Monday, June 18, 2018


(Painting: "The Cowherd," by Edouard Debat-Ponsan, 1910)

I'm taking a brief break from blogging while I'm on vacation. Posts will resume on Monday, July 2.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Lord, take my heart, for I cannot give it to you. And when you have it, keep it, for I would not take it from you. And save me in spite of myself, for Christ’s sake.

- François Fénelon

(Painting: "The Repentance of David," by Jan Boeckhorst, c.1655)

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 6

They kept walking all throughout that day, and gradually the shadows in the wood lengthened until they became a silent darkness all around them. The children’s legs were stiff and sore, but they spoke no word of complaint. They were squires now, and they knew that good squires bore hardships bravely. And they always kept before them the hope that out there, perhaps just around the next turn of the trail, would be Prince Halbrinnon, their future king.
Sir Mack took a small torch out of his leather satchel and lit it with a flint. The bright orange blaze filled the area around them with dancing waves of light. It was a comfort to see the beautiful flame, but it made the darkness further in the woods seem even darker yet. Every now and then the children could catch a glimpse of a bright, star-bejeweled sky above the canopy of the trees, and it made them wish they could be out in the open again. Forests in the daylight were places of wonder and delight, but in the darkness they were terrifying.
“Well, perhaps we should stop and make camp for the night,” said Mack. “I had hoped that we might catch up to the prince today, but it looks like he had too much of a head start on us. We’ll keep going at the first light of morning.”
Joe looked around with a cautious eye. “Is it safe here?”
“No, not really,” Mack chuckled. “This deep in the forest, we’re in lawless territory. But we’re knights and squires of the king, remember? We’ll be all right.”
Joe, Sim, and Lady helped Mack gather armfuls of sticks and brush, which they brought back to the center of the trail and arranged into a pile. Mack was just bending down to light them into a campfire when a startling sound broke out of the darkness close by: the high, plaintive howl of a wolf. The children all drew a collective breath of horror and surprise, but Mack simply looked up into the darkness and smiled grimly.
“Don’t worry. I’ve traveled the forest road many times. They always try to harass me, but these wolves aren’t big enough to threaten a knight.”
“But I’m not as big as a knight!” Lady whimpered. “What will they do to me?”
“Hmm,” murmured Mack. “You probably do look pretty appealing to them, little one. But don’t let yourself get scared: wolves know how to use fear to their advantage. The worst thing you can do is get so frightened that you run. They’re experts at bringing down prey on the run.”
“What, then?” asked Joe. “We just stand here?”
“Yes. Here, Joe, you’re the biggest, so you take my dagger and get ready to use it if you have to. I’ll have the sword. Lady, here’s my shield. Start pounding on it and shout as loud as you can. Sim, you too—here, take my staff, and make some noise. I’ll get the fire going. Sometimes a good fire is enough to keep them at bay all on its own.”
Mack knelt down to tend to the little blaze, but despite his calm self-assurance, the children were shaken. Nonetheless, they obeyed. Joe kept a sharp outlook on the dark shadows beyond their fire’s ring of light, the dagger held at ready. Lady smashed at Mack’s shield over and over again, until her drumming filled the night air with the somber clangs of a battlefield. Sim rapped the long staff against nearby tree trunks, shouting at the top of his lungs for any wolves to stay well away.
Just a few moments after Mack had finished coaxing the fire to life, however, they saw the first flash of gray shadows and the haunting, dull eye-shine of the wolves watching them. Joe, who was always keen on counting things up, did a quick survey of the circle.
“I see ten of them, I think. No, eleven! Twelve!”
“There are more yet to come,” said Mack. “I can hear other howls further off.”
The wolves were becoming bolder, dancing closer and closer to the ring of light. After a few minutes, they didn’t have to look for eye-shine to count wolves in the darkness; they were all fully visible, circling just out of reach, occasionally feinting in from one side before snapping for an opportunity on the other side. They were watching the children with careful eyes, their ears folded back against the cacophony that Lady and Sim were making.
Once, one came close enough to Sim to nip within a hair’s-breadth of his leg, but Mack caught the wolf mid-motion and brought his war-sword crashing down on the beast’s back. It collapsed without even a whimper and lay there dead, but its fellow stalkers did not seem to care. They kept up their relentless pressure, snapping and feinting at the circle of defenders, looking for an opening.
Just then, in the middle of this tense standoff, another sound reached their ears: a drumming that began as a light, staccato echo that they could just make out between the beats of Lady’s pounding. Soon it grew louder and clearer, until it was unmistakable. It was the sound of a horse tearing down the road, its hoofs slamming against the dirt pathway with earth-shattering speed.
“Keep your guard up,” Mack commanded. “Don’t let the wolves see you looking away.”
“But who is it?” asked Sim. “Who’s coming?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps more guards sent by the steward.”
Immediately, the children’s minds raced back to the danger they had faced earlier, when they had escaped a troop of soldiers by fording the flooded river. With the wolves all around them and another enemy bearing down at breakneck speed, it seemed as if the forest had nothing but malice for them that night.
They only had a moment to think about such things, though, because the thunder of the horse’s hoofs burst suddenly out upon them in physical form: a great bay stallion, with a black-cloaked rider atop it. The rider had a green shield and a long, slender sword that cut vast, silvery arcs through the air. In the glowing light of their campfire, he looked like the reaper of souls, come to finish the wolves’ work.
But instead, the rider drove his horse into the ring of wolves, scattering them like mist. His sword whistled down sharply on one of the beasts, then another, and they whimpered and dove out of the way. Round and round he rode, making a tight circle around the campfire and its four defenders, until finally all of the wolves had vanished into the woods like a nightmare exposed to the light of day. Then, and only then, he drew in his reins, let his snorting, lathering mount stand at rest, and turned to look at Sir Mack and the children.
“Who are you?” asked Sim, with a touch of wonder in his voice.
The dark rider cast back his hood, revealing a young, handsome face with a wild crop of black hair.
“Sir Kobi!” Mack exclaimed. “We were afraid it was one of the steward’s guards, sent to bring us back.”
“Not so,” said the rider. “And it seems I’ve come just in time. You pay me the great honor of letting me dispense with these wild beasts. Nothing can stand against the defenders of the royal house of Arrens!”
“Children,” said Mack, “allow me to introduce Sir Kobi, the Captain of the Royal Guard. Kobi, this is Joe, Sim, and Lady—they saw Prince Halbrinnon leave the city before the steward reported his death.”
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Kobi, dismounting to stand before the children. “Indeed, that’s why I’m here.”
“You’re not here to take us back, are you?” asked Joe.
“Far from it! I’m no servant of Steward Presten. As Captain of the Royal Guard, I serve the prince, and him only. And if he’s alive, as you say, then I must be a part of the quest to find him. Would you permit me to join your noble company?”
The three children looked at each other. Sim smiled and nodded to Joe, who turned and looked at Sir Mack.
“What do you think?”
Mack grinned. “If such a man as this is on our side, then we have great things to hope for.”
“Nay, say it not like that,” said Kobi with a matching smile. “Say rather that one brave heart comes late to the battle, to join four hearts more valiant still.”
Joe chuckled and extended his hand. “I guess you can join us, then!”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Firstborn Lays Aside His Birthright

In Genesis chapter 25, we encounter another story which the New Testament employs as an allegory of certain principles of the Christian faith: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob. The story, told in Gen. 25:29-34, describes how Esau, the older of the twin brothers, came in one day from hunting and, famished from hunger, pledged to give his rights as the firstborn over to Jacob in exchange for some lentil stew. Now, the first thing that jumps out at many readers is the startling implication of this scene, which must mean either (1) that Esau's fondness for lentils, just about the most boring food ever, was a form of clinical insanity, or (2) that Jacob was the best cook the ancient world had ever seen. Or, as an alternate possibility, Esau was simply driven by his passions more than by his reason. This latter interpretation is the one you'll usually hear, but I'd still be curious to see Jacob's lentil recipe someday, because it may just be unthinkably fantastic.

In Romans 9, the apostle Paul uses the broader story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate the sovereign power of God. Though Esau was born first, God's sovereign intention was not thus restrained, and Jacob became the patriarch of God's chosen people Israel. As such, some interpreters in the Christian tradition have seen Esau selling his birthright as a foreshadowing of the way that the Jewish people would forsake their privileged position as the heirs of the covenant by choosing, at least in part, not to follow Christ, who was the fulfillment of their covenant. Indeed, Paul's use of the Esau/Jacob story in Rom. 9 is part of his larger exploration of why so many Israelites (but certainly not all) rejected the new covenant in Christ. Jesus himself is recorded in the Gospels making similar observations about the Jews' rejection of the covenant. Nonetheless, it's important to point out that even though such things are said in Scripture, they provide no warrant at all to antisemitic sentiments or actions--quite the contrary: Paul's discussion in Romans makes it abundantly clear that the loving hope of all Christians ought to be for the Jews to one day enter fully into the glory of the covenant that was prepared for them.

There's another possible foreshadowing, too, and this one doesn't include the distinction between the old and new covenants. Rather, it suggests that this story bears a hint of an important point in our theology of Jesus Christ's nature. Although Esau is a disappointing character in this story's original context, his act hearkens toward something that Jesus himself will do during the incarnation. The idea of a firstborn son laying aside his birthright as if it were not something to be held onto--well, that's an idea that plays out directly in the life of Jesus. In Philippians 2, Paul tells us that rather than seizing all the divine prerogatives of his identity as the "firstborn" Son of God, he "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant." In theology, this idea is sometimes referred to as the kenosis--the self-emptying of Christ, laying aside his own rights in order to enter the world at our level. He could have come to us with all the glory, power, and sovereign majesty that is his right as the eternal Son of God, but instead he laid it all down so that he could become like us. Though Esau's story derives from a very different context, the outward similarity of his thoughtless act to Christ's intentional humility should draw our minds and our hearts toward the reckless sacrifice of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Like Esau's choice of lentils over his birthright, it's absolutely startling, almost nonsensical. Sometimes we lose sight of just what a staggering thing it is to believe that the ineffable God of the universe set his unbounded majesty aside in order to enter our world as one of us. Esau's story reminds us of the ridiculous, upside-down way that the story of God's appearance defied all reasonable expectation. 

(Painting: "Esau Selling His Birthright," by Hendrick ter Brugghen, c.1627)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Photo of the Week

Send forth flowers, as the lily, and yield a fragrance, and bring forth leaves in grace, and praise with canticles, and bless the Lord in his works!

- Sirach 39:19 (from the Old Testament Apocrypha)

Monday, June 11, 2018

Quote of the Week

"I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done."

- J. Hudson Taylor, 19th-century British missionary to China and the founder of China Inland Mission

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Let Thy mighty hand, O Lord God, and outstretched arm be our defense; Thy mercy and loving-kindness in Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, our salvation; Thy all-true word, our instruction; the grace of the life-giving Spirit, our consolation, unto the end and in the end.

- John Knox

(Painting: "The Last Judgment," by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1560)

Friday, June 08, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 5

Their trousers still sodden and dripping, the four adventurers made their way up the riverbank and under the spreading boughs of the great dark forest. Dappled sunlight filtered down through the branches and illuminated the little roadway before them. Green blankets of moss, spotted here and there with a fallen leaf, spread out like a vast living carpet on every side. Every now and then a bird would call, breaking the silence of the forest’s spell.
The four were quiet for a long time, each one thinking about their near escape at the river. The children watched Mack as he strode forward, each one regarding their hero with silent awe after the way he had opened a path through the flood for them.
After a long time, Sim spoke up. “Sir Mack…do you think I could ever be a knight like you?”
Mack grinned down at him. “Well, let’s see, little man. Even now, you’re serving on a quest to save the royal house and restore the one true king. If you’re not a knight already, I don’t know who is.”
“Really and truly, my brave friend. And that goes for all of you. Your courage, honor, and valor has already outshone most of the knights of the kingdom, who simply bowed their knee to the steward without a second thought.”
“But there must be more to being a knight than just that,” protested Joe. “Wouldn’t the king have to, you know, knight us?”
“And you have to have a sword,” Lady added in a knowing way. “And a helmet. And a shield. And a shiny, tinkly shirt like yours, Sir Mack.”
“Hmm,” Mack replied. “I can see that you three already know a lot about what goes into making a knight. All those things are important. But they’re not the most important thing of all.”
“No?” asked Sim. “What is?”
They had stopped walking now, having come to a little glade where the golden sunlight streamed down in its full splendor onto the wooded pathway. Mack lowered himself with a groan onto an old stump, and the three children sat amid the flowers at his feet.
“Sure, if you’re a knight you’ll probably wear armor sometime, just as Lady said,” Mack continued. “But the armor doesn’t make you a knight. After all, I once saw a hunter who went about wearing a bearskin for a coat. But did that make him a bear?”
“No!” the children laughed together.
“Of course not. It takes more than armor to be a knight.”
“What does it take, Sir Mack?” pressed Sim. “Tell us!”
“The quality of knighthood is in the heart, son. It’s about character. It’s about virtue. It’s about knowing who you are and what your duty is, and then never failing to do that duty, even when you’re shaking in your armor.”
He took his staff and laid it across his knees, regarding the children’s expectant faces.
“If you’d like,” he continued, “I can teach you the ancient and honorable code of the knights—the most important, most sacred laws that we have. The rules that make us into knights.”
“Yes, tell us!” said Joe.
“There are ten,” said Mack. “And if you keep these ten, then you will be keeping every duty of the heart that heaven and earth will ever ask you to bear:
First: Love and follow the great and good God, the Maker of all things, and serve him alone. Every act of service you do for king or country or family is also an act that you do as part of your service unto your Creator.
Second: Render no fealty to any lord who would draw your heart away from the path of divine love and virtue.
Third: Every word you say, and every deed you do, must be a word and a deed set forth in the purity of highest devotion.
Fourth: Submit yourselves to all the teachings and practices of true-hearted piety, that you may reserve your deepest and dearest self unto God alone.
Fifth: Honor those whom God has set above you in your family, in your country, and in every place you find yourself.
Sixth: Always remember that God’s love for every person is unbounded, measureless, and strong, and so you must never harm another person unjustly.
Seventh: Remain absolutely faithful to those to whom God has bound you in the wisdom of his holy covenants.
Eighth: As a servant of God and king, you represent their honor, and so you must never disgrace yourself by stealing, cheating, or appropriating anything by unrighteous means.
Ninth: Let the words of your mouth be honest and true, and spoken forth in the unbending valor of righteousness and of love for your fellow man.
Tenth: Guard your heart against the temptation of desiring anything beyond what God has allotted to your station and to your holy vocation.
This is the code of the knight.”
“Wow!” said Lady. “There are a lot of big words in there.”
“And a lot of submitting to other people and giving honor to everybody else,” said Joe. “Don’t knights ever get honor for themselves?”
“Ah! There’s the heart of the matter. The true knight’s greatest honor is in securing honor for all those around him, glory for his king, and true worship for his heavenly Lord. There is no greater honor than to be a useful instrument of the Master.”
The children were silent for a long moment, thinking about these things.
Then Mack smiled at them once more. “Shall I give you the simpler version now?” he chuckled.
“Yes, please!” said Sim.
“Here it is. Most knights recount these commands in a simple list of ten virtues that can be repeated at will. We’ve committed them all to memory. Service, worship, devotion, piety, honor, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, honesty, and purity. Those ten things make a man a knight. Even if you don’t have the title of a knight, if you’re keeping those ten things, you’re still a knight in the deepest and truest sense of all.”
“And what about a woman?” asked Lady.
“The very same virtues apply, dear one!”
“But even if we keep all of those,” Joe pressed, “we would still need the king or someone to actually make us a real knight, wouldn’t we?”
“I suppose. I’m just an ordinary knight myself, with no power to commission others to the knighthood. However,” Mack mused, tapping his chin, “knights always begin as squires. And one thing that I do have the power to do is to appoint squires.”
“Yes!” Sim shouted. “Make me a squire!”
“I shall do so for all of you,” the knight replied, standing up. “Now, children, on your knees, please. As I tap your shoulders with my staff, simply say, ‘I pledge to honor God and king.’”
Mack tapped Joe’s shoulders, and he said, “I pledge to honor God and king.”
Next was Sim. “I pledge to honor God and king.”
Then Lady: “I pledge to honor God and king.”
“Rise, my friends,” said Mack, beaming a broad smile. “Rise, holy squires of the knighthood of Arrens, commissioned to serve and uphold the royal house and your liege-lord, Prince Halbrinnon!”
Sim gave a grin of rampant anticipation. “Now we’re ready, then! Let’s go find him!”

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: The Sacrifice of the Beloved Son (Part 2 - Symbols of Christ)

Last week we began our study of Genesis 22, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, and I offered some explanations as to why God is asking Abraham to do this awful deed. With those considerations in place, we move to an analysis of the specific symbols within this story. And as we'll see, almost every single line points directly to a fulfillment in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Verse 2, right at the outset of the story, has three such hints. First, God tells Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love..." This language finds a direct corollary in the way that the New Testament talks about Jesus' relationship with God the Father. This occurs in multiple places, not least at the beginning of the Gospels, when God announces over Jesus' baptism, "This is my Son, whom I love" (Matt. 3:17). This connection is strengthened by considering why God refers to Isaac as Abraham's only son, when Genesis itself shows that Abraham has another biological son, Ishmael (though he is largely disinherited). What is only partly true of Isaac, though, is entirely true of Christ--he is the "one and only Son" (John 1:14). Second, in verse 2 God instructs Abraham to go "to the region of Moriah...on a mountain I will show you." Though the region of Moriah was apparently uninhabited in Abraham's day, we now know that site very well. It refers to the mountains of Jerusalem, the place where the Temple sacrifices for sin would one day be set in place, and where Christ himself would die. The only other reference to Moriah in Scripture is 2 Chronicles 3:1, where it is identified with the mount on which Solomon builds the Temple. Therefore, there is a longstanding tradition that Abraham was led to sacrifice Isaac on what would one day be the Temple Mount. A number of Christian commentators, however, have conjectured that, given the number of symbols pointing to Christ in Gen. 22, it might actually be the case that God led Abraham to a different mountain, although close by: the hill of Calvary, along the ridge in Jerusalem that would come to be known as Zion. After all, Gen. 22:2 specifies a mountain in the region of Moriah, and not necessarily Moriah itself. Given that Isaac's sacrifice is a foreshadowing of the cross, it would be eminently fitting for this drama to be played out upon the heights of Golgotha. Third, verse 2 makes clear that Isaac is to be sacrificed as a "burnt offering," a special kind of sacrificial offering that usually had to do with the remission of sins. Not coincidentally, this is the same exact function that Christ's sacrifice enacts for us.

The symbols continue to come thick and fast. Isaac approaches the region of Jerusalem with a donkey, just as Christ would do (v.3). Abraham sees the place where God is leading him "on the third day," which is an oblique but interesting allusion to the story of Christ's passion (v.4). The accompanying servants are left behind, just as Jesus had to face his passion without the presence of his disciples (v.5). As they ascend the mountain, Isaac himself actually carries the wood for the sacrifice, just as Jesus bears the wood for his own sacrifice (the cross) on the mountain of Golgotha (v.6). Abraham's answer to Isaac's question about the sacrificial lamb, "God himself will provide the lamb," puts the words of holy prophecy in Abraham's own mouth (vv.7-8). Abraham may have just been trying to settle Isaac's spirit by not disclosing the whole truth of the situation, but in so doing, the Holy Spirit speaks through him a profound prophecy that will find its fulfillment in Jesus: God does, in fact, provide the lamb for the sacrifice--Christ, offered up on the cross. The binding of Isaac and his placement atop the wood recall the nailing of Jesus to the cross (v.9).

At this point the Angel of the Lord (which, as we have seen in previous studies, may be the pre-Incarnation Christ himself) interrupts Abraham and keeps him from actually killing Isaac. But the hints pointing to Christ just keep coming, even after Isaac's part of the drama is over. Simply in receiving Isaac back, there is a subtle hint of the resurrection of Jesus, as Heb. 11:19 recognizes: "Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death." Instead of offering Isaac up, God provides a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket, which serves as the sacrifice. It's worth noting that the sacrifice here is substitionary, just as Christ dying on our behalf is an example of substitionary atonement--he takes the place for the death that we should have died. In this way, both Isaac and the ram stand as symbols of Christ. Further, the manner of the ram's appearance--caught in thorns about its head--recall the crown of thorns placed on Jesus' head at the crucifixion. (Some early church fathers even liked to point out that the Greek word for ram, as it appeared in their preferred version of the Old Testament text, sounded remarkably close to the Greek titles for both "Christ" and "Lord"). 

At almost every step of this dramatic story, there is a startlingly clear allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As such, although the story clearly also serves as a testing of Abraham's faith, many Christian commentators have taken its primary meaning to be a stark and brilliant foreshadowing in the coming redemption that would be enacted on Calvary two thousand years after Abraham.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Photo of the Week

The Lord of all things lives anew,
And all His works are rising too:
Hosanna in excelsis!

- from verse 1 of the hymn "The World Itself Keeps Easter Day," by J. M. Neale

Monday, June 04, 2018

Quote of the Week

“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for theologians to swim in without ever reaching the bottom.”

- Jerome (Hieronymus), an early church father of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible

(Painting: "Hieronymus," by Jacques Blanchard, 1632)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O Lord, we have a busy world around us. Eye, ear, and thought will be needed for all our work to be done in the world. Now ere we again enter upon it we would commit eye, ear, and thought to Thee. Do Thou bless them and keep their work Thine, that as through Thy natural laws our hearts beat and our blood flows without any thought of ours for them, so our spiritual life may hold on its course at those times when our minds cannot consciously turn to Thee to commit each particular thought to Thy service. Hear our prayer for our Redeemer's sake. Amen.

- Thomas Arnold

(Painting: "La Place du Théâtre Français," by Camille Pissarro, 1898)

Friday, June 01, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 4

After checking in quickly at their house, the three children and the knight were off, tracing their way down the busy streets of the capital and out toward the Shepherd Gate. Joe had left a note for their uncle and aunt at the house, and Sim had arranged with the neighbors to care for the chickens during their absence. Then they were on their way, following the graying knight past the curious gazes of the city’s people.
The knight had the basic complement of any man of war—a sword, shield, and various armor-plates and sheets of chain-mail arranged about his body. He kept his sword sheathed at his side, though, and carried only a long quarterstaff in his hands. He bore himself with a calm sort of confidence, as of someone who had seen many battles and challenges and had come through them all.
The city gate was open, as was customary on all market-days, and the four travelers passed out beneath the stone archway without any of the guards taking notice of them. Whereas the city’s larger gates employed big wooden doors and drawbridges, the Shepherd Gate was managed only by a simple iron grate which could be raised or lowered as needed. On either side of the gate stood statues of two sheep, from which it derived its name. Beyond the walls, the vast green fields of the central plain stretched out toward the far horizon where, just at the edge of their line of sight, the deeper green of the forests began.
When they were out of the crowds and alone on the little westbound roadway, Joe began to question the knight.
“Do you mind if I ask your name, sir?”
“Waltram Mackrillion IV, of Haransbraum,” the knight replied with a twinkle in his eye. “But you may call me Mack.”
“Sir Mack?” Sim said incredulously. “I think I’ve heard of you!”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, lad. I had my day of fame, some years ago, running after adventures in the southern provinces.”
“You were one of the great champions who defended the royal house, weren’t you?” asked Joe.
“I was, yes. And I came to the city this week as an honored guest of Prince Halbrinnon in anticipation of his crowning. But now that he’s gone, there’s no sense in my sticking around. The Steward is not overly fond of me, to put it kindly.”
Joe was about to ask another question when Mack suddenly put up a hand and halted. The children all came to a stop. Mack tilted his head, as if listening to the wind. Then he craned his neck around to look back at the city. The sunshine caught the bright flash of plate-metal armor near the mouth of the Shepherd Gate.
“I think perhaps the Steward’s underlings told him that I left with you. That would be enough to raise his suspicions, I should think. Especially if he knows that you’re right about Prince Hal.”
“Why do you think he knows?” asked Sim.
“Because we’re being followed. A small troop, five or six soldiers. We’d better pick up our pace. If we can reach the forest before them, we’ll lose them in there.”
He was about to take a step forward when suddenly he paused again, as if a new thought had struck him.
“No, wait. The Westfield River is almost at flood stage right now, isn’t it? I heard someone say that in the capital. If that’s true… Well, let’s go see.”
They began jogging briskly down the road, which turned from a cobblestone highway near the city to a rutted dirt track further away. But the children were light-footed and sure of their stride, and they made their way with ease. Sir Mack had to breathe heavily as he jogged, and his armor clicked and jangled with every step he took. Every now and then, Joe would glance back toward the city, only to see that the troop of soldiers had drawn nearer. They too had accelerated their pace now that it was clear they had been seen.
“What’s that sound?” asked Lady as they jogged along.
They listened, and what had seemed at first to be merely the quiet rustle of the wind in the grass grew ever louder. It was the thunder of a roaring cataract, the rush of cold meltwater sweeping down through the basin of the Westfield River, which cut a path through the plains just below the brow of the forest. As they drew nearer, they began to see its surging whitecaps, spilling over the banks and submerging a wide area of the surrounding fields.
“Well, this is a challenge,” Sir Mack grunted between heavy breaths. “Usually the river is so shallow that you can simply ford it without getting your knees wet. There’s not even a bridge, for that very reason.”
“Why is it so full now, then?” asked Lady.
“It must have been a heavy year for snow in the mountains,” said the knight. “And we just happen to be catching it at the wrong time. In a day or two it will be passable again.”
“I don’t think we can wait a day or two,” Joe said grimly. “Those soldiers are only a couple minutes behind us.”
They were at the edge of the water now, and Sir Mack surveyed the scene quickly.
“Now, if I remember right,” he murmured to himself, “there might just be something we can do. They used to have floodgates built in, but I don’t think they’ve used them for years and years… Ah! Yes, there they are! You see them, up there?”
The children looked where he indicated and saw, some distance upriver, two stone arms that reached out into the river from either side. A torrent of water was pouring through the space between, but there were two wide wooden doors still affixed to their places on the stone arms. All it would take was someone who could swing the doors shut against the flow.
“Come on,” said Mack, casting a quick look back at the troop of soldiers. “We’re just going to walk into the shallows of the floodplain here for a minute. There’s a little bit of a current here, but not too bad. Just join hands and hold onto each other.”
They stepped together into the ice-cold stream, but the pursuing soldiers were close enough now that they didn’t really mind the stinging numbness that crept into their feet and legs. Forward they sloshed, walking upriver across the swamped plain, stride after painful, weary stride. The soldiers behind them had stepped into the floodplain too, but they had more armor on than Mack, and it seemed to slow them down a bit once they were in the water.
After a few minutes, the four travelers reached the rim of the riverbank itself, now submerged by two feet of swirling water. Just ahead of them were the old floodgates, and as they had drawn nearer, it was clear that there was a further problem that confronted them. The gates were still there, as was the old crank-handle that would enable someone to turn them against the crushing force of the water. But the thick latch that would have secured the doors together was gone. Without the latch, the doors would simply fly back open as soon as the crank was released, and there would be no hope of forming a temporary dam that might let them ford the deeper part of the river.
“Stay here,” Mack commanded. “And here, hold my armor. I’ll make this quick. I guess I’ll have to. But keep an eye on those soldiers. If they get too close, just stay a few lengths ahead of them on the floodplain. You can move faster in this water than they can. But do not—do not, I repeat—step into the main part of the river until I can get these gates fixed.”
He slipped his plate-armor off and piled it in Joe’s arms, unstrapped his shield and gave it to Sim, and hefted his sheathed sword into Lady’s hands. Then, with only his staff in his hands, he plunged up the riverbank, fighting against the water’s vicious flow. The waves swamped up around his chest, and once came all the way up over his shoulders, but for the most part he was able to keep his footing along the furthest edge of the bank until he came to the eastern stone arm of the floodgate. There, where the water stilled a bit in the lee of the current under the arm’s wall, he climbed out along the stones until he came to the old metal crank.
Throwing all his strength against the crank, he began to turn it. The doors’ old hinges gave a piercing groan, and then they began to move. With every painful rotation of the crank, the wooden barriers inched closer and closer together. As they did, the surge of water between them became narrower, higher, and more forceful. By the end, Mack was gasping and heaving as he fought for the last bit of strength to close the gates. But the old crank worked, and the wooden doors boomed shut as they shuddered against one another’s timber. For a long moment, Mack could only stand there, holding the crank, his muscles quivering against the strain. As soon as he would let go, the force of the water would push the heavy doors open again, and every second that he waited, more and more water piled up behind the simple dam.
He glanced back to where the children stood, watching him with wide eyes. The soldiers were approaching behind them, now just twenty paces away. With the doors closed, the river on their side of the floodgates dropped away rapidly. The floodplain was clearing, and the main body of the river died away to a far gentler stream.
Mack gave one glance at the old doors, then at the vacant iron loops where the latch should have been. Water was hissing through the cracks in the doors in angry little spouts.
“All right, friends!” he shouted. “Run! Now! Across the river!”
He held the crank still against the screaming pain in his muscles as he watched Joe, Sim, and Lady slide down the muddy bank and begin to splash across the center of the river. Soon the soldiers would be at the edge of the riverbank too, and then they would follow the children down.
Mack looked at his trusty quarterstaff for a long moment, and breathed out a desperate wish.
“Hold true, old friend,” he groaned.
Then, in a single burst of action, he released the crank, grabbed his staff, and thrust it through the empty loops on the floodgate doors where the latch used to be. The crank immediately shot back through half a rotation, and then clanged to a stop again. The doors gave a stuttered burst, as if about to open, but they caught against the hard length of the quarterstaff, which held them shut through the iron loops.
Mack jumped down from the stone arm where he had been standing with the crank, splashed across the river in the children’s footsteps, and then raced back up the stone arm on the opposite side of the river. With a mighty pull, he yanked at the quarterstaff. Though the weight of the river was pressing down on it, the wood and the old iron loops were wet with water and slick with moss, and the staff slid free. As soon as it was out, the floodgates banged open, and a towering wall of water and foam shot through the gap between the stone arms.
The children were already a good ways up on the farther bank, and Mack himself was safe where he stood on the stone arm. He waved his arm to tell the children to keep running just for good measure. The wall of water tore through the riverbed with furious thunder, and the troop of soldiers, which had been picking their way along the stream below the dam, were suddenly lost from sight. The river surged over them and carried them away, far down its course toward the south.
Mack heaved a deep sigh and shook his head. After a smile and another wave to the children, he gave his quarterstaff a kiss.
“You saved us there, old friend. Thank you.”
And then Sir Mack walked down the stone arm on the western side of the river, and joined his traveling companions once again.