2. Encounter with a Traveler

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Chapter II
Encounter with a Traveler

As the long shadows of tall timbers stretched across the rapidly darkening forest floor, I suddenly realized the day had completely slipped past me. And I had absolutely nothing to show for my day’s work. Alarm and fear pressed a flurry of thoughts through my head.
“My berries! I’ve eaten the berries! I can’t go into camp without any berries. Deacon will kill me. I’ve got to have something.”
With both hands, I grasp the base of thorny stem. A mighty heave produced two scoops of leaf, thorn, and blood. Staring down at the clump of waste in my hands, I burst into tears.
“I don’t even have my bucket,” I cried out helplessly.
Searching about in the growing darkness, my bucket was nowhere to be found. Downtrodden, I turned toward camp and away from the empty berry bushes.

As I approached the camp clearing, the last of the pickers were emptying their berry pails into the huge wooden collection barrel. Quietly, I crept along the outer edge of the camp – hoping I’d go unnoticed.
“Get over here!” Deacon roared from the collection point. “I hope for your sake you’ve got a pail full.”
Meekly, I approached the collection point with my head lowered. Kneeling before the collection barrel, I replied feebly, “Sir. I confess no berries before the King, today. I beg forgiveness for my failure and present myself at the mercy of your collector, Deacon.”
“Where is your bucket,” the collector demanded coldly?
Petrified; I stammered, “My buck . . . My bucket, sir, is lo . . . lo . . . lost.”
Reaching down, he grabbed me – shaking me for all I was worth.
With his fist clenched, he growled, “I warned you once already, you little . . .”
“Deacon!” A firm voice interrupted. “Release the child. We will deal with this matter when the elders meet.”
“But Solo!” Deacon protested, “I caught this little maggot earlier playing in the stream. I warned the little brat then; but you see how much good that did. The rod’s what’s needed here.”
The mammoth collector shook one last time before tossing me to the ground. I jumped up and ran behind Solo, fearing the collector’s wrath. Coldly, Solo addressed me, “The rod may be justified. But for now, off to your tent! You’ll be dealt with later.”

Wasting no time, I sprinting from the curious crowd gathered at the collection barrel back to the security of my tent. In the tent, I found the haven necessary to nurse my wounded pride – and sooth a guilty conscience. But huddled quietly in the privacy of the tent, I overheard some of the passing conversation as the people made their way to the evening lecture.
“Did you see the stranger pass, today,” one curiously asks?
“No!” another replied?
I wanted to yell out to them, “Yes! Andy and I saw him while we were picking.”
And then the thought struck me like a blow to the head, “Where is Andy?”
I hadn’t seen him since the encounter with the stranger earlier in the afternoon.
The conversation continued outside the tent, “Was anyone taken?”
“I’m not sure, but someone . . .” The voices faded as the group moved out of range. I scooted to the door flap, hoping to hear the next conversation as the people passed in the night. Where was Andy? And who else had encountered the traveler on his journey, I wondered?
“That’s the only place the child could be,” a timid voice reasoned.
“Well, let’s hope the child is just lost,” the second member countered.
“Or lost track of the time,” injected a third voice.
“I’ve always felt we should be going out in pairs,” the timid voice responded.
“But if . . .” the statement cut short.
“Shhh! Here comes Solo,” someone commanded.
Now I was worried about Andy. Had I been so fearful of the traveler that I’d left my very best friend alone to face the stranger? “No! That couldn’t be,” I reasoned. I’d seen the traveler in the distance and he had no one with him. “Oh, no!” fear griped my heart. He could have gotten Andy while I was gorging on those sweet berries. Andy must have thought the stranger had harmed me and encountered him while I wasn’t watching. Maybe the others saw something. I curiously pushed the tent flap over just a bit hoping to hear Solo speak. A hush came over the gathering as Solo stepped upon the huge boulder in the center of the camp site. Everyone was anxious to hear more detail of the day’s events.
“Good evening, my friends,” he opened.
“Good evening; Solo, Messenger of the King,” the group responded in unison.
“Direct your thoughts, tonight, on one who is not here with us. Some say a stranger passed our way today, and fear the child may have been lured from our safety. Elders are searching the forest even now on the faint hope the child may only be lost. But we now fear their search could be for naught.”
“Noooo! God, no!” a hysterical voice screamed out from the crowd.
“Silence!” Deacon demanded. Solo gave a nod of approval to his collector for his rapid response to the situation.
Solo continued; “As I was saying, the reason we are fearful is the typical signs of a traveler’s passing, white down was found among the berry bushes this afternoon. We will . . .”
My thoughts immediately shifted from Solo’s word down to my pocket. “That’s what it is,” I reckoned.
Reaching into my pocket, I felt the soft material between my finger tips. “It’s down from a bird, probably a dove.”
“Behold!” Solo shouted, bringing my attention back to the activity outside the tent. “The Elder brings the calling card of the wandering traveler.”
One of the elders stepped out of the darkness with his arms outstretched above his head; a berry pail in each hand. The elder approached Solo’s stand stopping a few feet directly in front of the Messenger. Deacon stepped between the Elder and the Messenger. With this move, the Elder surrendered the two pails over to the Collector. Deacon turned to face Solo and handed one of the buckets to Solo. Accepting the pail from Deacon, Solo reached into the bucket, withdrew his hand, and presented the crowd a glimpse of its contents. A buzz came across the gathering as those near the front recognized what the two buckets contained.
“What I have here!” Solo proclaimed. “I’ve warned you of many times before. This has to be the traveler’s most powerful weapon.” Holding the small feather out to the people; he stressed, “With this little innocent piece of down as soft and fragile as it appears, the traveler mystifies his victim through magic and trickery. This is the link between him and you. He will summon your mind to yield to the evil power too which he is enslaved. Your ears will deceive your heart. Your spirit will be weakened by a yearning call to go nearer the stranger. The urge will be overwhelming to discard all that you know is right. I tell you from experience for I too have encountered the traveler – and heard his magical call.”
Again, the crowd came to life as Solo relayed his own personal encounter with a traveler. Solo lifted his voice in order to regain the people’s attention, “It’s powerful! It’s persuasive! It’s deadly, if you allow it to get hold of you.”
Catching his breathe; he spoke in a softer tone, “One day curiosity weakened my guard. I’d been working hard that day picking precious berries for the king because I believed that one day soon he was going to come riding with his mighty army back into this forest to recapture what is his. And I knew that when he re-entered the forest; the ones who had worked and had fruit stored for the King and his army, and had prepared for the upcoming battle, would win favor in the King’s sight -and be spared destruction.”
“Yes!” shouted Deacon.
“But while I was picking berries that day, I’m ashamed to say, I kept a few for myself. As the day started to draw to a close and I was making my way back to my people’s camp, I stop to rest for a moment and sat down on an old log. Sitting there, the urge to eat those few berries I’d put back for myself grew stronger and stronger. The only thought I could entertain was how sweet those berries must be. The longer I sat there the sweeter they grew in my mind. Finally, the temptation was more than my tired weak body could stand. I ate the berries – and they were as sweet as I’d imagined. Before I could control my greed, I reached into my bucket and took a big handful straight from the King’s treasure. I’d allowed myself to become so out of control that I was now ready to steal from the One who would one day rule the forest. But before I could eat one of those berries I’d taken from the King’s bucket, something happened which would forever change my life. Standing no more than twenty feet from me was a traveler. We stared at each other in silence for what seemed an eternity.
Then he presented a small down-like material, this began his enticing ritual. He saw me – and knew I was weak, tired, and vulnerable. His urging was strong. Then as I sat on that old log, my weary mind had just enough strength to reason one last thought. In the one hand I held the small feather of a bird. In the other, I squeezed forth the juice of the sweetest berries the forest could produce. Which would I want to present to the King on the day of his return? Which would be more useful in waging the battle of the forest? With my mind centered on that thought, I broke loose from the spell of the feather, and ran from the traveler’s grip back to my people.
I foolishly kept the little feather for sometime, occasionally battling with myself to resist the urge to feel its softness. The magic remained with the material for a considerable time. But again, I was strengthened by my desire to prepare for the King’s battle. And with each refusal to yield to this plea from the magical power, I was able to build up a resistance to that threat. I’m here as your living proof tonight that you too can resist – and overcome the stranger’s threat.”
“Yes!” a scattering of the faithful shouted.
“I know some of you, right now, are being enticed by the magic of these feathers. You feel an uncontrollable urge to drop all you’ve worked for here. And seek out the stranger. To join him in his journey! He summons you from a distance. I resisted! Deacon resisted! The Elders resisted! Our ears no longer hear the call of these feathers. And I will not stand for my people to be tormented by this thing.”
Solo jumped from the rock and walked over to the camp fire. “My people! Through the union of our camp fire, I cast the lure of the traveler out of our camp and command each picker. Resist the stranger! Return your loyalty to your work!”
Solo threw the bucket with its contents, into the center of the huge bond fire. Deacon followed suit, tossing the bucket he held into the fire, along side the one which Solo had cast into the flames.
Turning back to the crowd, Solo continued to instruct his audience. “My desire is that none of our people will ever be lost. The King is returning to the forest to reclaim his kingdom. You must continue the harvest. The message dictates we work until we drop, then we continue to work still more.”
Solo paused for a moment before closing. “Now fellow workers, the Elders inform me our work in this area is finished. We can be pleased with a job well done. Tomorrow morning we will break camp and move closer to the King. Several of the Elders have moved ahead in search of our new camp. I urge you now – take a well earned rest for tomorrow promises to be a busy day. But carry this thought in your heart. The King is returning! Be ever watchful! Good night, my friends!”
As the people broke for their tents, the fiery embers of the campfire snapped and crackled in lonely silence. The two buckets glowed bright red from the intense heat of the blazing flame. A faint odor of burnt fruit mingled with the dominate oak. And in the glow of the fire, I watched the snow white feathers ride skyward, with purpose, on the tips of the flame into the cool starlit night. The feather delivered another message into the night, “And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
Detached from the traitorous comfort of a glowing campfire, the heavy groans of a rickety cart beckoned within the darkness of the forest.

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