentlessly pursued her on the Long Road. Memories tickled at her; horrible deaths, sickness, disease, violence, and pain. She had tried so hard to forget the innocents - who had done nothing worse than tolerate her in their midst. She was filled with guilt and horror and remorse. At that moment she wasn't sure she wanted to remember everything.

She thought of the Lonelies, out there suffering in the dark and cold and not even knowing she cared. But the thought of going out there again filled her with terror. It would find her! It would find her and kill her!! She cowered and quaked, every cell in her body trembled. She heard herself whimper, and Mara came to sit beside her fear-frozen body. She couldn't move. She shivered, but not with cold. Mara stirred the fire anyway, building it to a healthy warm glow.

"I'm a coward," Magda told her through chattering teeth.

"No," said Mara, coming to sit beside her again.

"You'll hate me."

"No," Mara said again.

"Well I hate me! I'm a coward. A stupid, frightened rabbit, a sniveling cowardly worm. Can't save anybody, can't help anybody. Frightened, useless weenie of a coward!" The last word wailed high into a scream, and Magda clutched her chest, sobbing.

"I... can't... DO ... anything!" Each word punctuated by a sob, the trees swayed above her in sympathy.

"Helpless, useless! Worthless!" she sobbed, pounding her chest with each word. "I hate being afraid. I HATE it!!!" she screamed to the trees and sky. Mara stayed with her while she alternately raged at herself and at the formless terrors which crippled her.

At last her tears subsided and she lay down on the grass, completely exhausted. She let herself rest just on the edge of sleep, breathing deeply. She had the feeling something wasn't quite finished yet.

She looked across the fire to see a small... no, a tiny woman. A very tiny, very old woman. She stood just at the edge of the light of their small fire, hunched and crouched ... almost as if she were trying to scrunch herself down even smaller than she was. And she already seemed impossibly tiny.

She watched Magda and Mara silently from the other side of the circle.

Very softly, Magda said, "Welcome."

The tiny woman started in surprise. She turned her head to look behind her, then looked back at them. "You see me?" she squeaked in a small, reedy voice.

"Yes, we can see you," Mara said.

The tiny woman gaped and gasped and then buried her face in her hands and burst into tears.

As Magda and Mara moved to sit beside her she said over and over again through her tears, "You can see me, you can hear me!"

When her sobs subsided, the little woman told them she'd been around for a very long time. She'd been here in the valley almost since the first day Magda found it, but this was the first time they'd seen her.

"I haven't been seen or heard," she said, looking pointedly at Magda, "for a very long time."

Magda felt a memory begin to stir, just a riffle of a breeze.

"I don't blame you," The tiny voice and head dropped together and she seemed to shrink even smaller. "You turned your back to me long ago," the little woman said, "and haven't seen or heard me since. You didn't want to hear me or feel me. I don't blame you, I don't blame any of them. Who would want me, scared all the time, harping and whining? I can't do anything or go anywhere. And they wanted to do things, go places that scared me. I tried to tell them, I tried to tell them of the danger. They didn't want to know my fear. I tried to stop them, and then they left. They all left me. I don't blame them. But they don't know the danger!" Her voice dropped to a whisper, "They don't know the secret I carry..."

"Stay here with us," Magda said when the little woman fell silent. "You can stay here and tell us your fears, we'll listen."

The tiny woman snorted in disbelief. Her tiny wrinkled face formed a sneer and her small reedy voice said, "You hate me."

Magda felt herself on the brink of some great revelation. She studied the tiny figure there, and felt the riffle of a memory begin to take solid form. She knew this woman. This little being was one of them. She had come home.

"Little mother, join us, stay with us," she said. "Stay and share with us."

The old woman glanced warily from one to the other.

"Stay here with us in the secret glen of tears," said Mara. "This is our sharing circle. This is our safe place. This is where we can tell our stories, remember our past, feel our pain..."

The tiny woman snorted again, "You don't want to hear my story. Nobody wants to know."

"We do. We want to hear what you feel and remember. It's safe to share here." Magda paused. "I don't remember hating you and leaving ... I want to remember. Please?"

The tiny woman seemed to grow a fraction larger, it seemed to them, and softer. Her face, lined and wrinkled as it was, grew less stony and bitter.

"Maybe I will tell you," she said in her thin little voice. "Maybe."

But then doubt crept back in.

"Why would you want me now?" she said. "I was with you on most of your journey, except when you went places that frightened me too much, and you would never listen to me.. I couldn't stand it anymore, and you wouldn't listen to me when I tried to tell you of the dangers. I grew to hate you. Why wouldn't you listen to me? Over and over and over again, they hurt and scorned and tortured and killed... I couldn't help, you wouldn't listen!"

She began to sob again, "You wouldn't listen... you wouldn't listen to my fear..."

They waited, and then she said "When you came here, I followed you. It's different here, I'm still afraid, but I... I feel different."

"Safe," Magda supplied the word. "It's safe here."

For a moment the tiny woman's face relaxed and she seemed to grow younger. Then she cringed again and plucked at Magda with her tiny, bony fingers. "How do you know? How do you know?" she wailed. "I'm so afraid, all the time, no safe place. I can't help it, I can't stop it, I'm so afraaaiiiid!"

Her sobs grew to hysteria, a terrified screeching. It was a scream that seemed to go on and on, and the tears streamed down the little woman's face. A scream of pain and horror, a scream of helplessness - dying alone with a beast tearing at your entrails; victims tortured in a dark basement, begging for mercy and praying for death. She clutched at them and screamed and sobbed, her eyes seeing horrors they could only imagine.

"Make it stop, please make it stop," she cried. "I don't want to know this, I can't bear this alone!"

Magda and Mara held her tightly, tears streaming down their faces as they shared her pain. "You're not alone anymore," Magda said. "We will bear it with you."

Little by little the old woman relaxed and the last thing she whispered before she fell asleep in their arms was "Please don't hate me."

Together they carried her into the cave and cradled her while she slept through the rest of the night.

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