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The Hope Chest
By Caroline Giammanco
A lone watchman sits, leaning back against the stone wall of the mountain tower, as he wearily gazes across the desolate valley below. The once verdant fields are mere dreams now. The rolling thunder in the distance is no promise of replenishing rain, but instead is the ever-present rumble of artillery. The land, and its people, are all but ruined.
The world wasn’t always like this. I remember my grandfather’s stories.
Closing his eyes, he could smell the delicate aroma of his mother’s cooking wafting, mixing with the earthy smell of the wood fire as rain poured down outside their modest home. Sitting at the foot of his grandfather, wise and respected, a man of honor and integrity in their village, young Milo gazed at the old man in complete admiration. The soft fur of the bear rug upon which he sat mingled with memories as he took a passage back in time. His grandfather sat in the well-worn rocking chair, taking puffs from his pipe as he amused the children with tales of far away places and of a time when their land was full of peace and plenty.
“Tell us again about the ancient war, Grandfather.”
“Oh, my child, you have heard that story so many times. Surely you are tired of it by now.”
A chorus of young voices, pleading for him to tell the story, won the old man over—as everyone in the house knew they would. Milo’s parents shared a wink across the kitchen as they prepared the last of the evening meal. They knew their beloved patriarch would not miss an opportunity to tell one of his favorite tales. That’s all it was, they knew. These stories were nothing but lore that had passed from generation to generation. There was no more truth to them than the stories of imps and fairies. How could there be? It did keep the children occupied, however, and it gave the old man a chance to bask in their attention.
“Well, it was a long time ago, back when we didn’t have the modern conveniences that we do now. We were still a prosperous people, though. For centuries, our people farmed this valley. Life was wonderful, and everyone had more food than they could eat. Our cattle and goats were fat and sleek. No one saw the trouble that was coming. Our people were content, and sometimes when we become content we lose our watchfulness. Fat and satisfied, we were blinded to the evil approaching.”
The children huddled together. A gentle shudder passed among them. Lex, Milo’s older brother, wrapped a blanket around Milo and gave him a reassuring hug.
“It was the end of the harvest season, and oh, what a harvest it had been. The trees hung heavy with fruit that fall, and the silos overflowed with grain. Mounds of vegetables sat in everyone’s cellars, and the women were busy preserving as much food as they could from daybreak to sundown. The men labored in the fields to bring in the last of the abundance.”
“What did the children do, Grandpa?” Shia, Milo’s little sister, was smart for her age. At three, she was as involved as the older children in listening to the tales.
“The children?” Grandfather stopped to shake out his pipe and refill it with tobacco.
Impatiently, his audience nudged each other, eager for the story to continue.
“Yes, Grandpa, the children,” Shia said in an effort to prod him.
“The children, like children will do, played and made up games.”
“What kind of games?”
“Those with sticks and balls and races—the types of games I’m sure you all enjoy once you are done with your chores and your studies.”
“Races are my favorite.” Milo beamed. He was known as the fastest boy in the village.
“You are quick, my little one, and Shia is quick in her own way, aren’t you, dear?” His wrinkled hand patted her on her head. “Shia’s curiosity and Milo’s speed remind me of the heroes of this story.”
Milo and Shia blushed from the comparison.
“Before we can talk about heroes, however, we must talk of the terrible, terrible things that happened.”
The faces of the children fell. They knew this story.
“The marauders swept down from the north in a fury. Their horses were fast and their hearts were cold. They killed and destroyed our people and our land. We fought back, however, and the war raged for many, many years. Starvation raged, and many of our people died from illness. Fierce battles took a toll on them as well.”
Shia and her cousin, Ana, clasped hands and held each other. A tear trickled down Ana’s sweet face.
“The war went on for years, and even our wisest and bravest leaders didn’t know how to overcome our enemies.”
“Were you alive then? Did you see this yourself?” Pater, Ana’s older brother, was always a skeptic.
“No, son, I was not alive then. My great-great-great-grandfather wasn’t alive when this happened. This story has been handed down for centuries, but it is true.”
“What happened? How did our people live?” Milo brought everyone’s attention back to the moment.
“We had all but given up. Our people were ready to surrender and be massacred. But then, two of the children saved us.”
This, of course, caused the children to sit up straighter and to open their eyes wide.
“There was a boy.” Grandfather nodded at Milo. “And a girl.” He glanced at Shia. “They were clever young children. Always curious, even in the midst of war, they played their favorite games. One was hide-and-seek.”
“We play hide-and-seek all the time!” The children wiggled with excitement that they carried on an ancient tradition of their people.
“Yes, you do. Now one day these two children, Oli, the boy, and Ara, the girl, went far beyond the boundaries of the village. They ran deep into the forest where they found a cave. This was no ordinary cave. It was in the base of the Holy Mountain.”
Looks of awe swept across the children.
“Down, down, down they climbed into the cave. They were so amazed that they forgot to hide from one another. The wind gently whistled through the cave, and they were drawn to a glowing room. In the center of this room—it was no bigger than this house,” Grandfather motioned his hands in the air, “was a chest. A beautiful wooden chest with sturdy metal hinges.”
“And on the top of the chest there were words, weren’t there Grandpa?” Shia knew. She knew the importance of the words.
“Yes, my child. The words said, ‘He who possesses this can never lose. Carry this into any battle you are facing, and you will surely never fail.’ Oli and Ara carefully lifted the trunk by the handles and carried it to their village.”
The moon had risen by this time, and the light from the fire flickered on Grandfather’s face.
“As they approached their village, they saw terrible carnage. Homes were on fire, and the marauders were killing families as the darkness began to fall.”
A whimper escaped Ana’s lips.
“Ara and Oli were afraid, but they were brave—braver than most grown men who have faced battle many times. They knew how to return to their village unseen. Their hours of playing hide-and-seek had taught them nooks and crannies that most adults walked past unnoticed.”
The screech of an owl outside caused everyone in the room to jump. Even Grandfather jerked ever-so-slightly. Mother and Father had stopped their activities in the kitchen and were also listening. The story was so powerful that they couldn’t deny it their attention.
“Tell us, Grandpa. What happens to little Ara and Oli?”
“It was dangerous, and they tired from the weight of the trunk. Several times they dodged flaming arrows and once Oli was caught in the tangle of a fence. Death surrounded them everywhere. Finally, exhausted, they gently knocked on the back door of their cabin. Their mother ushered them inside, shocked by the trunk they dragged into the house.”
“They had to be so tired and scared by then.” Little Shia had concern in her voice.
“The children collapsed onto the floor as their parents read the message on the top of the trunk. Their mother called for the oldest son, Link, to find the king, which was no easy task given the battle raging throughout the valley. Find him, he did, and the leaders gathered around the trunk, eager to find what magic it held that would allow them to win any battle.”
By now, Milo’s mother and father knelt on the floor alongside the children.
“The wise men of the community opened the latches on the trunk as a bright light radiated through the crack in the lid. Carefully, oh so carefully, they lifted the lid off the chest as blinding light rushed out of the trunk and shot in all directions. Inside, still glowing, was a golden plate with one word inscribed upon it. ‘Hope’ was all it said. Hope was all our people needed.”
The cold wind across the desolate valley brought Milo out of his reverie. He had volunteered to be the watchman for what was regarded as a foolhardy mission.
“You’re stupid to believe the rubbish of fairy tales, Milo. Be realistic and flee with the rest of us,” he was told as the rest of the village scrambled to escape to the rugged mountains of Ryon.
Milo and Lex would not give up, however. They could not accept surrender, even if their plan may be no more than a misplaced homage to their grandfather’s long-ago stories. Lex had ridden his horse, through dangerous enemy territory, to the base of the Holy Mountain. Now Milo waited as the watchman to see if it had been in vain.
As the ashen sun set, Milo saw the nearly imperceptible movement of his brother’s large bay horse across the valley. A distinct amber hue, one bright enough to be seen even at this distance, radiated around the horse and his rider.
When all seemed lost, they had found hope.
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