Angelle Sadira drew her scarf closer around her shoulders; like a serpent it coiled and pressed. The frigid cave air could not be warded off, clinging to the skin like a jaw. All around her their mass of more than one hundred Followers of the Way huddled, quivering under their blankets and the arms of loved ones. Ghostly air swirled from everyone’s mouth. Winds, weaved with ice, frequently penetrated the threshold of the dark cave and prowled between each thread in their clothing and grated the sides of showing skin. Icicles loomed from the rock ceilings and glazed the stony walls.
Mass worship was customary on evenings, and preceding their current situation, they had been quite pleased to know that Yoel Amberkin planned to speak that night; he was a respected elder at the ripened age of seventy. Not one knew just what he had to say, but with eager ears they had come to find out.
"Good evening, my brothers and s-sisters. Please bear the cold with me to listen to this im-important message." Yoel’s voice stuttered against the unforgiving cold, but Angelle still valued his words while others murmured to one another. She was an admirer of the man and what he had to say. His entire life he dedicated to teaching and guiding people closer to life and hope.
After a few moments of silence, so as to collect himself again, Yoel began again: "We all know that these Great Westlands of the Free are-are not the ‘free’ we once knew the word as." Angelle lifted her eyelids to slits to see many heads stiffly nod in agreement. She peered between her woolen hood and scarf at Yoel, who stood in front of them all, facing the mouth of the cave and battling the worst of the winds. His snowy hair spilled out from beneath his hood and over his thick scarf. He held a torch and a parchment scroll in front of him.
"Leaders of the Way ac-across the Westlands have all written and have c-come to a decision." Leaders of the Way were no different than the Followers, but they were the Followers who led the congregation and gave the Sabbath sermons.
Angelle could see, even from her distance away from him, how Yoel shivered and violently shook before them all. Quite suddenly she feared for him. His age was no shield for the cold. "On-on the first day of our new year, the first day of the week, hundreds of Followers will be making pilgrimages to the Eastlands in search of true freedom as we…"
His voice trailed off and in an instant Yoel dropped to the floor of the cave. His torch rolled from his gloved fingers while the scroll remained clutched in his left hand. There was a flurry of movement before Angelle’s very eyes and many people raised their voices in panic. Her sister, her father, her mother all rose from the ground and scrambled forward in hope to help the elder man—along with rest of the mass. It was her father who shouted a command, as often he did.
"Everyone back away! Now!" His voice rattled the frozen air and no one hesitated to disobey. A pathway, no matter how uneven, was created. For this moment everyone forgot how cold they were. It was only Angelle, her sister Iriana, and her mother Saereh who followed Ahikam through the narrow path of people. The crowds of people craned their necks to see Yoel while still huddling for warmth.
At the front lay Yoel in a horrendous heap of flesh and clothing, his burning torch mere inches from his head. His wife, too, was found next to him, frantically shaking him in vain. Angelle immediately grabbed the torch into her hand, trying to pretend she did not care about its warmth. She brought it toward Yoel. Her father’s face was firm and clear as he snatched the scroll from Yoel’s hand and began lifting the man’s head from the stone floor. A patch of blood was left behind, glittering in the torch light like a liquid ruby.
"Father, look," Angelle said determinedly. She kept the light of the torch to the scarlet area. "We need to get him home immediately."
"Yes." Ahikam lifted Yoel’s legs so he was draped as a sleeping child might be. Saereh took the scroll from her husband’s hand and fell in-step behind him, desperately searching Yoel’s face for a sign of life. Ever so slightly she saw his chest move. Yoel’s wife, Gilada, was next to Saereh, her face creased with lines of concern, tears beginning to materialize in the corners of her eyes. Her words were glued in her throat.
"Everyone, please go home! We will figure everything out tomorrow," Saereh announced through the nervously chatting crowd. "Please have Yoel in your prayers tonight, and please stay warm!"
The walk home felt an eternity.
Angelle provided the light, Iriana held Gilada’s shoulders with sympathy, Gilada kept her clothed hands on her husband’s head, Saereh was praying in whispers next to her, and Ahikam held his head up in confidence as he carried Yoel through the dense, snowy forest toward the city of Daheim. The rest of the Mass had dissipated already, though not first without offering words of encouragement to Gilada and the family of Angelle.
"He had been so pleased to read that message," Gilada stated weakly through her sobs and quivering. "I was so excited to know what it was all about. But now…now…" She brought her hands to cover her wet eyes in embarrassment. Iriana moved her hands up and down Gilada’s back, squeezing her shoulders now and then for added comfort. She continually whispered words of hope to her. They continued to trudge through the snow, though it bit their toes and kept their boots from lifting easily.
Angelle fought against her constant thoughts about the message Yoel gave in order to focus solely upon his well-being; his very survival. No matter her efforts, Angelle could not ignore the life-altering decision that she—that everyone—had just been faced with. It gnawed at her heart the entire way back, riling her imagination and fanning the flames in her heart. Since childhood she had dreamed of open lands void of darkness, lands that she could roam in safely, lands where she would not meet wickedness, lands where she could be free both in spirit and body. And they had all been offered that dream….
Angelle quickened her pace to walk evenly with her father, holding the torch aloft in hope to keep Yoel’s body warm in the pressing black, frozen air.
"Set him on the bed," Saereh ordered as they walked through the doorway in their wattle and daub house. Angelle walked immediately to light the torches around their large one-room home. When all eight had been lit, she set her own in the pit fire which was positioned in the center of the room. The hole in their ceiling had been designed specifically for this; it allowed the smoke to rise and escape, but when rain fell it had its own roof so the water would run down on the house’s roof, not into the house. Iriana closed the door behind Gilada and herself, bringing in the last of the wind.
Yoel looked peaceful in the dancing firelight as he lay in the bed. He appeared less pale, too, and the flicker of each flame seemed to add more life to his face. Ahikam found a wool blanket and draped it over the old man, but he had ceased shivering a while ago despite the arctic air.
"Damn this cold!" Gilada sobbed in frustration, now sitting on the side of the bed her husband lay on. Saereh hushed her and began to rub the woman’s fragile fingers. Ice they were.
"Put that down now, Ahikam. We have more important issues on our hands!" Saereh declared. Ahikam had been fingering the scroll that held the message. Though deep in her heart Angelle knew it was right to wait to read the entirety of the letter, excitement and anticipation continued to flirt with her as she and her elder sister added more wood to the growing fire.
"There is not much more we can do, Gilada," Ahikam said harshly. "We must let Yoel rest peacefully at the moment. When he awakens, then it will be a time to help him. Now all we must do is keep him warm and let him sleep. Search his chest; it rises and falls yet." Ahikam’s voice was like a bear’s, deep like a growl and demanding. "Gilada. Look here!" Ahikam said firmly at Gilada’s averted face. Gilada slowly lifted her head, as though it were a feat in itself, and looked into Ahikam’s strong blue eyes. He had a dark, brown scraggly beard that covered only his chin and slightly past, and a matching mustache fell around his lips into his beard. He had a chiseled nose and cheeks, and his hair was slowly growing out. He was a natural leader, ready to direct a journey. But Gilada had lived too many years to not look past his fierceness and see his humanness; his age. Her eyes softened into his as a mother might look into her child’s. His expression did not change.
"Do not worry about Yoel," said he.
She looked away. Still he had much to learn.
"Mother, how’s the fire?" Angelle wondered, though she knew the answer. The silence had just become too still and strange. Saereh nodded with approval.
"I am going to fetch Osuah, Mother," Iriana declared. Their brother had been gone the entirety of the day tending to and aiding a family friend. She stood in her thick winter dress, pulling her cloak tight around her despite of the blazing heat before her. She began to fasten the front.
"Show caution," Saereh warned. Iriana nodded and left in a flurry of icy wind.
Very few things happened before the time she left and the time both returned. The fire roared before them, slowly melting the ice from their skin. Angelle imagined the fire as their faith, as their hope, and the iced night as the world, as the darkness that thrived in it. Yoel’s breath had become steadier with each minute, Ahikam began to pace in deep thought, and the two women prayed, Angelle joining them secretly across the room as yellow pinpricks from the fire reflected in her eyes. The air was tense with doubtful hopes and tired souls when the familiar frozen air gusted throughout the house again, teasing the flames. Osuah and Iriana appeared in the doorway, and they took their cloaks off together.
"How is the Dourn family then?" Saereh said to Osuah straightaway. He looked up, his eyes nearly identical to his father’s. And his face too looked as though it had been chiseled like stone would be, not formed as clay. He stood a head above Angelle and Iriana, which they teased Iriana for, for she was the eldest at twenty-seven.
"Anastasia still fights her sickness. They say her health has increased, but to me her face is emptier and her eyes have gotten dull. I think the best we can do is pray for her and her family." Osuah spoke with his father’s deep, authoritative voice as well. He walked over to the bed where Saereh and Gilada sat, looking intensely into the man’s face. "Why is Yoel here? What’s wrong?"
"The cave was exceedingly cold this night; he couldn’t bear it and so he collapsed. He has improved, however," Saereh added, putting extra emphasis and love into her last words for the sake of Gilada. Osuah nodded at her in acknowledgment, his lips unmoving, and he went for the corner of the house where his bed was.
"Saereh, I think it fair for us to read the message now," Gilada whispered reluctantly. She knew it would have to be read in the future, regardless. Saereh nodded and stroked her hand. Ahikam unrolled the parchment at Saereh’s approval and read silently to himself, his eyes moving steadily across the paper but his face revealing nothing. At last he let the scroll coil into itself again and handed it to his wife, mute. She stared up at him with eyes that screamed for answers as she snatched it from his hand. She read it aloud:
"Dear Brothers and Sisters together in the Messiah: One thousand years and more ago, many Followers of the Way once fled from the Eastlands to escape persecution. For many generations we have inhabited the Great Westlands of the Free, building our new society. Through the ages, however, while the Westlands’ pure meaning has slowly become distorted, the Eastlands have become a land of peace once again. In our new society, many believe that questioning oneself is a feebleminded thing to do, which has in turn led to the fear of change. It is within our new laws set by the king, that the ‘overall contentment of Westerners shall be protected at all costs,’ which has driven us, and any other religions, to worship secretly; in forgotten caves and black forests. This, I am afraid, you are all aware of by now.
Though the laws had been set to protect contentment, we have also found it flawed and unjust, for we have found ourselves detouring the main streets of our towns so as to avoid scenes of prostitution, for example. We believe that if a law is to be set, it must be followed through in all aspects. In the all, we have made the decision to seek absolute freedom and justice. And because the Westlands require reason for any permanent departure, our reasons are these: to seek a land ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ to seek a land blossoming with joy, to seek a land that dances to the songs we sing to our God, to seek a land with people smiling—smiling from pure joy, to seek a land where we can fly again, where we can breathe freely, to seek a land where we can break the chains within us, to seek a land where we can rejoice in our faith and be free. This land we seek we call the Eastlands.
On the first day of the week, the first of the New Year, all sixty Masses in the Westlands large and small will depart on their voyages across the Midlands, and some the Eternal Seas, to the Eastlands. Along the way will many Masses meet together, and along the way will many die. It is a journey for those who truly thirst for the freedom of grander Lands than these. The Lord will be with us through all days, and He will have His hand upon us all. His Will, no matter in what form, will be achieved. Pray about your decision, and fear not. Yeshuah’s love be with you all, Rycroft Grasuh, Leader of the 1st Mass."
Saereh’s expression held words inexpressible. She too now understood the grandeur of Yoel’s earlier words.
Angelle stood from her place by the snapping fire and found rest near her mother’s feet. Iriana began to speak from behind.
"But that will change everybody’s lives within…oh within just days!" she exclaimed. She was near to tears. Osuah remained silent in the corner of the house, unchanging as ever. Angelle drank in the words of the letter, awe pounding on her chest. The letter had made it all final. The letter had made it more important.
"Saereh! Oh…Saereh, what will you do though?" Gilada wondered aloud, her eyes kidnapped by desperation and subtle panic. Angelle turned to look at her father, but he only sat on his bed with his hands clenched between his knees and his head bent. She saw him in this way only when in times of great matter. The room was taut with decision, and with decision was uncertainty, with uncertainty, fear. Gilada began shaking her head in disbelief, tears now repelling from her eyes. No one spoke, but a thousand words stippled the air. Angelle said softly, in more of a suggestion,
"Is the decision we make so hard? Do we want freedom enough to pursue it, or do we not?" She felt foolish as she said it, for her heart could make a thousand objections to her tongue, but even as she filtered through each rejection she knew the final decision would still return to that question. Nearly everyone had an objection as well, but she had already thought of each one by now.
"Angelle, sweet, you must understand this from one of an elder age," said Saereh as though she spoke to a youth. Angelle had seen nineteen winters by now.
"Mother, I understand it all already. And I understand that some would have a harder time than others. But we should not assume that we have a specific date to arrive at the Eastlands, and this means that those with special needs will get it regardless of how we may be slowed. I assume this date has been set to leave so that there is a greater chance of meeting up with another Mass, easing the pains of travel; but no one is rushing us across the Midlands. The Centauns have a pact not to disrupt innocent passerby." Angelle was on her feet now, and she surprised herself too, for she was speaking to everyone in the room now, not only her mother. She could feel passion begin to throb in her throat as her blood ran with excitement.
"Angelle," Ahikam began, his voice with gentle reasoning and firm instruction, "understand that there are some who value home and life more than freedom. Do you understand the dangers and drastic change that this decision will lead to? We will face nights with deathly cold—possibly colder than this night—days of trudging, of riding, of hunting, of sickness, of anything your mind can dream up. And when we cross the Midlands, our very lives will be in danger. Yes, we will have a time limit as we cross. Centauns will be eager to capture and even kill Followers of the Way for that reason—being Followers of the Way. Regardless of any pact, the centaurs are a brutal race. The sooner we cross the Midlands, the less lives will be in danger. Here in the Westlands we are just lucky that the Laws have prohibited any nonsense from that religion. But do you understand now?" Angelle looked at her father, objection drowning her so that even her sight began to blur. She understood it all, but she did not want to face it. She could not bear to see anyone left behind. She could feel her mother’s hand rub her left elbow. Angelle thrust it away and glared in fury. She could not understand her family. She could not understand anyone now. But a voice softer, wiser, more still than her own thoughts soothed her.
"I understand," she admitted with difficulty. "I understood it before you said it. But…" Words failed her. She could not describe the passion in her, and she knew it was foolish passion, for of course there would be some who simply could not leave their home due to their inner connections with the lands or their physical weaknesses, or both. She grieved for those who would want to go, but were held back by their body, or even fear. Reasonable fear though it would be.
Angelle looked down at her mother, her aging face appearing more hopeless than she had ever seen it before; blonde locks coiled around her face and draped over her shoulders, and her afternoon-blue eyes mirrored a sad and weary woman. Weary with choice. Behind her mother Angelle saw Yoel’s chest moving properly now. It seemed as though rest and warmth was all he had needed.
Ahikam shuffled forward toward Angelle, who always felt so diminishing in her father’s presence. She did not move, but looked her father straight in the face. He looked down into his daughter’s eyes, who indeed had her mother’s eyes. She was not beautiful, though she was not unlikable. Her dirty-blonde mane of hair was mangled from wind and enthusiasm and her once-pale face was now flustered from zeal and heat. Her cheeks were not sunken, but had a slight roundness to them. He cupped his thick, callused hands down on her shoulders.
"Angelle…I’m proud of you, I truly am…but we do not know for sure whether the Eastlands even hold the freedom that Rycroft," Ahikam took the scroll from Saereh’s hand and held it up, "hopes." Angelle stepped backward and shook her head.
"No. I do not believe what you say, Father. You know the Eastlands hold even more prospect than do the Westlands!" Could no one understand how different their lives would be? Or did everyone understand, but let their mind’s cunning reasoning dominate the heart’s purest hopes?
"You’ve a lass with wisdom in her young years," rasped a voice. Gilada and Saereh forgot their tears, Iriana left her doubts, Ahikam overlooked his protests, Osuah disregarded his thoughts, and Angelle her distress to look upon a newly awoken Yoel. His wrinkled eyelids hid his eyes, but it was evident he was awake.
"Yoel!" Gilada breathed in relief, placing her hands on his blanketed arm. Her lips were turned in a smile as she beamed down upon him. "Praise to God!" Saereh brushed her friend’s back lovingly, smiling. It came as a shock when Yoel sat up slowly to his elbows. Wearily he searched for the face of Angelle. He seemed content when he, at last, found her. He smiled and gave a nod to her; such actions caused Angelle to swell in humility.
"Listen to that small voice within, Angelle." He took his eyes off of her, passed Ahikam’s (who was slightly behind him), and finally connected with his wife’s eyes. "Gilada, I will be a part of the Departure."
Everyone knew what the Departure was. It was the Departure of personal history, the Departure of familiar faces and landscapes, the Departure of emotional ties, the Departure of known land. The Departure to the Eastlands.